The crazy eight of the Cup series

Dale Earnhardt Jr., of course, was at the epicenter of the quake that shook NASCAR's landscape for the first eight races of the Sprint Cup season and, in all likelihood, beyond.

Bounding to the interview stage after winning the Daytona 500 in February, NASCAR's most popular screamed -- literally -- in celebration before settling in for 52-plus solid minutes of classic Junior, bawdy yet humble introspection.

In winning NASCAR's most important race for the second time in his career -- but first since 2004 -- Earnhardt had delivered the kind of gigawatt jolt the sport so needed -- or so went the narrative -- and, in the process, virtually assured himself a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup with 25 regular-season races remaining. The new win-centric system used to seed NASCAR's playoffs had minted its first title contender after six hours of rain delays and sent the joyous 39-year-old headlong into a new relationship with Twitter. And this, after his crew chief, Steve Letarte, had announced weeks earlier that he would leave in 2015 for a race analyst job with NBC Sports.

But even in that heady moment, Earnhardt was still groping for what reality was in a modern NASCAR undergoing so much change.

"If everybody is telling the truth and we've won a race, we should be in it, so I'm not going to worry about it," Earnhardt beamed.

Then he got his swagger back.

"Now, if I got to win two of these things," he smiled. "... I don't know if we're that worried, because we're going for the jugular this year."

Gold fever

Nothing has affected the 2014 season as strongly as the new system used to stock the Chase field and crown its champion.

Brian France, who enacted the Chase format as one of his first edicts as chairman in 2004, revamped the system beginning this year as a response to his disdain for points racing and a desire to stoke late-race action with winning ultra-incentivized. Whether elimination playoffs will appease, annoy or even make sense to fans is a question for the autumn, but the new emphasis on winning has created a frantic late-race undertone that has been lauded industrywide.

A 36-race season has been transformed from a campaign to a series of battles -- especially for those still winless -- and contorted strategies and ambitions in the hopes of capturing a coveted playoff spot. That no driver won twice until Kevin Harvick in the eighth race of the season at Darlington served to stoke a growing anxiety over how many of the 16 playoff spots available to race winners would be claimed by those who had won just one time.

The drivers already inside the winners' envelope -- Earnhardt, Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kyle and Kurt Busch and Joey Logano -- were not major surprises considering recent win totals or performance. The first surprise winner is likely to cue another bout of hand-wringing.

And still, the defending series champion and the runner-up and 2013 wins leader, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, respectively, have yet to visit Victory Lane. Nothing will be truly decided, however, until the knockout-style playoffs adorned with names like "Contender" and "Eliminator."


The Air Titan track-drying system has been one of the most ubiquitous vehicles in NASCAR this season, as five of eight races have had practices, qualifying or actual races delayed or postponed by rain. The Daytona 500 was marred by more than six hours of delays and numerous orders to seek shelter because of tornado warnings. It snowed sideways the morning of the Martinsville race, but the race went off. Not so for the event at Texas Motor Speedway, which was run on Monday because of deluges and weepers at the 1.5-mile track. A downpour actually benefited NASCAR at the Bristol finish, preventing the sanctioning body from having to try to unwind the snarl of an inadvertent caution in the waning laps as Edwards ran away from the field.

The study of winking masses of red and yellow blobs on radar became as imperative a data point as tire pressure and gas mileage on some race weekends, notably the first, when drivers raced with abandon in the final 60 laps of the Daytona 500 under the presumption that weather would never allow them to reach the intended distance. Sometimes rain messed up the show, sometimes it pepped up the show.

"Everybody kept telling me over the radio: 'There's more rain coming,' [and] I think that really added to the anxiety and rush of pace even more so than the break," said Keselowski, who finished third. "I think everyone raced a hard 500-mile race. That has to be the hardest 500 race ever, probably one of the best."

Risk vs. reward

Jeff Gordon was still disgruntled with Goodyear a week after a spate of tire failures -- including one of his own as he led late -- muddled the finish at Auto Club Speedway. He had tested tires in the days after his eventual 13th-place finish at Fontana, but was too irate to have a discussion with officials from the tire manufacturer to express his displeasure with what he felt was an inadequate product brought for the race weekend.

Wins are precious for any driver, but, in the possible end phase of his 23-year career, they are more so for Gordon, even with 88 to his credit. He won once in 2013. And now, one likely earns a playoff berth. So, seeing one slip away because of equipment, he said, was unacceptable.

Dave Rogers, crew chief for Fontana winner Kyle Busch, asserted, however, that the series of failures had been caused at Fontana by teams using tire pressures well less than those recommended by the manufacturer. The practice has long been commonplace in NASCAR, but, with an aerodynamics package increasing downforce, the risk and reward have changed at certain tracks.

All is not lost for Gordon. He has raced well enough in the system to lead in points -- and could transfer to the Chase from there under certain conditions -- and has teammates Earnhardt (fourth) and Johnson (fifth) in the top five in points with him. Johnson and Kenseth, though, have admittedly struggled to create speed in the new system.

But the changes have created excitement, statistically verifiable and brandished with glee by the series. Leaders per race, average lead changes, green flag passes, all up. Average margin of victory: .588 seconds, the smallest since 2008.

Is there anybody out there?

Certainly, weather has had a detrimental effect on live attendance and television ratings this season. But, despite all of the positive developments in the first eight races -- including the sport's most popular driver winning its most high-profile race, changes spicing competition from aerodynamics to qualifying procedures to the Chase -- box-office performance has remained stagnant, or simply dreadful, as at Bristol Motor Speedway, and no race has produced a higher rating this year than last.

NASCAR's indulgence in mass change this preseason hinted of desperation amid scores of troublesome indicators -- a 10-year, $4.4 billion deal with NBC Sports Group notwithstanding -- but the changes, by most accounts, have improved the product so far.

There's more to sell. But is anybody buying anymore outside the sport's hard-core niche? The answer, perhaps, is in the Eliminator Round.