By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
The credo first spoken by UCLA football coach Red Sanders and later made famous by Vince Lombardi would have been an apt turn of phrase for NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
In announcing sweeping changes to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup on Thursday, France unveiled a system that makes winning paramount in a way no simple addition of points for victories could have accomplished.
Win one of the first 26 races on the Sprint Cup schedule, and you're all but guaranteed a spot in the Chase. Keep winning in the Chase, and likely you'll advance to a one-race shootout between four eligible drivers for the series championship.
Win that race -- or finish ahead of the three other eligible drivers -- and you are the champion.
"It's all about winning in the postseason," six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson posted to his Twitter account after the announcement. "We've been decent at that over the years."
That's an understatement. Anyone who thinks NASCAR is trying to "Jimmie-proof" its championship -- in much the same way Augusta National supposedly tried to "Tiger-proof" the Masters by lengthening the golf course -- has not been paying attention to the numbers.
Johnson is the only driver qualified for all 10 editions of the Chase so far, and he's won far more races during the Chase than anyone else. All told, 24 of the 100 Chase races run so far have ended with Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in Victory Lane, a staggering statistic.
Under the new format, which is divided into three elimination rounds of three races each to winnow the Chase field from 16 drivers to four for the final race, a victory is a golden ticket to the next round. Do you really think Johnson does not like his chances to win a record-tying seventh title?
"I like the higher emphasis on winning and the cream will still rise," tweeted 2012 champion Brad Keselowski.
NASCAR Executive Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O'Donnell conceded that some fans might believe the new format is directed at Johnson, but the numbers suggest otherwise.
"I can't get in the fans' heads, but I can say there is speculation: 'You do this because of Jimmie,' " O'Donnell said. "No, Jimmie performs. We fully expect Jimmie to dominate again.
"Jimmie has been a champion of NASCAR. You heard Brian say you've got to beat the best of the best in the Chase. If you look back at Jimmie's history, I think we'd be surprised if he wasn't there in Miami."
Several reporters in the media workroom at the Charlotte Convention Center spent Thursday afternoon concocting doomsday scenarios that ranged from the unlikely to the outlandish.
What if a driver with no victories won the championship? Though highly unlikely, that could happen under the new system, just as it could happen under the old one.
What if rain washes out qualifying at Homestead, putting all four championship contenders on the front row? And what if they all wreck in the first corner of the race?
Let's get real here. All systems and all sports have these sorts of scenarios. A perfect example is the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
In late August, the Cardinals were 10 games back-of the wild card spot. In Las Vegas, the posted odds against the Cardinals winning the World Series were 5,000-to-1.
But the Cardinals made up the deficit, qualified for the playoffs as wild card on the last day of the regular season, survived two elimination rounds and won the World Series.
Yes, the new Chase format could produce an unexpected winner, but in order to win the title, the champion must first make the Chase (with winning a race the most certain avenue), then survive three eliminations and beat the three remaining drivers in a winner-take-all finale.
"Winning has always been important in @NASCAR @SprintCup," tweeted four-time champ Jeff Gordon, "but wow just became THE way to win championship! Exciting!"