NASCAR: Driver Tension Sets Up For Another Entertaining Chase

NASCAR is approaching the third year of the current Chase format, and with tension already forming after Richmond, we’ll likely see another entertaining Chase.

NASCAR made a bold move when they introduced their new elimination-style Chase format.

2014 ushered in change in the Cup Series as NASCAR changed up the Chase by making a win virtually worth a spot in the postseason while creating four different rounds in the 10-race stretch.

It was met with both cheer and criticism as some wondered if the system would make it harder to truly find the best driver of the season, since one race could potentially lead to elimination. However, after the first try at the new format in 2014, there was no denying the fact that NASCAR made the right move by making the change.

But there was one thing that stood out from that Chase that we hadn’t exactly seen in the past: the tension rose to incredible heights.

Each elimination race brought desperation as some drivers needed good finishes to move on while some had to push as hard as they could to win. That created an atmosphere that NASCAR needed–one filled with the drama and suspense of each race.

With that came conflicts that took the sport by storm and made the Chase more gripping than it had been in the past.

We saw our first episode at Charlotte in 2014. After the race was over, Brad Keselowski–who was unhappy with Denny Hamlin–bumped the rear end of the No. 11 car, initiating contact with the No. 20 and No. 14 cars. Many words followed after the drivers got out of their cars before Kenseth attacked Keselowski in between haulers, causing an incident between members of both crews.

Then, just a couple of weeks later at Texas, one of the most memorable moments of the past few years occurred. Keselowski made a risky move late–ultimately ending Jeff Gordon’s chances at a win–and paid the price.

After the race, Gordon confronted Keselowski on pit road and eventually grabbed his fire suit after Kevin Harvick gave Keselowski a slight push, starting the mass gathering post-race. There were harsh words coming from both sides in their interviews as fans came back to Phoenix the next weekend wondering what would happen next.

After the 2014 season was over, some wondered whether the entertainment was just a one-time thing with it being the first year of the new format, but 2015 delivered again.

After an incident during the race at Chicagoland, Harvick confronted Jimmie Johnson and gave him a few pushes before Johnson walked away. Then at Kansas, we saw Joey Logano spin Kenseth with five laps to go.

Finally at Martinsville, we reached the defining moment of the 2015 season, as Kenseth sought revenge and intentionally took Logano out of a race he was leading, resulting in a two-race suspension and sparking controversy among the media and the fans.

After two drama-filled Chase seasons, we find ourselves on the verge of witnessing a third as the Chase kicks off this weekend. So what could we see this time around? It’s a given that with how the Chase operates, we’ll see drivers get into it, and the foundations are already there after a wild weekend at Richmond.

The first story to watch has to do with Kenseth and Keselowski. If the previous two 10-race Chase periods have told us anything it’s this: Matt Kenseth does not get along with members of Team Penske.

On Saturday night, we saw Keselowski make contact with Kenseth–leading to Kenseth slamming into the wall because of a cut tire. After the race, Kenseth voiced his frustration saying the following afterwards (via FOX Sports):

“I’m sure he’ll send a Tweet out or go on a TV show and explain how it wasn’t his fault,” Kenseth said of Keselowski. “But he knows better than that. He knows his angle was bad and he just drove way up in the corner because he made a mistake and he was trying to make up for it and had no respect for anybody on the outside lane. Unfortunately, we had a wrecked car because of it.”

Keselowski apologized later on, but as we’ve seen in the past, his apologies usually don’t mean much to his fellow competitors.

The next, and most obvious, potential feud started between Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart. Late in the race, Newman got into Stewart’s rear causing him to get loose. As the two cars rounded Turn 1, Stewart began to drive down the track and eventually started the wreck of the race.

The aftermath was not pretty as Ryan Newman had some pretty nasty things to say about Stewart. He started off by calling him “bipolar” and talking about how he needed to retire, but it got worse as he said the following (via USA TODAY):

“I guess he thought he was in a sprint car again and didn’t know how to control his anger.”

The quote was not received well by fans or other personalities within the sport as it relates back to Stewart’s sprint car accident from a couple of years ago.

Stewart met with the media later on and mentioned that Newman had initiated contact with him a few other times earlier in the race. He went on to talk about how Newman’s response was expected since he was trying to race his way into the Chase.

While Stewart will be more cautious once the Chase begins, we can’t say the same about Newman, who has nothing to lose once the 10-race stretch gets underway.

Those are the two main storylines heading into Chicagoland, but the actions on the track are sure to spark more controversy, as we’ve seen in each of the last two seasons. NASCAR’s move to make each race truly matter has brought more excitement to the sport.

Some like the fact that there is conflict that occasionally results in physical contact, while some want the drivers to keep their actions on the track and focus on winning a championship, but there’s no denying the fact that each race gets that much more intriguing when you can pinpoint two drivers that clearly don’t like each other.

Two years of the new Chase format have produced two years of drama and big moments. Expect more of that as the 2016 Chase is set to begin on Sunday.