When it comes to the Chase, I like to think my opinion on the subject is unique. I like the idea where twelve drivers all have a shot at the championship with ten races to go. While many see it as a “points reset” after Richmond, allowing the eleven contenders a free pass to get even with the point leader, I like to think of it as the start of another season, which in a way it is. It is NASCAR’s version of the postseason, and for the first few weeks of the playoffs, it is one of the most exciting times of the year.
But this is the month where that excitement, for many fans transitions into overwhelming frustration. By winning at Kansas in dominating fashion, Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the No. 48 team reminded everyone that this year is no different when it comes to the Chase. They are simply far superior than any other team in the final ten races. Since the first Chase back in 2004, Johnson has won 20 postseason event – more than double the amount of the second most – and has won the title five straight times. Even though Johnson isn’t leading the standings right now, the No. 48 has been the car to beat in three of the first four Chase races and it looks like it is just a matter of time before he is back at the top. For fans of Five-Time, it’s their moment to appreciate what their driver has accomplished year-in, year-out; but for everyone else? It’s frustration. Why watch a movie if you already know the ending, especially if you have seen that movie five times already? It’s a waste of time.
One trap that is easy to fall into, even though it happens every year, is Johnson’s midseason “slump.” Every summer we, the media are talking about what is wrong with the No. 48 team only to see them erupt in the final three months. It’s like they tease us in the weeks leading up to early September, leading us to believe that someone else can win. The ironic thing in 2011 was there really was no slump; in fact, his consistency was better than ever. It was just Johnson’s win column that was down, with his only regular season victory coming at Talladega, a career low through the first 26 races.
The other stats, however, are right on pace. Johnson currently has 13 top-5 finishes; he had 17 in 2010. His top-10 total, of 20 is right on pace for the 22-24 he’s averaged during his five championship runs. And a laps led total of 1,049 is actually _more_ than he led during his first title run in ’06. How could we not realize things were right on pace?
Point being, Johnson somehow manages to always enter the Chase under the radar, then be forgiven from any struggles that occur early on in the playoffs. Meanwhile, it is the other drivers, his competitors, who ride into the Chase opener with the momentum. But usually one month in, the pretenders are already separated from the contenders. In the last four years, there have been no more than four drivers within 100 markers of the point lead, with Johnson being the points leader each time except 2007, when he was second (Note: that doesn’t include this year as the offseason points restructure makes the standings look much closer than what we have been used to). As previously stated, Johnson isn’t leading the points as of now, but is just four points back and it’s obvious he’s got more speed than anyone right now – he has led 394 laps in this year’s Chase, by far more than any other driver. Kurt Busch, who has led the second most laps, has led the field for 164 circuits this postseason.
And yet, despite all of his accomplishments, Johnson has never won a Chase opener. That may be the reason why people doubt whether he can win another title just a couple of races in; this team has a habit of peaking late, when you really need it instead of wasting all their bullets early.
Speculation about his demise reached arguably an all-time high two weeks ago, when finishes of 10th and 18th had some, including competitor Brad Keselowski, declaring Johnson to already be out of the hunt. Maybe he was just trying to play mind games, but anyone who believed that for one second is either new to the sport or has a short-term memory. Go back to Johnson’s first title in 2006, when he was eighth in the standings, 156 points out of the lead after – ironically – the fourth race. He followed that up with five consecutive top-2 results that started his current dynasty. Yet, he still had skeptics after New Hampshire this season because of a so-so 18th-place effort. Of course, Johnson proved all the doubters wrong this past Sunday, winning at Kansas in of the most dominating performances all year.
Don’t take this column as an attempt at bashing the Chase maestro, however, and neither should you. Whether you feel this format has tainted his titles by being the best in just the final 10 races, you have to give this team credit even if you are a No. 48 hater. They have figured out the system, and who is to say they wouldn’t have won the title under the original championship structure?
Again, I like to think my opinion of the Chase is different. The fact that teams have changed how they race in the regular season doesn’t bother me, nor does the whole points reset. It’s a huge, dramatic change from the traditional system that we had for over 30 years, but change happens in all sports. It doesn’t bug me that the top-12 have more exposure in the final three months than the rest of the field. They earned that right, so it is just another reason to motivate the other teams to be stronger for next year.
The Chase was designed to create closer point finishes with more drivers in contention. It has done so, for the most part, but in the end, we are stuck with same result and that’s what seems to get fans on edge. Each year, people trick themselves into thinking that we may see a new or different face hoisting the championship trophy in Homestead. Every time, though, it is at this point of the season where I realize I have been fooled yet again, and Johnson flexes his muscles to push the rest of the competition into oblivion.
No wonder the anti-Chase bandwagon remains so strong.
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