The Frontstretch: Where's The Beef? Chase For The Championship A Far Cry From Past Battles by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday September 4, 2007

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Where's The Beef? Chase For The Championship A Far Cry From Past Battles

The Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Tuesday September 4, 2007

 

With only one race remaining before the start of the 2007 Chase for the Nextel Cup, the race for 12th place has all been but decided, with Kevin Harvick needing to only finish 32nd or better to solidify his place in the Championship dash. While the Daytona 500 winner will start the race a whopping 670 points out of 1st place, he will end it no more than 50 points out of the top spot, courtesy of NASCAR's new seeding system, awarding 10 bonus points for a win to each driver in the top 12. Which raises a legitimate question:

What exactly does a 700-point deficit convey anything remotely related to the term "Champion"? Is this what it has come to? "The race for 12th"?

A few weeks ago I penned an article promoting the Chase, espousing the positives of it, saving us from a title decided long ago back in April and May of this year. If not for the transgressions of the No. 24 team at Sonoma this past June, the gap would be 417 points back to Tony Stewart who is currently sitting 2nd in the points.

That's kind of a lot.

It used to be that under the Latford points system, a season long championship was decided in grand fashion: A 30+ race season, every race, every lap, every pit miscue, blown tire, dropped valve, and untimely yellow flag (as opposed to caution flags thrown for empty green Gatorade drink bottles, roll bar padding, and Capri Sun packets), counting in the final tally. This has been the source of much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for many long-time NASCAR fans. For those of us who were on the scene long before the term "Hollywood Hotel" or "Young Gun" was etched into our frontal lobes, there were these classic battles:

1979: The season long battle came down to The King, Richard Petty, and a loud, brash, mound of hair named Darrell Waltrip. With ten races to go in the season, Petty trailed Waltrip by 155 points. D.K. Ulrich was 12th in points, just under 1,000 points out of first place. Entering the final race of the year at Ontario Motor Speedway (a dead ringer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway), Waltrip lead Petty by a scant two points; bottom line, whoever finished ahead of the other or lead the most laps, was going to win the title. They had finished nose to tail the week before at Atlanta, with Waltrip gaining 5 bonus points by leading ten laps to Petty's none. Petty's fifth place finish to Waltrip's eighth place run (the result of intentionally spinning his car to avoid the looping John Rezek) gave Richard Petty his seventh and final title by all of eleven points, a margin that would not be eclipsed for thirteen years.

1985: Awesome Bill from Dawsonville was tearing up every track over a mile in length, in his swoopy No. 9 Coors' Melling Thunderbird in 1985. With ten races to go, Elliott enjoyed a 143 point advantage over Darrell Waltrip and his Junior Johnson prepared notchback Monte Carlo SS. Dale Earnhardt was 12th in points, 808 points in arrears. After winning the Winston Million at Darlington's Southern 500, Elliott's lead would balloon to 206 points. The only problem was that out of the eight tracks remaining, four were tracks of one mile or less, and a road course. Elliott's car floundered on the flat tracks. Waltrip and Elliott battled back and forth between 35 and 20 points over the final five races, with Darrell holding a 20 point margin going into the final race at Riverside. The last car on the track running, Elliott's 31st place finish ensured that Darrell Waltrip would win his third Winston Cup title.

1989: This was one of the closest battles in Winston Cup history, and one of the most over-looked. It was the debut season for the new Chevrolet Lumina, a downsized car similar to the new Pontiac Grand Prix, which had arrived the year before. These two models would duke it out to the bitter end with Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace fighting for the Cup. A wildcard of sorts was thrown in late in the season, when four-time ASA champion Mark Martin, driving for second-year owner Jack Roush, entered the mix, even though he had yet to even win a race in his career. Wallace was intent on making ground up with ten races to go, winning at Michigan while Earnhardt suffered fender damage in a Turn 1 bumping incident with Richard Petty. After the race, Earnhardt held an 80-point lead over Wallace, and a 95-point advantage over Martin's Stroh's Light Ford. Sterling Marlin was 12th in points, 440 points back. Things would get more interesting at Rockingham with three races remaining, with Wallace and Earnhardt tangling at one point, spinning each other out, clearing the way for Martin to win his first Winston Cup race, and draw within shouting distance of the title. Entering the final race of the season, Martin trailed Wallace by 73 points, six points ahead of Earnhardt. However, Martin's car would erupt into a spectacular ball of fire as connecting rods and other important parts vacated the engine block and oil pan. The Intimidator went on to record his fifth win of the year, leading 249 of 328 laps. Wallace finished a lap down in 15th, winning the title by all of 12 points over Earnhardt. Earnhardt would retire to a tree stand in North Carolina for the winter, to sit, think, ponder, and simmer over losing his fourst title by the slimmest of margins.

1992: This season was one of the greatest finishes to a season in any sporting arena. Entering the final ten races, Bill Elliott led the late Davey Allison by all of 37 points. Sterling Marlin in the Maxwell House Ford of Junior Johnson was again 12th in points, this time only 429 points out. With seven events remaining, Alan Kulwicki sat 278 points out of first place, leading him to concede that his title hopes had run aground at Dover, Delaware. Kulwicki, Elliott and Allison weren't the only ones involved in this fight. Kyle Petty, Mark Martin, and Harry Gant were all in contention, with Petty and Martin scoring victories in the final four races, and Gant winning Michigan before the final ten events. No less than SIX driver had a shot at the title heading into the final race of 1992, driving Chevrolets, Fords, Pontiacs, and even a friggin' Oldsmobile. Heading into the race that would see the end of Richard Petty's storied career, and the first start by some kid from Indiana with a mullet and a terrible moustache, driving a rainbow emblazoned No. 24 Chevrolet, it would go down to the final few laps to see who would win the title. It would be decided not by bonus points from a convoluted seeding system, but by who lead the most laps. Alan Kulwicki was able to stay out one lap longer during the final green flag fuel run, leading 103 laps to Bill Elliott's 102. Kulwicki's second place effort to Elliott's victory, allowed him to maintain the 10-point advantage he had over Elliott going into the final race. It would be Kulwicki's only title; his life was cut short just five months later in an airplane crash on April 1st, 1993.

1997: Heading into the season ending event at the newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon was primed to cruise home to his second championship in three years. His second consecutive ten-win season granted him a 77-point lead over Dale Jarrett, even after Jarrett won at Phoenix, the penultimate stop on the 32-race circuit that season. He led third-place Mark Martin by 87 points, and 12th place Johnny Benson, Jr. by 1157 points. But a funny thing happened out of the pits on a foggy Saturday morning during practice: Gordon ran into Bobby Hamilton and the No. 43 STP Pontiac, crumpling the fender and nose of the No. 24 team's primary racecar. This put a serious crimp in any tangible practice time. During the race, the two other contenders took advantage of the 24 car, as it limped around the track, two laps down, and not able to muster much of anything. At different points during the race Jarrett and Martin were in the championship lead. With a handful of laps to go, Martin had the race and title seemingly in hand. However, his luck went south as his motor laid over on seven cylinders, burning a piston and clearing the way for Bobby Labonte to win the event. Gordon picked up a couple of positions in the closing laps, winning the title by 14 points over Dale Jarrett, and 29 over Martin.

So where am I going with all of this? Note the 12th place contender in each scenario. Was there anything about the 1979 season that conjures up images of DK Ulrich and his No. 40 Midwestern Farm Lanes Chevrolet? The only thing I can really remember about Sterling Marlin in his Sunoco Oldsmobile was the story of Billy Hagan chasing him around it, trying to hit him with his cane. I'm a big Johnny Benson fan. He graduated from my high school, and his parents live about a mile and a half from me. But I think even JB will tell you that in 1997, the thought of him mixing it up with Jeff, Dale, and Mark at the final race for the title would have seemed ludicrous.

The Chase was instituted to give us "exciting" championships and finishes, and it has in fact done that. Who can forget Kurt Busch narrowly missing the end of the pit road wall at Homestead after his right front tire decided to go in an opposite plane? What about Jimmie Johnson desperately trying to stay on the lead lap in 2005 before he backed it into the wall, wiping away his chances…..one year before putting together an unbelievable string of first or second-place finishes in five of the final six events and winning it all.

But then again….who really remembers those moments? Granted, it's hard to wax nostalgic over a concept as far removed from our collective conscience as "Three Years Ago", but will these new contrived Chase for the Championships carry the weight of the epic battles waged between Waltrip and Petty, Elliott and Waltrip, or Earnhardt, Wallace, and Martin? This might be the sucker for "the good old days" in me talking, but I sincerely doubt it. Naturally there were some snoozer years mixed in there. 2000 and 2003 namely; the two years that are usually credited with the creation of the current format. But there were other good years as well that went down to the final race, such as 1993, 1996, and 2002.

And I didn't even touch on the battles that went down to the last race in 1990 between Earnhardt and Martin, or from 1981-1983 between Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison, which to this day has not yet subsided in Allison's mind.

But why should teams suffer because of their excellence? Should Jeff Gordon lose a title he, for all intents and purposes has wrapped up, because of someone's desire to make racing more like basketball? The first year of the Chase, Gordon would have won his fifth title, and won it the right way: racing hard, racing consistently, and winning, all year long.

Moreover, should the fans be cheated out of classic battles as we had in the past as well? Take 2006 for example. Although Jimmie Johnson did put together an epic run of races to win the title by 56 points, under the old format, he would have only won by 4 points over Matt Kenseth; the closest finish in the history of the sport. No resetting of points needed or manufactured "drama" to play out by arbitrarily rearranging the standings after a little more than 2/3 of the season had been completed.

If you can win a couple of races and run easy for the better part of the spring and summer, how is that supposed to engender legitimacy and admiration when courting the uninitiated or those of us who know what a bias-ply tire was? ESPN and ABC's new tag line for their NASCAR coverage is "Every Lap Matters", to help promote the Chase for the Championship. I guess it does to a certain extent.

But not nearly as much as it used to.

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SallyB
09/05/2007 04:27 AM
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There is no way anyone more than 400 points out of first has earned a chance at a championship, period. That’s why I will never consider a ‘chase’ winner a true champion. Since I already know who the top 12 will be (just quibbling over final order), and that no one out of than 12 will be able to finish higher than 13th, I find little drama in this ‘made for TV’ joke.

dirtrakr
09/05/2007 05:24 AM
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The Chase SUCKS !! It’s just plain WRONG!!!!!

M. B. Voelker
09/05/2007 06:03 AM
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For every one of those battles — of interest only to the fans of the 2-3 drivers involved — you could find a blowout where the Championship was a foregone conclusion in September.

There is no such thing as a Champion who doesn’t deserve it. Whoever wins under the rules in place at the time deserves it because he used those rules to his advantage.

Does someone who starts the season strong then starts coasting late REALLY deserve a Championship more than someone who may have struggled at the beginning of the year but then came on strong at the end? Hint — saying “yes” would be like saying that Jimmie didn’t deserve the win at Fontana because, after all, Kyle Busch had dominated the race and only faded at the end after a couple late cautions tightened the field and allowed for last minute adjustments.

If a race can legitimately be won in the final laps by a driver who had been nowhere all night and but came on strong late then the season can be legitimately won by a driver who struggled early than came on strong at the end when it mattered.

While I believe that the Chase seeding should be done by a combination of regular season points standings AND win bonus, I can see no reason to be in favor of a system that creates more boring blowouts or, at best 2 contenders and a long shot, over one that provides for a multi-driver points battle at the end of the longest season in professional sports.

Brian France Sucks
09/05/2007 07:29 AM
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The handle says it all. Need I say more….?

Johnny
09/05/2007 07:37 AM
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The chase sucks? In the old format, Gordon would pretty much be locked in as the champion right now, what would that do for the rest of the season?

ed
09/05/2007 07:57 AM
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If people hate the chase and it has ruined racing. STOP WATCHING! This will make a differnece if there is enough of you out there. It’s funny. 5 differnet years out of 50 odd. The rest of the seasons were over with 10 races to go. Now why would anyone turn off the tv then?

ed
09/05/2007 08:26 AM
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Only the top 5 have a legit chance to win really. So far with the chase, that is how it has worked out.

Bill B
09/05/2007 08:35 AM
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Well, on the one hand as long as everyone is playing by the same rules the crowned champion is legitimate. But personally I hate the Chase concept and everything it stands for – entertainment over the sport. While I can understand the reasoning for the existence of the chase I have never thought the point differential was fair or that it gave enough weight to the results of the first 26 races. I think the differential from 1st to 12th should start out as a one race deficit (let’s say 150 points) with the increments proportionate for each forward position such as 12th -150, 11th – 135, 10th -120, 9th -105…. 3rd -30, 2nd – 15. Basically whomever is in those bottom spots should be an extreme long shot to win the chase (just like a wild card team in the nfl is a long shot because they have to play an extra game). If they want to give 10 additional points for each win I would be fine with that but they have made the meaning and significance of being the best during the first 26 races meaningless and that is not right.

Bill
09/05/2007 09:04 AM
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Comparing the points as they sit with other seasons just doesn’t make sense. Each year has had its points system in place and comparing this season with a season without the Chase is not realistic. The teams are going to race to the system. To say that Jimmie Johnson would have won by only 4 points over Kenseth is not accurate. Each of them would have been racing differenly through the entire 36 race schedule with a different points system.

William T.
09/05/2007 09:53 AM
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It seems to me that those in favor of the chase are being sucked into this whole “try to make racing exciting” business that Brian France is wanting you to.

Personally I watch racing for just that….RACING. Who cares if under the old points system that Gordon or Johnson or Kenseth or any driver for that matter is blowing everyone away? I watch every race to see the racing. If my driver wasn’t in contention for the Championship, so be it. If Gordon was up 600 points and had the season locked up with 10 races left, so be it. He probably deserved it. I would still watch the remaining races to see the RACING.

You chase lovers are blindly falling for what Brian France wants you to. It’s kind of sad that you can’t see it.

Bill B
09/05/2007 10:14 AM
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Excellent point William T..
The championship used to serve the races, now the races serve the championship.

Brian France Sucks
09/05/2007 10:53 AM
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Hey Ed,
They couldn’t turn the tv off because in several of those years the races weren’t televised. William T is right. Don’t be lured to the Dark side of the Force w/ all the other France numbskulls.

Bob
09/05/2007 11:29 AM
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Couldn’t say it better myself William T.

It used to be you watched for THE RACE – to see who won, to see how your guy did. I don’t care if my guy didn’t have a chance in hell of winning the championship, I’d still watch him race for the win.

Instead we have a “championship” determined on who gets lucky in the last ten races – not who performed the best throughout the season. It’s a joke.

FS_Amy
09/05/2007 06:16 PM
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The Chase makes the old adage “Better to be lucky than good” have more meaning than ever. Just ask Kurt Busch.

Comparing the Chase to a race where one guy fades and one comes on late is inaccurate-unless that latecomer was about ten laps down and had every one of them handed back to him for no real legitimate reason.

Rick
09/05/2007 06:56 PM
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I go along with william T in that I go to or watch races for racing, I never gave a hoot for the championship even if it was my favorite driver.I started going as a kid to races in the mid-50’s Once a race was over its over, finished, on to the next one. I did get excited once with a championship race, that was in 92 with my man Alan Kulwicki.I don’t like the chase, the hype,or a lot of whats going on. Racing has lost its soul and its humanity compared to earlier years. And for those that say “stop watching if you don’t like it “ – I have been doing that more and more with other of my hardcore friends.

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