In the next couple of months, we’re going to hear a lot about who’s going to make, and who’s not going to make, the all-hallowed Chase. Each week, drivers will be added, then deleted to and from the equation while, for those on the bubble, the speculation will (in true shout-until-your-lungs-burst WE ARE FOX SPORTS style) be cranked up to the absolute max! Announcers, broadcasters and journalists working ESPN and all the ancillary NASCAR programming on SPEED, etc. will whip the viewing public into a frenzy, with continual discussions of who’ll make the field of 12. In short, then, between now and the Richmond cutoff race pretty much most of what we’ll focus on, in terms of this sport, will be about the four or five drivers on both the immediate positive and negative side of the critical dividing line. You can almost script the post-race interviews at the 3/4-mile Virginia circuit now, as the euphoric driver who’s scraped in by the skin of his teeth thanks everyone he’s ever known and proclaims love for his pit crew and head wrench, while the driver (or drivers) that miss out by a handful of points stare ruefully at the interviewer and explain how it’s just one of “them racing deals.”
When it’s all said and done, though, my question, really, is this: Does making the Chase even matter if you’re going to be out of contention before we even make race number four? Is being the worst of the best even relevant anymore? I’d argue it’s almost better to miss out altogether then be there and hopelessly out of contention. Let’s use Tony Stewart as an example here. Having won his second Cup title in 2005, Smoke missed out on the 2006 Chase and promptly won three of the final ten races (Kansas on a fuel-mileage gamble, Atlanta and Texas.) His attitude was simple – “wreckers or checkers” – and it worked to a tee. Looking at the standings today, and specifically those in the Chase, you could make a fair argument that only really 5-6 drivers stand a realistic chance of winning the Championship (based on form to date.)
For the likes of the three Roush Fenway wheelmen (Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth), Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and even Stewart, you’d have to say that, barring a stunning run of form, these drivers will just be there to make up the numbers. And if they are, is there any point to them being a part of the playoffs? Arguably not. If you want to take a topical example, each country represented in the World Cup took 23 players – per the FIFA rules — many of whom didn’t see so much as a single minute. Yes, they were proud to be there, and to represent their country, but ultimately they didn’t influence the outcome.
On the one hand, the obvious answer to my question is yes, of course – every driver aspires to make the Chase (and then run for a Championship). Making the field of 12 is, de facto, a successful season and it can help with the myriad of issues surrounding sponsors and contracts, no doubt. In the case of a driver like, say, David Reutimann (or Juan Pablo Montoya last year – more on his performance later) just making the Chase is a sure sign of progress, of positive momentum. If the Reut backs up his almost universally popular win at Chicagoland last Saturday night, strings together a slew of top-fives, and ekes his way into the Chase, it will be a huge success for all involved not just for the driver, but for the entire Michael Waltrip operation.
In those kind of cases, then making up the numbers is, in the short-term, acceptable. But, if you’re 200-plus points back by the time the second race of the Chase, at Dover’s Monster Mile, is over, then your championship chances (unless your last name is Johnson and your crew chief an evil genius), are toast and you may as well not have been there in the first place. A good example here is Kyle Busch, who won eight “regular-season” races in 2008, then flamed out of the Chase before it had really even begun with a couple of subpar performances.
Now, the advantage of a system like the Chase is that you can be miles off the pace (in terms of overall points) at the cutoff and still mount a very respectable challenge. A case in point, here, is the aforementioned Colombian Montoya. Having taken a cautious, steady-as-she-goes type approach to making the “elite” field, Montoya served notice to his competitors in the first five races that he was very definitely for real when the serious business was on the line. Ironically, given the vast improvement we’ve seen at EGR, the Colombian could yet be even more of a factor in 2010. Trouble is he’s a long way back (21st place, 242 points out of 12th) so barring an incredible run of form in the upcoming weeks, he’s going to miss out.
So, while “making the Chase” is the goal of every driver who straps into a Cup car seat, the reality is that even once the field has been divided between the Chase participants and the rest, the fact remains that only about half the Chase field are realistic contenders. Now, no driver is going to be silly enough to say he doesn’t care but being close is one thing, being a championship combatant another one altogether. And for the likes of the Roush drivers, it just reinforces the gap between their levels of performance and those of the Hendrick and Joe Gibbs drivers. The trouble is the Chase has created a whole subculture within the sport: Bonus points, who’s in, who’s on the outside looking in, who should and shouldn’t make the Chase and so on, ad nauseum. For those who make the field, then fade almost instantly into obscurity, being so near and yet so far must be beyond frustrating.
To conclude, then, my argument would be that it depends on who you are. If you’re an upcoming driver, then heck yeah, it makes a difference. If you’re someone like Edwards, the Biff or Kenseth, then frankly my answer would be no. Kenseth’s legacy, for example, will not be defined by a ninth- or 10th-place finish this year. Ultimately, all the drivers want to finish as high as possible in the overall standings, but I’d be interested to know (and candidly, I can’t imagine ever getting a true answer on this) how much the drivers care when they know they’re not realistic contenders even if they make the Chase field. With all the banalities spewed in NASCAR interviews, wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what drivers really thought on this particular point? I won’t be holding my breath for this to happen, though….
Two final points to finish up this week:
Wasn’t it great to see the unconfined joy and relief on the Reut’s face in victory lane on Saturday evening at Chicagoland Speedway? Now no one can talk about rain-shortened triumphs; this victory was one the amiable MWR wheelman won fair and square, as they say, and no one can suggest otherwise. Too often in top-level sport, the bad guys pick up the big prizes. Reut’s success is a victory for the little guy; for the common people, and I for one am absolutely delighted for him.
And finally, congratulations to Spain, who won their first ever World Cup this past Sunday afternoon with a 1-0 defeat of the Netherlands. While it was tough on the team in orange (this is the third time Holland has lost in a World Cup final – 1974, 1978 and 2010) it’s fair to say the best team won, and that’s really all you can ask for after such a compelling competition. Plus, it was good to see one of the typically unheralded players, Andres Iniesta, score the crucial goal. Hope still springs eternal that one day I might see my beloved England pick up the Jules Rimet trophy, but for now those dreams will go back in the proverbial locker as we cast our eyes to the next competition in Brazil in 2014.
Enjoy your weekend off, folks.