NASCAR’s Chase format and the underdog

Photo by Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images
Aric Almirola (43) collects damage in a multi-car wreck at Talladega Superspeedway. He and A.J. Allmendinger are the two drivers who scored their first Chase berth in 2014. 

By Jordan Hyland
October 23, 2014



In July, Aric Almirola earned his first career Sprint Cup win at Daytona with help from Mother Nature, propelling Richard Petty Motorsports into the Chase for the first time since 2009. A month later, A.J. Allmendinger celebrated his first career Cup victory at Watkins Glen, and locked himself into the field of 16.

So began the story of the underdog.

Let’s be honest. The new playoff format has created a buzz among fans and the media alike. Win and you’re in? That’s cool, but what about drivers with higher average finishes and more consistency? How is that fair?

On one side, you have the case of the powerhouse organizations, such as Penske and Hendrick, who dominate week in and week out. They have the best equipment, best staff and arguably the best drivers in the sport. On the other side, you have smaller organizations, such as JTG-Daugherty Racing, who struggle to compete with the bigger organizations because of their lack of funding, staff and equipment. They have the desire to win and the love of the sport, but they have trouble finding success.

To win a championship, you must be the best every time you show up to the race track.

Until now.

While consistency is being penalized, winning is being rewarded. With the decision to switch to this format came, as always, both resentment and heavy support.

Aric Almirola

Those who oppose the format target the obvious flaws in the Chase. If you finish second every week for the first 26 races, and there are sixteen winners along the way, you’re left out. Nothing more to it. Even if you win the final ten races, you aren’t the champion. Because you only beat 41 drivers every single week. This, in itself, redefines the term “championship.” The champion is supposed to be the best driver, but in this case, the best driver would be left out.

Those in support of the new Chase favor the excitement that comes with the “win and you’re in” attitude. If you have bad luck one week, you are now able to come back the next week and make up for it. No longer are drivers put in a hole by being wrecked by a competitor.

Then, you have those that love an underdog story.

While Almirola lucked into a rain-shortened win, A.J. Allmendinger drove the race of his life at Watkins Glen, and proved to everyone that he was not only a capable driver, but one who could contend for titles if given the right situation.

Interestingly, these two drivers represented the two different types of underdogs. While Almirola was competitive at times, his lack of consistency and good finishes should have left him out of the championship hunt. He represents the “lucky underdog.” Allmendinger, on the other hand, struggled in a similar fashion, but when put on level ground on the two road courses, he proved his talent and desire to win. Allmendinger represents the “worthy underdog.”

The sport needs both types of underdogs to thrive. Honestly, while many fans have their favorite driver(s) picked out, it does get a bit tiring seeing the same faces at the front of the field week in and week out.

A.J. Allmendinger

The lucky underdog is necessary because it’s fresh. When Almirola won, regardless of the circumstances, everyone was stunned. He had never won a NASCAR race (well, officially, he has, but that’s a debate for another time) and he won at Daytona to propel himself into the Chase. While some fans pointed out his lack of success as reasoning to not allow him into the Chase, others were excited because of his underdog status.

Then you have A.J. Allmendinger, the worthy underdog. Allmendinger proved himself enough to land a ride with Penske a few years back, but found himself back at the bottom of the totem pole after a series of bad decisions. When he swept the two Nationwide road courses he competed in during the 2013 season, nobody was surprised when he dominated the first half of the Sonoma race this summer. Although Lady Luck had other plans in mind for him on that day, nobody was going to stop him at Watkins Glen. He fought off road course ringer Marcos Ambrose to claim his spot in the Chase, and position himself as the underdog going into the final ten races.

Although fate would have it that neither would advance past the initial round of the Chase, both made a splash. Almirola came one blown motor at Chicago away from advancing to the second round, and Allmendinger fell just a few points short at Dover.

The criticism the new format has received has given doubt to its longevity, but the underdogs of the NASCAR world are hoping that one day they get their chance.

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