The Yellow Stripe · Garrett Horton · Tuesday September 28, 2010
To begin this column, I want to let you know my personal feelings on the Chase. From the months of late July to early October, I love it. The other months of the year, I hate it. There is so much hype and hope that we really could see an intense points battle going into the final month, and each year I buy into it. In fact, I am doing it again this year.
Historically, though, as we head into late October and early November, we already know who is going to win… again. It’s nothing against Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team, it’s just that I, like many people, enjoy seeing a new face as the champion. By the time November rolls around, I tend to join the Chase-hating bandwagon a little bit later than most, pushing for an initial ray of hope in the playoff format only to see the same person keep running away with it.
This year, I have taken a slightly different approach in my thinking. I was on my regular routine of bashing the Chase up until June. Then, I realized that this system is here to stay, and if I am going to continue to be a part of NASCAR (and I will, ‘till the day I die or the sport dies, whichever one comes first) I need to learn to appreciate the system. After all, constant complaining gets us nowhere. We aren’t going back to the old way, and any other changes will just drive away more fans, so I have converted to being a year-round “fan” of this postseason format.
Last week, I wrote on how we were potentially in store for one of the most exciting Chases in its brief, seven-year history. Judging by most of the comments from my readers, not many agreed with me. More concerning than that, however, was fan apathy. It has become clear that fans have grown so tired of hating the Chase that they just don’t care anymore, shocking after a playoff debut at Loudon where fuel mileage gambles, surprise crashes, and a disappointing run by Jimmie Johnson appeared to make this year’s edition more wide open than ever before. Still, after watching Johnson pick up his 19th career Chase win at Dover – 13 more than any other driver – to the groans of fans everywhere, I wondered if it really is the Chase that people hate? Or, is it the dominance of one man that has tarnished the sport?
This playoff format created by Brian France was designed with the hopes of four or five drivers having a shot at the title going into the final race. I went back through the last five seasons to see how the final point standings looked, and I noticed something: The battle for second was pretty tight in three out of those five Chases (2007 and ’08 being the exceptions). Take a look at the stats below:
2005 – Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards tied (Biffle took second with more wins)
2006 – Matt Kenseth over Denny Hamlin by 12 points
2007 – Jeff Gordon over Clint Bowyer by 268
2008 – Carl Edwards over Greg Biffle by 148
2009 – Mark Martin over Jeff Gordon by 38
Just these stats alone show me there’s hope to have an exciting battle if Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team were no longer invincible. Of course, it would be nice if Johnson’s competitors could live up to their regular season hype. Points leader Denny Hamlin is off to a nice start, but with his unnecessary smack talking towards Richard Childress Racing this past weekend, there should now be concern that he put his championship hopes in jeopardy. With the “have at it” policy, I would not be surprised at all to see Harvick go kamikaze on Hamlin at some race in the Chase, ending both drivers’ championship hopes. That paves the way even more for an unparalleled run at success for JJ that, in my view, is nothing but negative for the sport.
Of course, if Johnson’s the problem stopping his talent isn’t so easy. Considering his mastery of the system, the relative security of his sponsorship, and the chemistry amongst the No. 48 crew – most of which have long-term deals in place through 2015 – what in the world could prevent them from being so dominant?
I have a theory, albeit an unlikely possibility, on what could lessen Johnson’s ironclad grip on the top spot. Obviously, NASCAR can’t just take parts of his car away for no reason, nor can there always be a “debris” caution when he is winning with five to go… but what if NASCAR managed to lure away the No. 48’s crew chief? The sanctioning body would certainly benefit from someone like Chad Knaus working for them in some sort of capacity (think former crew chiefs turned NASCAR employees such as Gary Nelson and Robin Pemberton). John Darby is in the process of being replaced as Sprint Cup Director, and someone like Knaus could be a perfect young fit to be in that role for years to come. He may have recently signed a contract extension until 2015 at Hendrick, seemingly content to be there the next five years, but enough money forked up by NASCAR could change anyone’s mind. If Knaus worked for someone besides Hendrick, we might not see Johnson even winning races on a regular basis — similar to Jeff Gordon’s waning success once Ray Evernham left. For everyone else, though, it would be a win-win situation: fans would regain an interest with more parity for the title, NASCAR would regain fans, and Chad Knaus would be making more money!
One complaint I hear of the Chase almost as much as Johnson winning every year is that the points reset is unfair. Could changes there bring his dominance to a screeching halt? I don’t think so. Keep in mind his strategy has always been to score wins for the Chase, not necessarily snag the regular season point title when it doesn’t give him a single point of advantage in the postseason. Different rules for regular season success could see him altering those plans accordingly; and remember, he was a top 5 points contender even in the pre-Chase years, briefly leading the standings as a rookie before pulling off a runner-up finish to Matt Kenseth in the last pre-Chase season, 2003.
I can understand some traditionalists being upset by the loss of the regular season system to begin with, but rules change over time, and this tweak just so happened to be one. Everyone just needs to get over the fact that Kevin Harvick’s 200-plus point lead is gone. He proved he was strong in the regular season, now he needs to back it up. Most other sports reset once the regular season is over, best records becoming meaningless in a win-or-you’re out type of format, yet no one complains about that. As a matter of fact, most drivers could care less how the old points system was – they are too busy trying to win a championship with the current format. If every playoff was as exciting as the 2004 version, where Kurt Busch won his title by just eight points, I’m guessing this complaint would fall by the wayside, with more fans leaning towards acceptance of what we actually have.
I still am under the belief that this year will finally be the one we see a new face holding the championship trophy after Homestead. Johnson isn’t any worse than in years past, but it looks like several others have caught up. You have to also assume that most, if not all of the Chase drivers are sick of Johnson winning. So even if it means spinning him out to end the streak (Kurt Busch comes to mind) perhaps that is exactly what NASCAR needs. A new champion would give the fans a new perspective on the Chase, and the potential it hasn’t lived up to yet – because the reigning champ, not the playoff itself, is the biggest obstacle to the sport’s long-term success right now.
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