26 down, 10 to go. NASCAR’s Chase starts this weekend at Loudon and it’s looking to be a different animal than it has been for the last three years, in which the champion (that’s Jimmie Johnson, Jimmie Johnson and Jimmie Johnson if you’re keeping score) has taken the title by keeping his opponents at bay the easiest way possible: winning, and winning a lot.
This year just doesn’t have that feel. Four-time defending champion Johnson doesn’t have that look. On the other hand, neither does anyone else. Denny Hamlin scraped up a little momentum and the Chase lead at Richmond, but his summer, along with Johnson’s has been markedly uninspired. Other multiple race winners include Kurt and Kyle Busch. Kurt’s a former champion, but his moments of brilliance this year have been part of an inconsistent overall trend, and Kyle hasn’t shown that he has the maturity to race as hard and clean as it takes to win a title. Kevin Harvick has been consistent and a winner. The biggest obstacle for Harvick might be his windless sails after having his sizable point lead stripped by the system.
But the win-em-all philosophy hasn’t always been the strategy of choice for the Chase. Kurt Busch won his title in 2004 with just one Chase win, at Loudon. Tony Stewart’s 2005 Chase title came without a single trip to victory lane, though he did finish second three times. Even Johnson, before making the Chase his own personal playground, won his first title in 2006 with just a single win at Martinsville.
So who is the favorite heading to Loudon? It’s hard to say. If the Chase does turn the tide back to the early years when consistency ruled, I think Harvick is the favorite. Even with three wins, his points lead was built on consistency. Harvick was always there at the end, even if he wasn’t a particular threat for the win. It’s looking like that kind of title race, and that could mean a cakewalk for Harvick.
The other driver who has been at the top all year until the points reset is Jeff Gordon, who sat second in points for much of the season despite having nary a win. Gordon hasn’t looked like a contender for race wins, but he’s a points pest, grabbing enough strong finishes to rack up markers. Gordon wants that fifth title badly. If the No. 24 team finds its stride, look out.
Matt Kenseth’s consistency is the item that many point fingers at as the cause of the Chase in the first place. Kenseth hasn’t been consistently at the top this year though, and is a long shot to carry home the big trophy, even if the Chase is his fault. Kenseth’s teammate, Carl Edwards, has had a decent hot streak going lately, but he also opened the season on a sour note that lasted for weeks. Edwards hasn’t had “it” for the entire season, including at some Chase tracks-and that could hurt.
Finally, Clint Bowyer hasn’t made a lot of noise this year, but Bowyer has a way of hovering under the radar until you’re lulled into complacency-and then popping up and shouting “Boo!” Bowyer and teammate Jeff Burton are a threat if we’re to have a winless champion, but probably not otherwise.
If the Chase doesn’t change directions and to the victor go the spoils, it’s Hamlin’s game. Hamlin has six wins so far in 2010 and more momentum than anyone else. After a dominating performance late in the going at Richmond, Hamlin looks like he could easily reel off a few more.
That’s a look that Johnson doesn’t have after a terrible summer that included just one top-10 finish between his win at Loudon and Labor Day weekend at Atlanta. During that time, Johnson and his team have seemingly settled for a string of poor finishes. Even back-to-back thirds at Atlanta and Richmond looked like Johnson and his team had to work way too hard for them. Still, if crew chief Chad Knaus has been holding things back for the Chase, Johnson could romp as he has the past four years. I just don’t see it.
Kyle Busch looks like he’s on the verge as well. He’s more than capable of reeling off a few wins, but he’s also capable of a meltdown if things don’t go his way. It could be his year, but I’m not betting the farm on it. I’m also not betting the back 40 on Kurt Busch, who can get the wins, but will also get a few mid-to back of the pack finishes-just enough to keep him out.
This year’s Chase is anyone’s game because it looks like it will be a different type of Chase than the past three years. Is this the beginning of a new Chase era, one in which there are so many drivers capable of winning at any time that they cancel each other out and it comes down to top-five and top-10 finishes? I think it might be. As NASCAR leaves parity behind for all but the top teams, those top teams are closer than ever.
Speaking of a new era, the Chase, despised by many fans because it manufactures a close finish when in many cases there is none, and gives drivers who should be completely out of contention too much of a chance to win, has created another conundrum. How, exactly, does one compare the Chase Era to any other time in the sport? Sure, the post-1972 Modern Era was a huge departure from the early days with a new points system to go along with that, but championships were still won across entire seasons.
Does that invalidate the accomplishments of the Chase champions? Well, in a way, yes. And that’s really unfortunate. Despite winning four straight titles, Johnson’s accomplishments are not always regarded as being on the same level as Cale Yarborough’s three straight, and, at least in part, with good reason. Yarborough didn’t have the advantage of the points reset to rely on, and because of that couldn’t very often experiment with better equipment (then again, teams could test in Yarborough’s day).
Also, many fans point to the “real” points as the proof in the pudding. Under the old system, Johnson would have two championships, not four. (And Gordon would have six, just one shy of the record). To a point, that’s true. The problem is, you also can’t say for sure that Johnson, who was already gearing up for title runs before the Chase was ever implemented, finishing second in 2003 and emerging as the only driver to make a run at Kenseth that year, wouldn’t have approached a season very differently?
And there lies the rub-you simply can’t compare the two eras. You can put Chase points on every season since 1948 (which, incidentally, would have left Dale Earnhardt with six, not seven, titles; Johnson would have five). You can put “real” points on every Chase season (as mentioned before, that would have stripped Johnson of two titles). But the fact is, you can’t account in either situation for the difference in the way those teams would have approached the entire season. The comparison of Chase Era to years past is simply impossible to accurately make.
It does cheapen Johnson’s accomplishments somewhat, which is a shame. Titles aside, Chase aside, only Gordon has more wins among active full-time drivers than Johnson, who is probably the finest driver in this decade. Wins are wins, and Johnson has plenty, but the Chase has ruined any historical perspective that titles won on this side of it have. And that’s too bad.
Historical perspective is in the way you look at it, though. This year’s Chase field is poised to make their attempts at the record book, and I can promise that not one of them (save, perhaps Gordon and Johnson) will worry about historical perspective if they hoist the Cup at Homestead.
26 down, 10 to go.
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