France: It’s Not The Format, It’s Jimmie
By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
Homestead, Fla. – The very large headline on the special NASCAR Championship Week section in Friday’s Miami Herald read: “Should The Chase Face The Scrap Heap?’’
The accompanying article didn’t really come to a conclusion, but the headline is representative of the type of questions being asked as Jimmie Johnson prepares to put the finishing touches on what will likely be an unprecedented fourth-straight Sprint Cup championship.
Mark Martin, 108 points behind Johnson heading into Sunday’s season-ending Ford 500 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, certainly hasn’t given up. But Johnson needs only to finish 25th or better to wrap up another title for himself and for team owner Rick Hendrick.
That’s disappointing to some people, particularly since the 10-race Chase for the championship was designed specifically to inject some excitement and mystery into the end of the season after Matt Kenseth’s runaway championship all but put people to sleep in 2003.
Each of Johnson’s championships have come down to the last race of the season, but none of them have had the intrigue or excitement of the first Chase in 2004 when Kurt Busch beat Johnson by eight points and third-place Jeff Gordon by 16 – the closest two-way and three-way finish in NASCAR’s history.
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France, the man who signed off on the format change, didn’t appear too upset when asked on Friday if the Chase had failed to live up to its potential.
“Any models we ever did on anything of how things would likely play out never included somebody who would be so dominating at the right time,’’ France said, referring to Johnson’s ability to raise his game in the stock car postseason. “It’s pretty incredible what they have done.’’
The numbers tell the story. In 59 Chase races, Johnson has 54 top 10 finishes, including 37 top fives and 18 wins.
“It is historic and it is an incredible achievement that Jimmie is putting forward within NASCAR,’’ France said.
France insisted nobody could have forecast such amazing consistency by one driver and team.
“What I wouldn’t want to do is take away the accomplishment that Jimmie and his team have done,’’ he added. “In this format, to dominate four straight years is incredible. But we could not … have predicted (he) would have been able to achieve what he did, therefore taking away some of the things that the Chase would deliver in normal sets of circumstances.
“You can look at that a lot of different ways and the only way I think is fair is to recognize it for what it is, not to pick apart the format. This isn’t a formula exercise in a computer. This is about sports and live things that happen by the best drivers on the best teams in the world and who performs at a high level and when.’’
Dale Jarrett, a former Cup champion, is impressed and amazed by Johnson’s record run. But he loves the Chase and agrees with France that the success by the No. 48 team does not minimize the impact of the Chase or mean a major overhaul is needed.
“You can’t expect that someone, especially in this business, could come in here and sustain this for this period of time,’’ Jarrett explained. “We haven’t seen it happen before and you wouldn’t expect it to be able to happen now. Especially when we have more teams capable and more drivers capable of being there and the competition level as high as what it is.’’
Jarrett, now an analyst for ABC/ESPN, also noted it wouldn’t do much good to make changes simply to stop one driver or one team from excelling.
“You go start changing the numbers for one guy, then what are you doing? They’re going to win any system you put out there,’’ he noted. “They win almost half the Chase races, so there’s no system you could really put into place that’s going to keep them from winning the championship.
“You can’t do that anyway. That would be like telling the New York Yankees they can’t throw their left-handed pitchers in this ballpark, that they can only use the right-handed pitchers. It’s still about sporting competition. If one group outperforms everyone else, so be it.’’
France reiterated that he and the rest of the NASCAR hierarchy look at possible rule changes every offseason and this year will be no exception. But changes to the Chase don’t appear likely, despite Johnson’s dominance.
“We could not have predicated that anyone would have achieved what Jimmie has done,’’ France said.
– Mike Harris can be reached at email@example.com Comments