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NASCAR will hold its penultimate race of the season this Sunday in Phoenix, and the excitement and tension are running high. A field of eight drivers will vie for four spots in the Championship Round — the final race on Nov. 16 in Miami.
To explain all the speed, the passion and the fisticuffs that have characterized the 2014 Chase for the Cup, ESPN’s Brant James joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Before we go any further, please explain the new Cup Series format. How does it work? How does it differ from the format it replaced? And, if there's time, perhaps you can tell me how often it has changed?
I would imagine, in the big corporate offices of NASCAR, they've got to be drumming their fingers together saying, "Exactly as we hoped."Brant James, ESPN
BJ: Hah, well yeah, the new format was instituted this year. The emphasis this season is on winning. Because, many of the past championships have been decided by a process that's become the bane of NASCAR called "points-racing," which is, you want to finish in the top 10 -- that's pretty good. If you can finish in the top five, that's great. And you may not necessarily need to win a race in the playoffs to take the big trophy at the end of the year at Homestead[-Miami Speedway].
Basically what they've done is they've created a tournament. It's still a 10-race playoff, but it's broken into three rounds. If you win a race in the first three-race segment, you advance to the next round. And basically it's like that all the way through. During the third round now, about to wrap that up in Phoenix, basically what this system has done is shaken the drivers' brains up like a big snow globe. They're fairly crazy people anyway — they're trained to chase the shiny trophies and paychecks, and they want to win. That's what their job is. That's why they've risen to this high, high level — but this new system, where you can't really "points-race" anymore, makes winning right now really important.
And it's starting to affect immediate decisions at 200 mph on the final laps of races. And guys are running into each other a lot more and they're getting very angry about it and sometimes they take off their helmets and they start shoving and pushing and punching each other after races. So it's quite the to-do, and I would imagine, in the big corporate offices of NASCAR, they've got to be drumming their fingers together saying, "Exactly as we hoped."
BL: That's a little scary. More guys running into each other at 200 mph is exactly what they hoped?
[sidebar title="Fast Cars And Homework" width="630" align="right"]Fifteen-year-old Kaz Grala is the youngest full-time driver in one of NASCAR's top-two developmental leagues. “[Danica Patrick] is a household name," he told Only A Game's Karen Given back in August. "I’m hoping my name will be like that someday.”[/sidebar]BJ: Well, I mean we're sitting here talking about it. That's a plus for them. Today Show — they're showing highlights of guys punching each other, not winning races where everyone is getting along. So more eyeballs watching and more people talking about it, and ultimately they hope, more people watching the entire race on a Sunday or buying a nice t-shirt or even buying a ticket and coming out and smelling some gas fumes.
BL: You seem to be suggesting that the new format is responsible for last weekend's fight between Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski. It broke out after the race at Texas Motor Speedway. Tell me a little bit about that.
BJ: This one, I think, is absolutely about that. In the final laps of the race, Jeff Gordon, four-time champion, he was leading the race and he was leading in the points. He's having a renaissance season — you can hear the violins and see the butterflies — and this is just a wonderful story of him marching to Homestead to try and win a fifth championship in his 40s. Brad Keselowski is lower down in the standings, and he must win — he will not make the final and Homestead unless he wins.
[sidebar title="Making Racing Safer" width="630" align="right"]In August, Kevin Ward was killed when he was struck by a car driven by Tony Stewart. We spoke to ESPN's Ryan McGee about ways to make racing safer. [/sidebar]So, he did what Brad Keselowski in that situation is supposed to do. He mashed it and he tried to put his car through a gap that really wasn't there anymore, and, in the process, a piece of metal on the side of his car cut Jeff Gordon's tire. Tire goes down, Jeff Gordon spins, finishes 29th and he's barely hanging on to make it to Homestead now for the final. So Jeff Gordon was very angry.
It looks like there was just going to be a lot of finger pointing until Kevin Harvick, who's just a prime instigator, basically shoves Keselowski in the back into the fray. And the fray sort of consumed him and fists and haymakers and foul words and it's off!
BL: Brad Keselowski has earned a reputation for dangerous driving. Will he need to keep his emotions in check this weekend and will he be able to?
BJ: I think he'll be fine. Keselowski is an outstanding driver. You have to be, really, to be an elite at that level. He's a former champion — just two years ago he was the champion. I don't think that he will change how he drives at all. He's still got to go for it, even more. He's got to do the same thing at Phoenix. The question is, if there's any of his competitors out there that are so angry that they're willing to ruin their day by wrecking him and taking him out. If that's going to happen, you should set your DVR just in case because it'll be an even bigger brawl afterwards.
BL: Which of the eight drivers still in contention do you think will emerge from this weekend’s race and race for all the marbles next weekend?
BJ: I think Jeff Gordon will hold on. He's just been really good in the Chase. I think Joey Logano will make it because he's also been very consistent too. I think Matt Kenseth will sneak in. Oddly he's a winless driver. I think a lot of us in the NASCAR media corps who sort of like chaos are hoping to get a driver in that final mix who has not won and just see what the reaction would be if a driver who hasn't won a race wins a championship in a season when winning is hyper-incentivized.
And I think Kevin Harvick will make it. He's won three of the last four at Phoenix. He's extremely good there. So those are my four.
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This segment aired on November 8, 2014.
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