The Frontstretch: Why We Were Robbed Of The REAL Championship Chase by Thomas Bowles -- Monday November 17, 2008

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Why We Were Robbed Of The REAL Championship Chase

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday November 17, 2008


Come with me on a journey into the battle that could have been.

Once upon a time, the laps are winding down at Homestead; and while you might not like a fuel mileage finish, for once, you’re sitting there on the edge of your seat. Carl Edwards has made the daring gamble to go the final 66 laps on a tank of gas, canceling out the brilliant strategy of Jimmie Johnson and a two tire stop that finally got him the track position needed to run up front. Now, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are staring at a terrifying dilemma. They know their car isn’t capable of going the distance on fuel; and knowing a win by the No. 99 will likely cost them the title, Knaus doesn’t know which direction to turn. Should he hope against hope his numbers are wrong, leave Johnson out, and hope he can save a little extra Sunoco? Or, should he send him out on a banzai effort to gain as many positions as possible, putting distance between the No. 48 and Edwards before shortpitting for fresh tires with 20 laps to go – a desperation maneuver in hopes new Goodyears can gain enough positions in time to save the championship?

Imagine if you will a world where pit stops like this one could have been make or break for Johnson winning the title. But thanks to the Chase, Johnson’s trips down pit road where little more than everyday maintenance.

In the end, Knaus has Johnson go all out, creating furious racing at the front of the pack between him and other frontrunners Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. After fighting hard to hold on to the top spot, Johnson finally drops down pit road with 30 laps to go, grabs four fresh tires, and begins a furious march back through the field. Meanwhile, Edwards is doing all he can to hold on with a car that’s running on empty – an upset victory increasingly within his grasp. Johnson needs to climb back up to ninth to take the title if Edwards wins; will he be able to do it in time? Or, will Edwards complete an impossible comeback and take the title from under everyone’s nose?

Believe it or not, that type of exciting finish would have actually been possible Sunday if NASCAR were using the old points system. If we were using the pre-Chase format in existence from 1975 to 2003, Jimmie Johnson would be facing a cruel reality. For as we transition back to what really happened Sunday, Edwards’ fuel mileage victory – combined with Johnson’s 15th place finish – would have allowed the Roush Fenway driver to steal away with the championship by only 16 points. It’s the second time in three years the title race would have been closer under the old system, and the second straight year someone else other than Johnson would have ended up on the winning end (Jeff Gordon would have clinched by a mile in 2007).

But instead, Johnson took home the title by a yawn-inducing 69 points, tying the record of three straight long held by Cale Yarborough from 1976-78. And this article is not designed to take anything away from that impressive achievement by the Lowe’s Chevrolet team. Johnson and Knaus are the dynamic duo of this format, with the right strategic plan that puts them in perfect position to peak over the final ten races. Add in a little bit of racing luck and a whole lot of pure talent, and it’s clear this team has great potential to extend their record to four, five – heck, even six straight Chase championships. As NASCAR goes, this streak is the closest thing to a dynasty in the making that we’ve ever had.

But just because a driver’s successful under a playoff system doesn’t automatically mean that system is the most successful one to use. And the fact remains that this year’s final race – for the fourth straight season – was largely anti-climactic. Instead of the drama mentioned above, Johnson tried desperately to find spots on the track to run in solitude by himself at race’s end, staying out of harm’s way and playing it safe on a night where he needed to finish just 36th or better. While Edwards, to his credit, never gave up and let it all hang out – ending the playoffs with three wins and five Top 5 finishes – he never came close to having a chance at stealing the championship away. When you think about it, that shouldn’t come as a major shock, either. A duo like Johnson and Knaus are far too experienced to get outsmarted to the degree of 37th place in a race that makes or breaks their season. In the end, they did exactly what was necessary to win under the circumstances; stayed out of trouble, kept the car in one piece, and worked on simply finishing instead of worrying about taking the checkered flag first.

Certainly, if NASCAR implemented the old system all season long the outcome this year could have been completely different. When out to lunch early on this season, Johnson and Knaus might have worked that much harder to make a comeback in the standings — instead of testing during regular season races to prepare them for the only part of the year that really matters to them. Kyle Busch, meanwhile, may not have been deflated by his poor September and still made a valiant charge for the title; after all, the tough luck at Loudon, Dover, and Kansas this year would have only dropped him to third, not 12th, in the “classic” point standings after leading through much of the summer. Even Edwards may have had a few more passes like the last lap at Kansas during the regular season, with an extra 3, 4, 5 points actually becoming a bit more meaningful.

And so it goes. In one sense, it’s natural to think back to old traditions when the new one results in a playoff blowout. But considering the best championship battle this weekend was in the Craftsman Truck Series between Johnny Benson and Ron Hornaday, Jr. – a series that continues to use the pre-Chase system – you can understand the nostalgia for something that’s been proven to work. You’ve got to go all the way back to 2004 – the first year of the Chase – to find a similar nail-biting experience in Cup.

Over here, people are biting their nails out of boredom and not excitement. Oh, well; at least the Chase lived up to its name in one way this year.

It Chased away what could have been a true championship fight.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


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11/17/2008 03:50 AM

We’ve all complained about the Chase . We’ve all come up with many better ideas , far better ideas . Yet the chase continues unchanged . Bill France would never have come up with such an idiotic idea . And in the unlikely instance he did , he would have paid close attention to the drivers and fans reactions and modified the chase accordingly . He was a leader . The current NASCAR has no leader , just lots of spokesmen . And the chase continues unchanged , unloved , and unabated .
If Johnson would have had a problem early , there would have been enough Hendrick cars developing a “ vibration “ and going to the garage to insure a Johnson championship . Even Sterling Marlin was driving a Hendrick supplied car . Think he wasn’t instructed on what to do if Johnson had a problem .

11/17/2008 08:33 AM

Evernham even said during the race that he would have parked the 5 car to help ensure the 48 would not finish outside the 36th position

11/17/2008 08:57 AM

It doesn’t matter what scenario you come up with. The #48 team would have changed their strategy throughout the year and still would have ended up champions. The best is always the best.

11/17/2008 09:25 AM

Once again I am glad I didn’t waste time watching the race. I did watch some of the nascrap today on Speed and when baby brian came on I remembered why I quit watching. Now I can take solace in the fact that a convicted felon who bought his freedom,can attain the stature he has. Even if JJ had a personality I can’t and won’t root for a team of crooks!! The fact that other teams were so willing to “do what is necessary” to insure JJ’s championship show me that nascrap is the new WWE!

The Old Guy
11/17/2008 10:12 AM

Jimmie Johnson would have won the title this year outright. He led the classic points battle as well.

However, Jimmie’s 2007 title has about as much legitimacy as Kurt Busch’s 2004 title.

I do not like, and definitely am not a fan of, Jeff Gordon. But, he has now been screwed out of two Championships, 2004 and 2007.

The chase is a farce, plain and simple.

While Jimmie, and his fans, may boast of tying Cales record, it really didn’t happen.

Johnson holds two legitimate titles, not three.

11/17/2008 12:03 PM

One can not say at all how many Championships the #24 got “screwed” out of if not for the Chase.

Because the Chase drivers and teams have been following a different strategy for that points system as opposed to the old system.

So to use those points to figure out where they would be in the old system is wrong.

Because we do not know what the #24 would have for points for 2004 and 2007 because they would have been playing a different game planning a different attack.

I hate the Chase, but this foolishness about who would be where under the old system while using the new points is wrong.

11/17/2008 12:03 PM

The Old Guy, Johnson only holds one legitimate title, coming back in 2006 by a tiny margin of 4 points against Kenseth. Did you not read the article, he wouldn’t have won this year either because Carl beat him by 16 points.
Thomas I fully agree that the championship battle should have been better than what it was. I respect what the #48 team has done but they dont deserve to be compared to Cale.

11/17/2008 12:18 PM

No Edwards would have won in the old points sytems by 16 points!

Kevin in SoCal
11/17/2008 12:43 PM

And what would you have written about last year when Jeff Gordon clinched the title in TEXAS with THREE races to go? Phoenix and Homestead would have been a joke, a waste, just like Homestead was in 2003 when Kenseth slaughtered the competition.

11/17/2008 01:10 PM

I find it ridiculous to keep comparing the points ‘under the old system’. These teams are NOT racing under the old system. If they were, Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team would have been racing different from Race #1. They should all be racing to the system put into place. Had the old system been in place, it is likely that they #48 could have sealed the championship with two races to go. Why keep comparing the two? It doesn’t make sense.

Considering the system to which they raced, how could you say Jimmie didn’t deserve the Championship anyway. Jimmie didn’t go out and wreck his own teammate at Talladega, relegating himself to a very low finish. The mechanical failure at Lowe’s is also part of the equation. Jimmie’s worse finish during the final ten races was 15th. How can he not be called the Champion.

The old system is in the past. The good teams are going to adjust their strategies to the system put into place. To knock them for doing so is not right.

11/17/2008 01:23 PM

If a race isn’t worth watching, irregardless of the “points”, then you don’t have much of a sport. The problem with today’s fan is that they expect every event to be a “video game” of excitement. If you don’t like live racing…buy a video game where you can crash and burn without consequence.

11/17/2008 02:48 PM

“nascrap is the new WWE!”

Hey now let’s not be disrespecting pro-wrestling!!! Nascrap doesn’t have anyone as badass as Jeff Hardy or hot as Mickey James!

This year’s cup racing has been boring at best. Too bad they took Hooters ProCup off of Speed Channel. ProCup reminded me of Winston Cup back when it was fun.

11/17/2008 05:16 PM

I suppose in 20 years the whiners will still be complaining about the Chase just as they’re still complaining about restrictor plates. It is what is so get over it and learn to enjoy the sport as it is today or give it up if it makes you so unhappy. Saturday night races at your local track are still very enjoyable IF the economy will allow even the little guys to still race.

11/17/2008 11:00 PM

Bill what would you compare them to “I find it ridiculous to keep comparing the points ‘under the old system’. These teams are NOT racing under the old system.”

The thing that should be as plain as the face in the mirror is, when you put two robots to gather like Johnson and Knaus that test for most of the season and race the last ten, you can see what happens three, four, five championships, its not that hard as long as NA$CAR, stays with a none racing format, the only bug is what happened the Dale Jr. and Gordon, Dam I forgot they are racers!

bobby dee
11/19/2008 12:29 AM

In the Chase, start the 12 drivers at the back of the pack for all 10 races. NOW we have some excitement.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
Did You Notice? ... Keep On Asking, And You Will Receive A Qualifying Sigh Of Relief

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