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 short-pitting 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?
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, Johnson would be facing a cruel reality. For as we transition back to what really happened Sunday, Edwards’s 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 10 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-five 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” points 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 three, four, five 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.
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