CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson believes NASCAR’s new championship format produced the correct champion and a Ryan Newman victory would have been “tough to swallow for the sport.”
Johnson began the season as the six-time and defending champion, but he was eliminated from title contention in the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup format. A 16-driver field was whittled down to four for Sunday’s finale, where Kevin Harvick beat Newman, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano to claim his first title.
“I feel like Kevin winning was the right thing when you look at the winners and the dominant cars throughout the year,” Johnson said Thursday.
Harvick had to win the race to wrap up the title, and found himself in a late shootout with Newman for the victory. Newman, in his first season for Richard Childress Racing, advanced to the finale through consistency after a winless season.
The Chase format this year was touted by NASCAR chairman Brian France as one that would put an emphasis on winning, and Harvick won three Chase races, including the final two. But, he nearly lost the title to Newman, who finished second in the finale. The highest-finishing driver Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway was guaranteed the title.
“Ryan had every right in the world to be the champion, the rules were laid out that way,” said Johnson, who was eliminated after the second round, or the sixth of 10 races. “But if (Newman) wins the championship, I think that would have been tough to swallow for the sport. It’s not taking anything away from Childress or Ryan, they had an awesome year and collected a ton of points.
There’s some danger for the sport with this format.”
Johnson said he discussed the new format with France at the start of the season. He believed, based on performance during the regular season, the finale should have been between Harvick, Team Penske drivers Logano and Brad Keselowski, and Jeff Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Those four drivers combined for 12 wins in the first 26 races, and eight wins in the 10 Chase races.
But Gordon and Keselowski were both eliminated after the third round, and Gordon last week called on NASCAR to set a separate points system for the Chase drivers. Gordon felt it was unfair for the Chase drivers to be scored against the entire 43-car field, and they should only be scored against the Chase drivers.
Still, drivers have praised the new elimination system, with Newman saying “the intensity of the sport has gone through the roof,” because of the Chase. The high stakes produced drama on and off the track, including a pair of brawls in in the final seven races.
“The system is fine. It’s exciting. Every race is exciting,” Hamlin said. “There’s not been one boring race. This is the best thing that’s happened to this sport in a really long time.”
But Johnson said attendance and television ratings are the true measure. Although attendance was improved at many tracks this season, TV ratings were flat. The 10-race Chase drew an average of 4.41 million viewers for ESPN/ABC, and a 2.7 rating. Last season drew an average of 4.5 million viewers and a 2.8 rating.
“We need to do something to drive the viewership up,” said Johnson, who supports heat races capped by a final A main-style race slotted into a television window.
“Maybe we qualify on Saturday and that’s televised, and then run some heat races and a feature on Sunday, in a four-hour time window,” he said. “It sticks to our roots, sticks with what we’ve always had and done, gives some natural pauses for the show for the social element at the track. I think that would be a pretty entertaining format.”