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Woody: The Chase Is A NASCAR Success Story

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 3 2009
Jimmie Johnson sure is a big fan of the Chase. It has helped him win three Cups. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jimmie Johnson sure is a big fan of the Chase. It has helped him win three Cups. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Larry Woody | Senior Writer

When NASCAR does something dumb it gets hammered, and when NASCAR does something smart – well, it often also gets hammered.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup is a case in point. Implemented in 2004 under the reign of youthful NASCAR boss Brian France, the Chase was a brilliant idea that has worked even better than anticipated.

Yet for some reason it continues to draw criticism from a segment of fans and even some members of the media. They say they long for the good old days.

Yeah, right. If NASCAR still had the championship format that it had in the “good old days” the 2009 title hunt would be about over. With 12 races to go Tony Stewart has a whopping 220-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon is buried even further back in third, 254 points out.

What we’d have under the old system is – at best – a three-man race for the championship.

Instead, what we have with new system are 15 drivers with a legitimate title shot.

At least three drivers still have a chance to break into the coveted Top 12 in the next two races. And when the playoff starts, any of the 12 who are in it can win it.

One of the big gripes I hear from fans is “If my favorite driver isn’t in the Chase I won’t be interested in it.”

Earth to Fan: Under the old system, if your favorite driver wasn’t in the top 10 with 10 races to go he was toast anyway. Nobody in history ever came from that far back to win the championship.

The Chase doesn’t eliminate a single contender. All it does it expand the field of contenders from two or three to 12.

I think the Chase has been even more successful than expected. At the outset it was hoped that the Chase could inject a playoff-type excitement into NASCAR during its autumn stretch run. It has done that – but it also has injected extra excitement into the races leading up to the Chase.

Going into Sunday’s race at Atlanta drama and tension is building around the lower part of the standings. Can drivers in positions 10-12 hang on? Can drivers in positions 13-15 make a move?

We wouldn’t have any of that interest and intrigue under the old system.

As for the gripe that the Chase detracts from the importance of each of the first 26 races, that’s absurd. The Chase ADDS to the importance of each of those races. Starting with the season-opener at Daytona, the focus of every driver and every team is to make the Chase. Every point and every position is extra critical.

And if a fan’s favorite driver fails to make the playoff, that doesn’t keep him from racing his heart out in the final 10 races. Case in point: Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s not going to be in the Chase, but he’ll still be on the track, racing as hard as he can race.

The non-Chase drivers have lots of incentive. In some cases, jobs could be on the line. In every case, the non-Chasers realize that the only way they can get much recognition is by racing hard and posting good finishes – preferably wins. Not making the Chase will light a lot of fires under a lot of rear-ends.

Does the Chase wipe out all that a driver has done in the first 26 races? Yes, to an extent, although drivers do collect Chase points for wins, giving them an edge when the playoff begins.

But essentially it’s a whole new season – just like the playoffs in the NFL. It re-sets the field and gives every participant a fresh start, new hope and a serious shot at the championship.

Under the old system Mark Martin, buried back in 10th spot, 593 points out of first, wouldn’t have a chance. Now – assuming he can hang on through the next two races and make the playoff – he’ll be in contention for his first championship. Anyone want to tell Mark the Chase is not dramatic?

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 3 2009


  • I hope Kyle Busch makes the Chase again, even though it’s probably a long shot at this point.

  • Bill says:

    Ever other major sport has a playoff. Baseball, Football, Basketball, and Hockey all have in effect, two seasons.
    Many teams that have won a championship have NOT had the best record in the regular season. I dont hear anyone complaining about that in other sports. This is going to be a great finish to the 09 season. Enjoy!

  • SB says:

    So, 15 drivers have a ‘legitimate shot’ to win a championship eh? Well, I guess that depends on what you consider ‘legitimate’. Remember when the ‘not-a-playoff’ was started in 2004 the initial qualification was the top 10 or anyone within 400 points of the leader? That was because (according to Nascar) no one had ever come from more than 400 points behind the leader in the final 10 races to win the championship. As of today, there are exactly 2 drivers within 400 points of the leader. Artificially making a designated number of drivers ‘eligible’ doesn’t automatically give them a legit shot at the title. In a sport where you don’t have one winner and one loser every week, the playoff scenario comes off as just another gimmick, Nascar playing ‘let’s pretend’. It also means that with 10 races to go, we know exactly who will finish in the top 12, just not the exact order. we also know that no one will be able to pull themselves into the top 10, since 31 drivers are completely locked out. I guess that, if you just love the chase, that’s your perogative. However, I’m tired of being told by people (mostly the media) that I should find myself thrilled by a process that I consider to be totally contrived and not a true indicator of who is the ‘legitimate’ champion. I remember when the season was more about each individual race, rather than being beaten over the head with Chase statistics ad nauseum starting with race #2. Now I find the individual races watered down because the final 10 races have been given too much emphasis. That’s my opinion. And it’s just as legitimate as yours.