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What’s the Call? Does Experience Matter in NASCAR’s Chase?

Welcome to this week’s edition of What’s the Call? Each week, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s big controversies. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

This Week’s Question: In this year’s Chase for the Championship, five of the 10 drivers going for the title are participating in this format for the first time. Does that give an advantage to the “veteran” Chasers (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin) who have at least one year of experience with it?

Chase Experience Needed? It Matters More Than You Think

As the U.S.S. Chase is embarks on its third voyage, the ship finds itself with some unfamiliar faces at the helm, with no less than five of its 10 crew members treading these treacherous waters for the first time. Having proven themselves over 26 races as championship contenders, these men think they’re more than ready to handle whatever rough seas lie ahead. Or so they think.

“I don’t think there is any strategy,” said Jeff Burton when asked about how he’s handling approaching stormy… er, calm waters. “I think you just go run the best you can and you do the very best you can every single week. I think that’s the strategy. If you try to do something different than what you know, I think that’s a mistake.”

Hmm… that’s interesting. Well, consider this – the drivers in the two previous Chases who supposedly “ran the best they could” every weekend, visiting Victory Lane more than any other driver during that 10-race stretch, came up just short in their battle for the title each time. Johnson won four times in 2004, but fell victim to Kurt Busch; Carl Edwards and Johnson each won twice in the 2005 Chase, but finished behind Tony Stewart.

How many races did Busch and Stewart win during the Chase, you might be asking? Once and none, respectively. You see where I’m going with this; Busch and Stewart didn’t necessarily win by finishing at the front of the pack, they finished by figuring out how to run as close to the front as they could without going overboard. There’s a difference; the champions gained every point they could every time out, by taking great cars and treating them with kid gloves. It was all about putting themselves in the best position possible to avoid the bad luck iceberg that kills many a Chaser out at sea. You see, the fastest one doesn’t win this postseason race – it’s the one who’s able to stay on cruise control fast enough to avoid all the obstacles sitting in their way.

Certainly, you don’t avoid the icebergs ahead by charging straight at it – yet that’s precisely what these rookie Chasers look like they’re going to do. Don’t tell Kasey Kahne to tiptoe around – he’s got more momentum going than the Titanic did at the beginning of its maiden voyage, and he’s about to turn on the afterburners. Kyle Busch? He was born aggressive. All the coaxing from Johnson and Gordon may not be enough to stop that. Denny Hamlin? He’s got the best chance to avoid this pitfall with Stewart in his corner… but you’ve got to think the rookie in him will come out at some point.

As for the Richard Childress Racing faithful, they not only have to deal with being in the Chase for the first time, but they must endure the pressure of going for the same piece of hardware as teammates. Kevin Harvick and Burton have dealt with championship pressure before, but neither has done so battling against someone who helped them become a contender in the first place. That, along with a belief that the postseason doesn’t necessarily offer a new set of challenges, will be the blindfold that causes their Chase ships to simply run aground.

“I’d rather flip over and run 10th in the Chase than give up a chance to win a race,” said Harvick.

Kudos to that. Unfortunately, just as Harvick said, that aggressiveness will likely hand these rookie Chasers their fatal mistakes… one by one. – Tom Bowles

No Experience When It Comes To The Chase? Don’t Worry About It

With half of the 2006 Chase field making their first appearance in the playoffs, people are looking at experience (or lack thereof) as a way to pick their early favorites. But what they are missing by focusing on experience is the fact that all 10 drivers had to put in strong performances to make it here. Do people think they are just going to forget the strategy that got them this far now that they are in the Chase? I don’t think so.

Among the first five-time starters, Burton has the longest tenure in the Cup series. In 13 years Burton has yet to win the big one, but he has seen the fierceness of the championship race close up. The veteran leadership he showed after a blown engine at Michigan when he pulled his team aside for a pep talk is as good as having a year in the Chase under their belt.

Burton’s RCR teammate Harvick has the second-longest tenure of these five drivers. While he hasn’t been in the championship mix in previous years, he has gone through it in the Busch Series when he won the title in 2001. Both Harvick and Burton reap the benefits of driving for Richard Childress, a six-time Cup champion car owner. His leadership will be key.

Kahne is another driver that will rely heavily on his team owner’s championship experience. Ray Evernham has won titles with Gordon and is one of the best strategists in the series. And while his first two forays into the Chase were less than successful, he can use the mistakes made in the past to guide Kahne this season. With five wins and a late-season push to make the Chase, this team can pull together when it counts.

In only his second season, Kyle Busch makes his first Chase appearance. His tendency to go overboard emotionally has hurt him in the past, but he has matured in the second half of the season. On his side are car owner Rick Hendrick and teammates Johnson and Gordon, all of which have plenty of Chase experience. He needs to learn all he can from them in the early going because they won’t be so willing to help as the races wind down.

Hamlin has the least amount of experience to draw upon, but that could also be his ace in the hole, plus a formidable teammate at his side. There is very little pressure on Hamlin to win it all; heck, most people wouldn’t have expected him to even be in this position when the season started. Now that Stewart is out of the Chase, the defending champ has the opportunity to mentor his rookie teammate. With Jimmy Makar and a three-time championship team in Joe Gibbs Racing behind him, Hamlin won’t be out there fending for himself.

The Chase does have its own set of challenges and stress attached to it. But the key for all of these teams to remember is to try to put that aside and keep going with business as usual, and they’re capable of doing that with talent and strong teams behind them. So any perceived handicap you think these guys have… put it out of your mind. It’s certainly out of theirs. – Cami Starr

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