CAN ANYBODY BEAT JIMMIE? That's the question that once again looms over NASCAR as the 2014 season begins. Jimmie Johnson has won six of the last eight Sprint Cup titles. He's been particularly strong in the playoffs, setting career records for Chase wins (24), top fives (56) and average finish (8.8).
But under NASCAR's new playoff format (SI, Jan. 27), Johnson wouldn't have captured the title last November. This season the field of Chase drivers will expand from 12 to 16. If a driver wins a regular-season race, he'll essentially clinch a spot in the playoffs. Once the Chase begins, it will be elimination style: The bottom four drivers will fall out of contention after three races; four more will be eliminated after the sixth race and another four after the ninth. This will set up a one-race shootout at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16 among the remaining four drivers, who will have equal points at the drop of the green flag. Had these rules been in place in 2013, the championship-eligible drivers at Homestead would have been Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Who would have celebrated that night in South Florida? Brace yourself, NASCAR Nation: Earnhardt, who finished third in the race, ahead of Johnson (ninth), Harvick (10th) and Gordon (11th). Of course, in a winner-take-all showdown, JJ and the others presumably would have driven that last race differently.
"This new system should give more guys a chance at winning the championship," Earnhardt says. "That last race will be crazy."
The 500 should be as well. After all, Daytona has a history of producing long-shot winners (see: Ward Burton, 2002; Trevor Bayne, 2011), and now a victory in February means a Chase spot in September. So on the final lap of the Great American Race, expect a win-or-wreck mentality to grip historically mid-pack drivers if they're in the lead bunch charging into Turn 3. Desperate drivers tend to do desperate things, which could make for a bang-up finish on Sunday.
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REIGNING CHAMP? Hypothetically. Had NASCAR's new rules applied last year, Earnhardt would have taken the Cup. His many fans hope for a real-world repeat.