When Brian France introduced the Chase for the 2004 season, it was meant to create more excitement in NASCAR. Well, excluding its inaugural year, it is safe to say the playoff format has been nothing but a major bust. Besides the fact that Jimmie Johnson has run away with the last four championships, it has also changed the way each driver has competed going into the final 10 races. For the Chase drivers, it is too risky to be making aggressive moves, and conservative racing has become the norm. For guys on the outside looking in, they also have to become aware of whom they are racing against; no driver outside the Chase wants to dictate the outcome of the championship. This approach has disgruntled many fans who decide to switch over to the NFL this time of year, a long line of disgruntled departures whose numbers have continually increased.
But is this the year the mass exodus comes to an end? If this past Sunday’s race is any sign, we should be in for the Chase that France envisioned all those years ago.
Despite the fact that the Chase does seem more wide open in 2010 – that could just be ESPN brainwashing us – many fans were simply apathetic heading into Loudon. However, as soon as the green flag waved at New Hampshire, something interesting happened; both Chase and non-Chase drivers were racing, and racing hard. Just laps in, we witnessed championship favorites Denny Hamlin and Johnson run three-wide for several laps. We even watched Hamlin nudge Johnson out of the way, which for a second looked as if the four-time champ might end up in the wall. Like most races, things cooled off for the middle portion of the event until a caution came out for Mark Martin’s blown tire on lap 208. It was at this point that the Chasers again got aggressive.
Over the next 50 laps, Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Johnson and Matt Kenseth all were involved in accidents. Three others: Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart gambled on fuel, choosing to run the final 92 laps on one tank of gas. Add all this up and we got a very exciting show, along with a first round that left us all ready for race number two at Dover.
The two burned most by this chaotic mess were Stewart, who ended up running out of gas, and Johnson. Stewart went from first to 24th in a matter of one lap, losing 94 valuable points in the process. No driver has been hotter over the past three months than Stewart, so it will certainly be interesting to see if he can make his way back up into contention. As for Johnson, any time he has a bad finish in the Chase, it always makes the next week intriguing. In three of Johnson’s four championships, he has finished inside the top 10 with the first Chase race. The only time he didn’t was back in 2006, when a crash relegated him to a 39th-place finish. Johnson was able to come back to win that year with the help of five consecutive top-two performances – something that seems unlikely to happen in today’s NASCAR, with more elements such as double-file restarts and multiple green-white-checkered finishes in play.
Even the guys who aren’t gunning for the championship ran their own race. Polesitter Brad Keselowski didn’t change his driving style at all, even taking out Chaser Kenseth on lap 235. Perhaps most impressive was Jamie McMurray, who continued his Cinderella season with a third-place finish. McMurray, who ran with the Chasers almost the entire event, had some exciting battles with Bowyer and Stewart for the lead. He didn’t wreck either guy, but he raced them hard and was certainly not making it easy for both just because they were championship contenders.
As a matter of fact, McMurray admitted that he and other non-Chasers can actually turn up the heat this time of year. “Yeah, honestly you probably can be more aggressive around the Chase guys,” he claimed Sunday, “Because they are thinking differently than what the guys are that are not in the Chase.”
McMurray also went on to say that who he is racing against doesn’t really come to mind until the final few races. “There’s a ton of racing left,” he continued. “There’s only [nine] left, but a lot can happen, even in two or three races. So really, until it gets down until the last couple of races, I don’t pay a tremendous amount of attention to that.”
And I would be completely remiss not to mention the fine run for fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. The success of NASCAR arguably depends on how Junior runs. With his first non-restrictor plate top five in over a year, Earnhardt gave Junior Nation reason for optimism heading forward. While not in the Chase, if Earnhardt can manage some more top-five finishes like he did at Loudon, it will encourage many back to their television sets on Sunday afternoons.
So Chase race No. 1 proved that drivers are willing to take risks under this playoff format after all. We saw fuel strategy, last-lap drama, a long green-flag run, and the championship favorite all have a setback. It satisfied the needs of all NASCAR fans as it had a little bit of everything for everyone. For the next nine races, we will find out if Hamlin can continue to get the consistent finishes that have plagued him most of this season. For the regular-season champion Kevin Harvick, we will see whether top-10 finishes will be enough for his first Sprint Cup title. Edwards and Jeff Gordon, neither of whom have a win, are looking to become winless champions which would really create some controversy. Of course, we can’t forget about Johnson. Will he and the No. 48 team be able to get out of this small hole they have dug already? If he makes it five in a row this year, he is going to have to do it in come-from-behind fashion.
Don’t expect every race in the final months to have what we saw at Loudon, but considering what we did see in the first Chase race, know that we are going to see 12 drivers do everything they possibly can do to win the championship. One race in already tells me this may be the best Chase we have seen since 2004.