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Voice of Vito: Where’s the Beef? Chase for NASCAR Championship a Far Cry From Past Battles

With only one race remaining before the start of NASCAR’s 2007 Chase for the Nextel Cup, the race for 12th place has all been but decided, with Kevin Harvick needing to only finish 32nd or better to solidify his place in the Championship dash. While the Daytona 500 winner will start the race a whopping 670 points out of first place, he will end it no more than 50 points out of the top spot, courtesy of NASCAR’s new seeding system, awarding 10 bonus points for a win to each driver in the top 12. Which raises a legitimate question:

What exactly does a 700-point deficit convey anything remotely related to the term “champion?” Is this what it has come to? “The race for 12th?”

A few weeks ago I penned an article promoting the Chase, espousing the positives of it, saving us from a title decided long ago back in April and May of this year. If not for the transgressions of the No. 24 team at Sonoma this past June, the gap would be 417 points back to Tony Stewart who is currently sitting second in the points.

That’s kind of a lot.

It used to be that under the Latford points system, a season-long championship was decided in grand fashion: A 30-plus race season, every race, every lap, every pit miscue, blown tire, dropped valve and untimely yellow flag (as opposed to caution flags thrown for empty green Gatorade drink bottles, rollbar padding and Capri Sun packets) counting in the final tally. This has been the source of much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth for many longtime NASCAR fans.

For those of us who were on the scene long before the term “Hollywood Hotel” or “Young Gun” was etched into our frontal lobes, there were these classic battles:

1979: The season long battle came down to the King, Richard Petty, and a loud, brash mound of hair named Darrell Waltrip. With 10 races to go in the season, Petty trailed Waltrip by 155 points. DK Ulrich was 12th in points, just under 1,000 points out of first place. Entering the final race of the year at Ontario Motor Speedway (a dead ringer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway), Waltrip lead Petty by a scant two points; bottom line, whoever finished ahead of the other or lead the most laps, was going to win the title.

They had finished nose to tail the week before at Atlanta, with Waltrip gaining five bonus points by leading 10 laps to Petty’s none. Petty’s fifth-place finish to Waltrip’s eighth-place run (the result of intentionally spinning his car to avoid the looping John Rezek) gave Petty his seventh and final title by all of 11 points, a margin that would not be eclipsed for 13 years.

1985: Awesome Bill from Dawsonville was tearing up every track over a mile in length, in his swoopy No. 9 Coors Melling Thunderbird in 1985. With 10 races to go, Bill Elliott enjoyed a 143-point advantage over Waltrip and his Junior Johnson-prepared notchback Monte Carlo SS. Dale Earnhardt was 12th in points, 808 points in arrears. After winning the Winston Million at Darlington’s Southern 500, Elliott’s lead would balloon to 206 points.

The only problem was that out of the eight tracks remaining, four were tracks of one mile or less and one a road course. Elliott’s car floundered on the flat tracks. Waltrip and Elliott battled back and forth between 35 and 20 points over the final five races, with Darrell holding a 20-point margin going into the final race at Riverside. The last car on the track running, Elliott’s 31st-place finish ensured that Waltrip would win his third Winston Cup title.

1989: This was one of the closest battles in Winston Cup history, and one of the most over-looked. It was the debut season for the new Chevrolet Lumina, a downsized car similar to the new Pontiac Grand Prix which had arrived the year before. These two models would duke it out to the bitter end with Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace fighting for the Cup. A wildcard of sorts was thrown in late in the season when four-time ASA champion Mark Martin, driving for second-year owner Jack Roush, entered the mix, even though he had yet to even win a race in his career.

Wallace was intent on making ground up with 10 races to go, winning at Michigan while Earnhardt suffered fender damage in a turn 1 bumping incident with Petty. After the race, Earnhardt held an 80-point lead over Wallace and a 95-point advantage over Martin’s Stroh’s Light Ford. Sterling Marlin was 12th in points, 440 points back.

Things would get more interesting at Rockingham with three races remaining, with Wallace and Earnhardt tangling at one point, spinning each other out and clearing the way for Martin to win his first Winston Cup race and draw within shouting distance of the title. Entering the final race of the season, Martin trailed Wallace by 73 points, six points ahead of Earnhardt. However, Martin’s car would erupt into a spectacular ball of fire as connecting rods and other important parts vacated the engine block and oil pan.

The Intimidator went on to record his fifth win of the year, leading 249 of 328 laps. Wallace finished a lap down in 15th, winning the title by all of 12 points over Earnhardt. Earnhardt would retire to a tree stand in North Carolina for the winter, to sit, think, ponder and simmer over losing his fourth title by the slimmest of margins.

1992: This season was one of the greatest finishes to a season in any sporting arena. Entering the final 10 races, Elliott led the late Davey Allison by all of 37 points. Marlin in the Maxwell House Ford of Junior Johnson was again 12th in points, this time only 429 points out. With seven events remaining, Alan Kulwicki sat 278 points out of first place, leading him to concede that his title hopes had run aground at Dover, Del.

See also
That's History Profile: Alan Kulwicki

Kulwicki, Elliott and Allison weren’t the only ones involved in this fight. Kyle Petty, Martin and Harry Gant were all in contention, with Petty and Martin scoring victories in the final four races and Gant winning Michigan before the final 10 events. No less than SIX drivers had a shot at the title heading into the final race of 1992, driving Chevrolets, Fords, Pontiacs and even a friggin’ Oldsmobile.

Heading into the race that would see the end of Richard Petty’s storied career, and the first start by some kid from Indiana with a mullet and a terrible mustache driving a rainbow emblazoned No. 24 Chevrolet, it would go down to the final few laps to see who would win the title. It would be decided not by bonus points from a convoluted seeding system, but by who led the most laps.

Kulwicki was able to stay out one lap longer during the final green-flag fuel run, leading 103 laps to Elliott’s 102. Kulwicki’s second-place effort to Elliott’s victory allowed him to maintain the 10-point advantage he had over Elliott going into the final race. It would be Kulwicki’s only title; his life was cut short just five months later in an airplane crash on April 1, 1993.

1997: Heading into the season ending event at the newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon was primed to cruise home to his second championship in three years. His second consecutive 10-win season granted him a 77-point lead over Dale Jarrett, even after Jarrett won at Phoenix, the penultimate stop on the 32-race circuit that season. He led third-place Martin by 87 points, and 12th-place Johnny Benson Jr. by 1,157 points.

But a funny thing happened out of the pits on a foggy Saturday morning during practice: Gordon ran into Bobby Hamilton and the No. 43 STP Pontiac, crumpling the fender and nose of the No. 24 team’s primary racecar. This put a serious crimp in any tangible practice time. During the race, the two other contenders took advantage of the No. 24 car as it limped around the track, two laps down, unable to muster much of anything. At different points during the race Jarrett and Martin were in the championship lead.

With a handful of laps to go, Martin had the race and title seemingly in hand. However, his luck went south as his motor laid over on seven cylinders, burning a piston and clearing the way for Bobby Labonte to win the event. Gordon picked up a couple of positions in the closing laps, winning the title by 14 points over Jarrett, and 29 over Martin.

So where am I going with all of this? Note the 12th-place contender in each scenario. Was there anything about the 1979 season that conjures up images of Ulrich and his No. 40 Midwestern Farm Lanes Chevrolet? The only thing I can really remember about Marlin in his Sunoco Oldsmobile was the story of Billy Hagan chasing him around it, trying to hit him with his cane.

I’m a big Benson fan. He graduated from my high school, and his parents live about a mile and a half from me. But I think even JB will tell you that in 1997, the thought of him mixing it up with Jeff, Dale and Mark at the final race for the title would have seemed ludicrous.

The Chase was instituted to give us exciting championships and finishes, and it has in fact done that. Who can forget Kurt Busch narrowly missing the end of the pit-road wall at Homestead after his right-front tire decided to go in an opposite plane? What about Jimmie Johnson desperately trying to stay on the lead lap in 2005 before he backed it into the wall, wiping away his chances… one year before putting together an unbelievable string of first or second-place finishes in five of the final six events and winning it all.

But then again, who really remembers those moments? Granted, it’s hard to wax nostalgic over a concept as far removed from our collective conscience as “Three Years Ago,” but will these new contrived Chase for the Championships carry the weight of the epic battles waged between Waltrip and Petty, Elliott and Waltrip, or Earnhardt, Wallace, and Martin?

This might be the sucker for the “good ol’ days” in me talking, but I sincerely doubt it. Naturally there were some snoozer years mixed in there. 2000 and 2003 namely; the two years that are usually credited with the creation of the current format. But there were other good years as well that went down to the final race, such as 1993, 1996 and 2002.

And I didn’t even touch on the battles that went down to the last race in 1990 between Earnhardt and Martin, or from 1981-1983 between Waltrip and Bobby Allison, which to this day has not yet subsided in Allison’s mind.

But why should teams suffer because of their excellence? Should Gordon lose a title he for all intents and purposes has wrapped up because of someone’s desire to make racing more like basketball? The first year of the Chase, Gordon would have won his fifth title, and won it the right way: racing hard, racing consistently and winning all year long.

Moreover, should the fans be cheated out of classic battles as we had in the past as well? Take 2006 for example. Although Johnson did put together an epic run of races to win the title by 56 points, under the old format he would have only won by four points over Matt Kenseth; the closest finish in the history of the sport. No resetting of points needed or manufactured drama to play out by arbitrarily rearranging the standings after a little more than two-thirds of the season had been completed.

If you can win a couple of races and run easy for the better part of the spring and summer, how is that supposed to engender legitimacy and admiration when courting the uninitiated or those of us who know what a bias-ply tire was? ESPN and ABC’s new tagline for their NASCAR coverage is “Every Lap Matters” to promote the Chase for the Championship. I guess it does to a certain extent.

But not nearly as much as it used to.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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