You can say a great deal of things about the Chase for the Sprint Cup in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. You can say it’s a gimmick. Call it a flawed, unnecessary system. Consider it an intrigue-injecting setup that makes for an altogether exciting race to the title.
Whatever the opinion – and oh, are there many – has there been a more-discussed topic in NASCAR over the last decade? The newest change to the Chase has brought an added dimension to the discussions. With the 10-race shootout now broken into four rounds, with four drivers eliminated after the first three and then three losing out in the fourth one-race showdown to crown the eventual champion, the concept of year-long consistency or at least mostly good runs has been diluted further than it was when the points were reset after 26 races. Run great for 26 races? Great. Continue that through 29? Cool. But then there’s the real, bonafide possibility that you could stink up the show during races 30-32. Where might that put you? Out of a title chance, likely.
But here’s the question: does the cream generally rise to the top regardless? Pre-Chase, there were no surprises. The title winner and those in contention until the end were simply the best. Once the Chase hit, it wasn’t like such-and-such journeyman who squeaked in as a surprise 12th seed was suddenly performing Superman feats to get him to a championship, either. Maybe the driver who scored the most points all year wouldn’t necessarily win anymore, but who did win was no slouch. Usually.
It’s a concept that is tested even more with the eliminations because, again, win 35 straight races and falter in No. 36 and it’s sheer tough luck on your part. Unlikely scenario, sure, but you get the gist. No safety net.
And that’s not a problem. At all.
Yeah, you know you heard the dissent about Johnson being knocked from a Chase berth. Heck, maybe you were one of the voices leading the charge. That’s really cool and all, but if we pause for a moment and think back to how the game used to be run – as in, whoever gets the most cumulative points over the however many-race season wins – the right drivers went out because they sure weren’t going to win the championship by virtue of how they’ve run over the previous 29 races.
And some of those are easy cases to make. Bowyer currently ranks 17th in cumulative points in a season where he’s currently trending toward his lowest top-five total in his entire career. He barely squeaked in to begin with, and he was never a factor. Same goes for Menard, who slots in at 14th in cumulative points. Nice to see him finally put together 26 races and make it in, but he was nothing more than a diversion, a nice story that wasn’t going to go anywhere. McMurray was the strongest of the bunch and still ranks 11th in cumulative points, but we’re talking about a driver who was highly consistent all season and thus gained an entrance, certainly not because he could manage challenging for a win. Nice try at Dover, though.
Johnson is admittedly the black sheep of the bunch. He won four races throughout the regular season, is approaching 20 top 10s and was a general force to be reckoned with. His cumulative points standings spot shows that: sixth. In theory, a fine placement.
Except if we want to blast the Chase for being what it is and consider it a gimmick that doesn’t actually reward top talent while also decrying that the sport’s six-time champion didn’t make it through, there’s really no point. Johnson is currently 136 points behind the leader in cumulative points, Joey Logano. Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth still rank ahead of him. Face it, a collapse of epic proportions by those around him is the only way he would have emerged champion. And even under the old Chase system, his 41st-place showing at Dover would have stuck him in a hole out of which he would have had a whale of a time emerging.
I’ll concede that if Earnhardt had missed the next Chase round – since he almost did and all – it’d be worth it to sing that tune, same with Harvick. And that’s where the potential flaw in the system comes in: the fact that it came so close to happening. And sure, maybe once the next round ends, Logano, Harvick and/or Earnhardt, the drivers who realistically should win this title based on overall season performance, will be on the outside looking in. Then, maybe, we can talk, unless the events that led them to flounder were so stark that, yeah, it was just their time.
But even if that time comes in a few weeks, it doesn’t change the fact that right here, right now, the right drivers are no longer in contention for the title. Even Jimmie Johnson. Better luck next time. Can we talk about how Ryan Newman is still in instead? Oh boy.