Chase changes give boost to smaller teams
January 31, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While expectations are high that the newly introduced Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship format will create excitement, suspense and that "Game 7 moment" NASCAR has so diligently pursued, there is another element of the new system that is creating buzz for small and mid-pack teams.
Because a single race win is now a ticket into the Chase, the chances are better that a small team or historically underdog operation could qualify for NASCAR's playoffs by putting together one great triumph.
Not only does that create a competitive opportunity, it's good news economically for those teams.
"It's a huge difference going to a sponsor and saying that with a good year we could be in the top 25 in points versus now if we can win a race we'll be in the Chase," said Bob Jenkins, team owner of Front Row Motorsports, one of the sport's smaller teams which stunned the field with a one-two finish at Talladega.
But that victory now takes on a broader meaning -- it shows the team can win, when that's all it will take to be a part of the upcoming postseason.
"As much as this gives every team a chance, it gives every sponsor a chance for visibility," Jenkins said. "It will be way easier to sell that."
And that is an intended consequence, according to NASCAR's Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps.
"We think it's a great opportunity from a sponsor's standpoint, obviously going from 12 to 16 teams, you're expanding the field and the sponsors we've spoken to are thrilled," Phelps said following Thursday's announcement. "From a team's perspective the primary sponsors are thrilled, the team owners and drivers are happy for what this means for sponsors.
"It would be great to have someone who isn't even thought of (as a championship contender) win his or her way into our Chase and, from there, who knows what happens."
That's the attitude for driver David Ragan, who won the Talladega race for Front Row Motorsports. He is adamant that the new championship system evens the playing field in an unprecedented way, calling it the ultimate "game-changer."
"We live on instant news, want every football game to come to a time-expired field goal, or every baseball game going to bottom of the ninth and a team coming from behind to win," Ragan said. "This is kinda setting up those types of finishes. I love the traditional points where all 36 races count toward your championship but this will produce excitement every single year."
Front Row teammate David Gilliland, who finished second at Talladega, sees the advantages of a larger Chase field on a number of levels -- not the least of which is a different approach to preparation.
"Making the Chase was never in our immediate goals, it's a goal of each of us to one day be in the Chase and fighting for a championship but we're a small team building and getting better each year," Gilliland explained. "Now a team like us, it shows we could be there and have a chance. It's a huge shot in the arm for our team.
"It's opened up a whole other opportunity for us. We had a meeting Tuesday, for example, and talked about tracks we're going to test at and we're going to test at some of the tracks we feel are our strongest and we have the best chance to go out and win a race. It's definitely changed our approach."
And perhaps for the first time since joining the big league ownership ranks, Jenkins said he sees real opportunity to be on the same footing with the larger, more established teams.
"If we can figure out a way to win a race, I'd like to see what we could do," Jenkins said. "It could change your whole mindset, especially if we win one early in the year knowing you're probably going to be in the Chase, you invest in ways that would make you more competitive. You never know.
"In the past we looked at places we may have struggled so we wouldn't test. Now it's a whole different paradigm. You want to go and be 'Jack the Bear.' "
And it's never been more possible.