There has been much handwringing, carping and moaning about NASCAR’s Chase format ever since it was instituted in 2004.
Introduced the same year Nextel replaced Winston as series sponsor following 31 years of unprecedented growth, the two became entangled in a litany of criticism surrounding the inevitable fear of change. And that was understandable; with the Latford points system providing some of the most memorable championship battles in history since 1975, the new format raised the ire of many a race fan to see the old system replaced with what seemed like a gimmick designed to resemble traditional stick-and-ball sport championships.
With NASCAR now in the national spotlight, the sanctioning body was clearly attempting to go head-to-head with the NFL – the only sport it hadn’t eclipsed in popularity – in the fall with its own version of the playoffs. After snoozer points battles in 2000, 2001 and 2003, NASCAR and new series sponsor Nextel felt a change was in order.
Turns out change was good.
What resulted that year was one of the closest points finishes in NASCAR history, with five drivers holding a shot at the title heading into the final race at Homestead. When the checkered flag flew on the season, a measly eight-point margin was all that stood between Jimmie Johnson and champion Kurt Busch in a battle for the Cup that went down to the final lap.
The excitement generated from that initial championship contest has only continued to grow ever since. In 2005, the title fight came down to one powerhouse Ford organization, with all five Roush Racing entries eligible for the Chase, competing head-to-head against the dominant Chevrolet teams of Tony Stewart and Johnson. In the end, it was Stewart who came out on top, but only after the No. 48 team faltered in the closing races, crashing in the final event of the season to seal his fate.
Last year, it was Johnson’s turn to take home the trophy; rebounding from poor finishes early on in the Chase, he finished worse than second only once in the last six races to fend off all challengers. While the margin of victory in those years proved far more than eight points, the emotional result stayed the same for many fans in the stands: the Chase had provided excitement once again.
This year, the Chase looks to provide some excitement again to what otherwise would be a comatose-inducing runaway by points leader Jeff Gordon. Under the old system, his fifth championship would all but be decided at this point, as long as he could just avoid accidents and injury. Even during crew chief Steve Letarte’s four-week suspension for rules infractions at Sonoma (with two more still to go), Gordon’s come up with an eye-popping average finish of 5.2.
Currently enjoying a 371-point lead over Denny Hamlin, the No. 24 team has entered into a timezone all their own; and did I mention that total doesn’t include the 100 points Gordon was docked for the fender issue at Sonoma?
Think about that for a second. Had NASCAR not dropped the hammer on the Hendrick duo of Johnson and Gordon, Gordon would have a nearly insurmountable 500-point lead at this point, with some of his best tracks (let’s be honest; all of them are his best tracks) coming up leading into the Chase. Clearly, Gordon’s dominance would have cemented itself as the ultimate story defining the 2007 season.
But – as much as it pains me to say it – thankfully, the Chase is here to rescue us from the boredom that could have ensured. Unlike the Busch Series championship battle, with Carl Edwards closing in on a thousand-point lead, Gordon’s points margin will all but evaporate, whittled down dramatically to a handful of points once the Chase begins and the seeding process with wins is factored in.
For everyone else, that inevitability has them sitting there breathing a huge sigh of relief – and gaining confidence they can make a postseason run. Over the past few weeks, there are many teams that, while not even in the same zip code of the No. 24 in the points standings, find themselves gaining momentum as we get down to crunch time.
That leaves more than a few interesting storylines in the top 12 which would get nary a mention otherwise. Hamlin has proven to have speed on par with Gordon at nearly every event this year, bad luck keeping him from winning at least three more races than he has. Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton are their normal quiet and steady selves, and someone pulled the pin on the Stewart grenade at Indy this past weekend, which usually spells trouble for everyone else not cloaked in Home Depot orange.
Edwards is 494 points from first, but busy regaining the form that won him four races in his first full season in 2005 – resurfacing in time for his first Cup victory of ’07 at Michigan this June. Coupled with Roush Fenway Racing’s decision to finally start testing the Car of Tomorrow, the No. 99 team might end up peaking at just the right time. Kevin Harvick, who had a car capable of winning the Brickyard 400, has also stepped it up in recent weeks after getting off to a rather slow start following his Daytona 500 win in February.
Johnson is now 607 points out of first, even with four wins to his credit this year. In the old system, that would spell doom – but Johnson is still solidly in the Chase, despite two hard hits in consecutive races due to blown tires. He also gets his greatest asset back next week as Chad Knaus returns from his suspension. Johnson has not fared as well as Gordon with his team leader in exile, struggling to the tune of an average finish of 21.6.
These are the defending champions of the sport, however, and after his performance in the Chase that won it all for him in 2006, he has to still be considered among the top contenders for the crown. If the Chase started today, Johnson would be seeded in second position on the strength of four wins; that’s a great spot from which to start a title defense.
Martin Truex Jr. is 741 points behind Gordon, but suddenly a contender following his first career victory at Dover in June, with which he followed up with a third, second, and another third-place finish in three of the next four races. Behind him lies teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.; he may be leaving the No. 8 car in a few months, but it’s still his name on the door at DEI, and he wants to go out on top and do it the right way.
On the outside looking in, Kurt Busch looks to be the driver most likely to make it in. He has meshed nicely with former Roush Racing crew chief Pat Tryson, who helped get Mark Martin into the Chase in 2004 after it looked like he would not qualify to compete for the inaugural Nextel Cup. Tryson is also one of only three crew chiefs to qualify for the Chase all three years, along with Robbie Reiser and Chad Knaus. Should the former Roush employees gain some momentum in the next few weeks, they could be the sleeper in this year’s hunt.
Of course, several of these drivers mentioned, especially those towards the bottom of the top 12, would be getting nearly as much press without the advent of the Chase to propel them back into the public eye. Right now, the month of August looks to be the calm before the impending storm. The cream is slowly rising to the top, and the teams that are typically contenders in the fall are starting to build momentum at the right time, knowing they still have a chance to label this year the ultimate success.
Gordon and the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet are still the team to beat, the most consistent, and perhaps the most motivated, with new daddy Jeff Gordon looking to win his fifth championship. But by no means has he clinched anything yet.
It’s a fact Gordon knows all too well. Without the Chase format in place, he would be on cruise control to win yet another title, which would have been his chance at number six. Under the former system, he would have won his fifth championship in 2004.
And that’s what makes this format so special. Bring on the Chase… 2007.
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