Murto: Chase format appears to work

NASCAR’s new format for determining its Sprint Cup champion appears to be working.

When they first announced “The Chase,” I was skeptical. When they announced the elimination system this year, I absolutely hated the idea.

There’s still a big part of me that feels it’s absolutely wrong. After all, this is auto racing; a champion is determined after the entire season is run, and the champion is the driver who scores the most points during the season. All of these point resets and eliminations seem to be wrong; it’s just not how it’s done in racing. This isn’t college football; what’s with this grid system?

But if I set my personal feelings aside and allow myself to see beyond my comfort zone — beyond the feeling that, “We’ve always done it this way so that’s how it should be done” — I find the new Chase is fascinating.

It holds my interest. There’s more importance placed on each race. And there’s definitely more importance placed on winning.

And look at the stress the drivers are under; look at the drama we had following the Charlotte race, all because of the stress of the new Chase format.

Promoters have to love the fact that Brad Keselowski had a complete meltdown following the Charlotte race. Keselowski’s actions were the talk of race fans on social media Sunday, and around the water cooler at work Monday.

First Keselowski tried to wreck Denny Hamlin on the cool-down lap. Hamlin brake-checked Keselowski earlier in the lap because he felt Keselowski got into him on the final restart. That retaliation just got Keselowski fired up.

Keselowski drove up the racetrack and put Matt Kenseth in the wall earlier in the race, so when Kenseth got the free pass before the final restart he took a swipe at Keselowski’s car, damaging the aerodynamics and ruining Keselowski’s night.

Once Hamlin got Keselowski fired up, the Penske driver decided to get even with Kenseth, so he slammed into Kenseth’s car on pit road.

That’s where Keselowski crossed the line. He slammed into Kenseth’s car on pit road — the same pit road on which innocent crew members are walking around vulnerable. Plus, Kenseth had his seat belts off and was not expecting a car to slam into him doing 50 mph.

In the process of slamming into Kenseth, Keselowski drove into the rear of Tony Stewart, who didn’t appreciate it much and put his car in reverse to slam into Keselowski’s. That may not have been the best thing for Stewart, who certainly wants to appear even-tempered, at least until whatever possible action the parents of Kevin Ward Jr. take is resolved. Why give his legal opponents more evidence that he’s a hot head?

But the real hot head was Keselowski, who still wasn’t finished. He reportedly drove into the garage area and did a few “burn outs,” one of which threw a transmission across two pit areas.

If you want to wreck people on the track on the cool-down lap, that’s fine. If you want to get out of your cars and wreck each other’s faces with your fists, that’s fine. But when you start using your car as a weapon in areas in which innocent, unprotected people frequent, that crosses a line. NASCAR should deal with such things by issuing severe penalties, but it doesn’t have the guts.

Matt Kenseth, however, demonstrated rare guts by attacking Keselowski on camera. Kenseth, it seemed, didn’t like being hit at 50 mph while his seat belts were off and his safety net and HANS device were undone.

Pit road and the garage area need to be off limits when it comes to retaliating with your car. Didn’t Kyle Busch get in trouble for pushing Kevin Harvick’s car on pit road? A lot of people believe that Keselowski should be suspended for a race, technically killing his chances of progressing in the Chase before we even run this week’s race at Talladega.

But if it weren’t for the Chase, would Keselowski have melted down so completely? If it weren’t for the fact that he now has only one race to do well — and hope others have problems — would he have been so angry?

Probably not. Drivers have never been in such a high-pressure situation; each race counts more than ever before. Each race is a do-or-die situation as far as drivers’ championship hopes.

And with that pressure comes action — during the races and afterward — that keep fans interested.

I still don’t think I like the Chase. It’s not how we do things in racing. But I have to admit, it’s working just the way NASCAR wanted it to work.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.