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Leonard: NASCAR should Chase truer title fight
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It’s been a week since the NASCAR Sprint Cup season ended with a dramatic finish as Kevin Harvick earned his first championship in NASCAR’s top series.

By almost all accounts, the sport’s new postseason system of eliminations felt much more like playoffs than anything tried previously. It certainly stirred up drivers’ competitive juices both on and off the track with emotional fireworks a regular occurrence.

It brought out some of the most thrilling racing the sport has seen in recent years too, but you have to wonder if it came at the expense of seeing the truly best drivers battle it out for the title.

After all, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were three of the sport’s most consistent performers in 2014. Keselowski won six races as Gordon and Earnhardt each won four. All four of them recorded at least 12 top-five finishes, with Keselowski totaling 17.

Yet none of the three was a contender in the final round of the 10-race Chase at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It’s popular to manufacture excitement and encourage clutch performances with a novel postseason format, but it’s worth noting two drivers in particular who came super close to securing their first championship without remotely resembling consistency.

Ryan Newman ended up one point behind Harvick despite finishing in the top five a mere five times in 36 races and registering no wins. He was in the top 10 just 16 times, fewer than half of the races on the schedule. Denny Hamlin came in six points behind Harvick. Hamlin won once, was in the top five on seven occasions and came home in the top 10 in half of the races. With those concerns in mind and a knowledge that NASCAR doesn’t like its top stars being on the sidelines when a championship is on the line, here are a few creative ideas for keeping excitement but also rewarding the maintenance of consistency:

1. Keep the Chase at 16 drivers, and the Chase driver with the most overall wins on the season will be eligible to race for the title in the finale, no matter where he is in the points standings.

2. Make the first three races of the Chase be for the four lowest drivers in the top 16 to determine who keeps advancing, either by winning the most in that period or earning the most points out of those four drivers if none of them wins a race. Don’t eliminate any of the top 12 drivers after three races; just let them accumulate points toward staving off future elimination. This would advance 13 drivers, instead of 12, to the next round.

3. Let the second three races of the Chase knock out all but one of the drivers ranked 8-13 in points based on winning the most races in that segment or having the most points if none of them wins in those three races.

4. With eight drivers left, races 7-9 of the Chase would simply be used for seeding for the finale. A win in those weeks would give a bonus point to any of the eight drivers still in championship contention.

5. The eight-driver group in contention for the championship at the final race would have its points reset to the same total, with each driver receiving one bonus point per victory (throughout the whole season). If the driver with the most wins isn’t in the top eight, there would be nine drivers vying for the title in the finale.

Based off the reset points standings, the final eight (or nine) drivers would earn points at a regular clip, including bonus points for laps led and for leading the most laps, in the finale to determine a champion.

These steps may seem a little drastic, but you know NASCAR is bound to change something. If it’s going to do that anyway, the sport might as well at least reward wins and consistency.

It might not produce as many fights, but these ideas would at least make for a truer method of crowning a champion.

Clark Leonard is a sports writer for The Times. He can be reached at cleonard@gainesvilletimes.com, 770-718-3418 or on twitter.com/SportTimesClark.

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