Opinion: Judgment Calls
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on January 31, 2014 | 5:46 P.M. EST
NASCAR officials could be faced with more difficult calls with the changes to the Chase. (Photo: Getty Images)
More action, more drama and more contact.
NASCAR officials hope those ingredients spice the new Chase with its emphasis on winning and a one-race shootout for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The new Chase also might add something else. More controversy.
How series officials judge last-lap battles, late-race moves and post-race inspection could play a role in who makes the Chase or what happens during it.
"It's going to be more work on us," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition. "But in 2013 and before, those same opportunities existed then."
Pemberton is correct. NASCAR has had to judge if contact coming to the checkered flag was fair, how much teammates helped each other on the track and inspected top-finishing cars after a race.
It’s just that there’s even more at stake now.
Any driver who wins a race in the first 26 races is virtually guaranteed a spot in the Chase. Eliminations will trim the 16-driver Chase field after the third, sixth and ninth Chase races. Any Chase driver who wins a post-season race advances to the next round. It all leads to a four-driver race at Homestead for the title. The driver who finishes the best wins the crown.
"There's going to be a lot more risk takers with this strategy than maybe what there had been in the past, but you're also going to have to weigh that risk and know what consequences it has for you, too," Kyle Busch said.
That leads to questions about how far one will go to make the Chase or advance in it.
Last year’s Watkins Glen race featured a last-lap duel between Brad Keselowski and Busch. Keselowski was winless at the time, but he didn’t shove Busch out of the way. Instead, Keselowski finished second and failed to make the Chase.
"If I would have wrecked him, in my mind it wouldn't have been a racing deal, it would have been just wrecking and there's a huge difference," Keselowski said that day.
Should Busch be in the same spot this year, would he expect Keselowski to move him for the win?
"Yes," Busch said.
Keselowski said he doesn’t think this new system would change his approach. NASCAR Chairman Brian France, though, sees some drivers being more aggressive in those situations.
"Whether this format or any format, if it's late in the race and you've got a faster car, we expect some contact," France said. "Obviously there are limits, but that's always part of NASCAR to have some version of contact late in the race. Will this bring more of that? I'm sure it will to some level, but that's NASCAR."
So what if someone wrecks the leader on the last lap? Will that be acceptable?
"We will not officiate differently," Pemberton said. "We know that the game will be elevated by the competitors. We know they'll be more aggressive. We'll have to officiate just like we did."
It’s not the last-lap contact that concerns Keselowski when he looks at the new format. He wonders about the role of teammates.
"The main thing that sticks out to me is team orders," Keselowski said. "I feel like we’ve probably shown over the last year that we don’t have that maybe all the way under control."
That’s a question some have raised. What if a driver, who already has won a race, is leading and is passed by a teammate who has yet to win? How will NASCAR judge that? Will there be questions?
"If they have to make that call, then I’m sure you’re going to see heavy sanctions against that team," Busch said.
Just like last year. NASCAR penalized Michael Waltrip Racing after its efforts to help Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase at Richmond International Raceway. Truex missed the Chase after initially making it, creating a spot for Ryan Newman. NASCAR later added Jeff Gordon to the Chase after questions of deal-making between two other teams in that same race impacted Gordon’s chances of racing for a title.
Another key question is what happens after the race. NASCAR has a history of penalizing winning teams if they fail post-race inspection but not taking away the win. What happens now?
Pemberton said if a winning team fails post-race inspection, the win won’t count toward Chase eligibility - just as officials have done in recent years. Yet, with all these changes, wouldn’t this have been a good time for NASCAR to take away the win and give it to the runner-up?
"As a group, we've decided to not change that right now," Pemberton said. "There is a lot of change in itself. We've just decided it's not a good time for that."
There’s always next year.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.