For the past 11 years NASCAR has determined its Sprint Cup champion by a play-off among the top drivers over the last 10 of the year’s 36 races. Many long-time fans hate ‘The Chase’, preferring a traditional championship won or lost over a full season, but NASCAR has occupied itself in recent years by tweaking ‘The Chase’ to try to create more excitement, more media and internet buzz, and attempt to reverse the steady decline in TV ratings and bums on seats that have become hard facts of life for NASCAR.
This year NASCAR created a new version of ‘The Chase’. Sixteen drives were whittled down to four for the finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, with the champion being the first of those four to finish the race. But the new system produced an embarrassing if not silly result as three of the year’s top drivers – Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – were eliminated prior to the finale, while two weak performers – Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman – made the cut.
Fortunately, the right guy took the championship in the end. Kevin Harvick won five races and led substantially more laps – in excess of 2100 – than anyone else. In fact, he took the championship in style by winning the year’s last two races.
Harvick toiled with Richard Childress’s team from 2001-13, running well but never able to put it all together to contend for a title. Finally, after finishing third in NASCAR’s 2010 and ’11 championships, Harvick decided to leave Childress at the end of 2013 to join Tony Stewart and Gene Haas’s Chevrolet team.
It proved a good decision because Harvick was not only Stewart-Haas’s quickest driver in 2014, he was also the man to beat more times than anyone else. Harvick dominated many races and only bad luck prevented more wins.
During the year, Harvick, Keselowski and Gordon were among those involved in a series of fender-bashing incidents that turned into post-race fistfights. Of course, stock car racing is not like open-wheel or sports car racing. Using your car’s fender to nudge another car, or even deliberately spin or crash it, is a time-honoured technique in NASCAR.
Quite a few past stars were renowned for their rough-and-tumble methods. Indeed, one of the reasons the late, great Dale Earnhardt was celebrated as the quintessential NASCAR driver, loved by many fans and hated by an almost equal number, was because of his mastery of ‘using the fender’.
NASCAR’s most famous fight took place on the last lap of the 1979 Daytona 500 and featured Cale Yarborough versus the Allison brothers, Bobby and Donnie. Yarborough and Bobby Allison took each other out as they battled to win the race and, after their crashed cars came to rest in the infield, they engaged in some fisticuffs. Donnie joined in and the incident has been credited with providing an important spark for NASCAR’s subsequent growth as a TV commodity.
In 2014 Matt Kenseth and Hamlin fought with Keselowski at Charlotte, while an irate Gordon confronted Keselowski after a collision in Texas. The argument between Gordon and Keselowski resulted in a brawl among their crewmen and NASCAR subsequently handed out $185,000 in fines and multi-race suspensions, but the drivers weren’t penalised.
Some people believe this is exactly what’s needed to boost TV ratings. Others argue that punch-ups cater only to NASCAR’s hard core fanbase rather than attracting new viewers. Good or bad for NASCAR, these things are not going to go away. They’re essential elements of stock car racing and probably always will be.