The Chase for the Sprint Cup, whether you like it or not, is about pitting the best drivers from the given year against each other for the series championship. Based on the points system that is in place today, those drivers are gauged by their consistency throughout the “regular season.” If the driver is good enough to be in the top 12 in points when the race ends at Richmond, he makes the Chase, with or without a win – and that is how the field should be decided.
The Chase format rewards drivers who win a race by giving them bonus points once the playoff begins (whether it is enough bonus points is a different topic for a different time). That bonus is the incentive for drivers to win races during the regular season. However, the theme of the points system as it is now, and in the other forms it has taken throughout the history of the sport, has been to crown a champion based on the drivers who perform consistently the best. It has never rewarded the driver who could go out and win 10 races and stink up the show in the other 16, or however many other races took place in a given year. Instead, the system focuses on the definition of a champion: the one who is, on average, better than everyone else during an entire campaign. When dealing with a sport where a person is contesting with 42 other people for a prize, it cannot just be about wins and losses. There has to be a reward for the placement in the field each and every week.
When it comes to setting the field for the run to the championship, there needs to be a reasonable number of contenders if there’s a playoff. Whether that is eight or 10 or 12 can be debated, but there has to be a legitimate number of participants to make the exercise worthwhile. Yet if the field is limited to only those drivers winning races, in a given year that can sometimes be a very small number… and in my opinion, it’s too small to be truly considered as an option.
This year, there are 13 drivers who won races, but five of those drivers did not make the Chase. So if that is a requirement, you would either have 13 or just eight drivers in the Chase (depending on whether you requred each driver to end the season in the top 12 in points). Last year, Greg Biffle made the Chase, but didn’t win a race until the “playoffs” began. Requiring him to have a win would have excluded and ultimately prevented him from finishing third in the title standings.
In 2001, 19 drivers won races. Can you imagine the chaos that could ensue if there were 19 drivers all eligible for the championship? Granted, that would probably make for a heck of a TV ratings bonanza heading into Homestead if 10 of them were still mathematically alive for the title, but the idea of the Chase is to allow the best of the best to run for the trophy – not a large chunk of the field. So until the points system is changed to a system where winning is the top priority, like it is in Formula 1, you need to allow the drivers who have consistently performed the best throughout the races leading up to the Chase to participate – whether they have taken home a trophy before it starts or not.