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Leonard: NASCAR's Chase format delivers in major way
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Brad Keselowski waits to qualify for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday in Talladega, Ala. - photo by Rainier Ehrhardt

Pass the crow. I’m ready to eat.

Going into this NASCAR Sprint Cup season with all of the massive changes in the championship Chase format, I wrote in print that the sport was chasing buzz instead of looking to crown a true champion.

“Are we so enamored with manufactured excitement in these times of instant gratification that we’d rather be entertained than see who’s truly at the top of their game?” I asked in the Jan. 31 edition of The Star in Shelby, N.C.

Well, I’m here to tell you that NASCAR’s new system has delivered far more than excitement. It’s put together a true playoff system that brings out the most competitive streak in drivers.

How else can you explain what unfolded Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway? Former champions Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, plus Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver, all essentially needed a victory to advance to the third round of NASCAR’s Chase in pursuit of the championship. They certainly raced like it, with each of them leading at various points throughout the race. Keselowski, like he has often this season, came through when he most needed to find Victory Lane.

Keselowski and his Penske teammate, Joey Logano, have thrived as much as anybody in this brave new world where wins mean so much. The 2012 champion has a series-high six victories, with Logano securing five wins thus far. Each of them advanced through the first two rounds of the Chase on the strength of a victory, particularly after Keselowski’s lackluster efforts at Kansas and Charlotte.

And while the value of wins is as high as ever, the recalibrated Chase format has proven that consistency still matters. Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth, consistent but winless in 2014, are among the final eight drivers left contending for the Sprint Cup title as three-time winners Johnson and Earnhardt have no shot at hoisting the big trophy at season’s end. Five other race winners have been eliminated from contention, as well.

The reset of points after each of the Chase’s first two-race segments, and the upcoming reset for the four drivers who will contend for the championship at Homestead on Nov. 16, has led to constant stress on drivers and teams to be at their best.

That’s a good thing. In all its years of tinkering, it’s the truest form of postseason pressure the sport has found, and it’s led to some incredible racing.

People watch playoffs because of the fickle, limited-sample nature of the competition and how quickly a hot team can be left by the wayside if it runs into a team peaking at the right time. That simply wasn’t going to happen much by resetting points with 10 races left and then letting the normal flow of points accumulation play out. Lightning struck once when Tony Stewart tied Carl Edwards for the points championship in 2011. Stewart won the title based on more wins, but that was the exception instead of the rule.

My only fear is that NASCAR tends to react too quickly when its biggest names end up on the sidelines while a championship is being decided. We all know the sport’s Chase has expanded through the years largely because of the absence of stars such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Earnhardt from time to time.

We can only hope they don’t reach in that direction after Johnson and Earnhardt were eliminated from contention this early in the Chase. Teams will tinker and look for ways to do better next year. But one thing they can’t account for is catching the right breaks. That’s something Johnson knows all about, but he couldn’t quite close the deal on a much-needed win Sunday as he finished 24th.

But the six-time champion is sure to come back with a laser-focused pursuit of a record-tying seventh championship in 2015.

Thankfully for racing fans, we don’t have to wait until then to see a thrilling championship battle. We’ve got one unfolding right before our eyes.

Sports reporter Clark Leonard can be reached at 770-718-3418 or twitter.com/SportTimesClark.

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