One more night and it’s over.
NASCAR’s so-called regular season will be on the books, the Chase field set, and the two-and-a-half dozen-or-so teams who don’t make it will be virtually forgotten for the rest of the year. In the final 10 races, it will be all Chase all the time, as teams vie for NASCAR’s highest honor, the Sprint Cup championship.
For a few minutes after the race, one man will stand alone on top of the points. Either Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be the lone point leader until NASCAR wipes the slate clean and reseeds the 16 Chase teams based on wins first, then points.
And with that, the best performance for the majority of the year will be virtually forgotten. Rarely does anyone remember the driver who found success and consistency for half a year as that driver becomes overshadowed by the one who does the same for 10 weeks. Only once since the Chase format began has the driver who led the points after Richmond won the championship.
NASCAR would probably be quick to point out how exciting that makes things. In 10 years of Chase competition, only Tony Stewart in 2005 went on to win the title. Compare that with the 10 years prior to the new format, where eight times the point leader after 26 races took the big prize at the end of the year. Even taking into account that the 1994-2000 seasons had a shorter schedule, putting race 26 closer to the end of the year, it’s hard to overlook what the Chase has done to the competition for the title.
The Chase certainly has removed some predictability from the last part of the season. From 1994 through 2003, the final year of a full-season championship, only Terry Labonte in 1996 and Tony Stewart in 2002 did not top the standings after the 26th race. And in Stewart’s case, the point leader at that point was Sterling Marlin, who missed several races late in the year due to a neck injury, so it’s hard to say what the outcome otherwise would have been.
But in racing, is removing that predictability a good thing? Many fans don’t think so, and have been vocal about it. The near certainty of knowing who the champion will be months early is replaced by allowing someone who could most likely not have caught up without the benefit of the points reset a shot at a title, and some would argue that this cheapens the championship, that a title won under the Chase banner is a lesser one than one that went to the best driver all year.
Yes, in other sports, a wild card can win the Super Bowl or the World Series, but there also are not 41 other teams on the field at the same time, trying to win the game. Teams can lose a game or even a series because of their own mistakes or because the other teams was simply better, but they can’t get taken out by a team who’s not even in the playoffs.
NASCAR just isn’t other sports.
The man who would be champion is now the sport’s forgotten man instead. Nobody remembers the driver who leads the first 26 races of the season. NASCAR doesn’t even let them keep the top seed going into the Chase (though this year, it may happen by virtue of wins). There’s certainly no trophy or official recognition for the team that was consistently the best team in the sport for so long, and who might have gone on unhindered to the title (or maybe not, and in that case, whoever beat them would have been regarded with a certain respect).
The top driver entering the Chase not usually winning it is what makes the Chase exciting to those who like the format, or the fatal flaw to those who lament the Chase winner not necessarily being the best driver all year. NASCAR certainly sides with the first faction. It’s hard to argue that tightening up the points gives some drivers a chance who would have had not a prayer otherwise, but is that really a good thing?
It would be easy to look at non-Chase points and say that a certain driver would definitely have been, or not been, champion in a given Chase year. It would also be wrong, because many teams changed their midseason strategy when the Chase came into play and no longer cared about their standing in the summer. In a couple of those 10 seasons, perhaps, a driver had a season-long run so strong that it would have been hard to beat under any format, but there are no certainties.
But it’s also hard to ignore the numbers, those eight of 10 years previous that the leader after 10 races won the title. Perhaps it’s fair to say that it might have been a different leader without the Chase, and that person would have been the favorite. But in any case, it’s hard to ignore the change the Chase has made in the late season – and that many fans don’t like it, because they feel cheated out of a “real” champion.
Will Gordon or Earnhardt, whichever leads the points in the final moments before the reset, go on to contend for the title? If they want to be remembered in a discussion of 2014, they better hope so. If not, instead of being the man of the hour, they will simply be the next name on the list of NASCAR’s forgotten men. Considering what that point lead almost certainly meant, that’s quite a fall from grace.