Craig Murto: NASCAR’s Chase grid set

NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup grid is set following last weekend’s 400-lap race at Richmond.

Matt Kenseth dominated the race, which by all accounts certainly was no barn-burner. We probably haven’t had a barn-burner at Richmond in a number of years, and if it weren’t for a number of suspect debris cautions, there probably wouldn’t have been more than two or three cautions. Fans are looking forward to next year’s races with the low-downforce package and tires that dramatically fall off to bring back the Richmond racing of just a few years ago.

But Kenseth’s dominance highlighted the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing going into the Chase. At one point all four of the Gibbs cars were running in the top four spots. After Kevin Harvick faded, the only other car to really challenge Kenseth was the Penske Ford of Joey Logano.

That is, except for the other big story of the race, Aric Almirola.

Almirola and the Richard Petty 43 were just on the outside looking in. The only chance they had to make the Chase was to win. But the car was junk during the first third of the race, so out to lunch that Almirola found himself in a deep hole at the back of the pack.

Crew chief Trent Owens made wholesale changes to the car, and they worked. Almirola charged through the field, often on long runs was the fastest car on the track. He eventually finished fourth, though if it weren’t for a suspect debris caution with 25 laps to go he may have finished third or even second as quick as his car was during the long haul.

The debris cautions, which seemed to be suspect, as even TV stopped trying to find it on the track, were actually a shame. Even when the races were barn- burners, Richmond always had a long green run that included green-flag stops. Those stops always shook up the race, as some teams would pit early trying to gain an advantage on fresh tires, while other teams stayed out, hoping for a caution. If in fact officials were trying to manufacture excitement, the attempt was ill-advised; races should be left to play out as they will.

And now we get to see how the Chase will play out as the teams roll into Chicago for the first race of the three-race Challenger Round. New Hampshire and Dover also make up this first round.

As they are seated, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer will all try to earn their way into the Contender Round.

The Contender Round will reseat the top 12 drivers for competition at Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega. From there the top eight drivers will compete in the Eliminator Round at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix before the four best drivers in the Chase compete for the championship at Homestead.

Winning will be paramount, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Ryan Newman came close to winning the championship last year without a single race victory.

The Chase takes more than its share of criticism. And when it was first announced, admittedly I was one of those who refused to believe that it was anything more than a gimmick. Perhaps it always has been. But I now believe the Chase is the best thing that’s happened to Sprint Cup racing; it’s a unique format, and it keeps the excitement alive throughout the end of the season. Even when the Richmond race before the Chase is lackluster, it holds more interest as drivers desperately try to earn a spot to compete for the championship.

And it wasn’t until NASCAR came up with the Chase that the NHRA developed a Chase format of its own. Including the season finale, IndyCar had two double-points races in its championship this year. And even Formula One last year ended its season with a double-points race. When other top series in the country and around the globe are attempting gimmicks of their own for added late-season excitement, it proves that NASCAR did something correct and other promoters see its value.

 Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.