Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Why I Don’t Hate NASCAR’s Chase – & You Shouldn’t, Either

Soccer’s English Premier League (EPL) runs from mid-August to mid-May. It’s a relentless 38-game, nine month slog with the 20 best teams in the land, in a country that lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes the beautiful game. Each team plays each other once at home and once on the road, with three points earned for each victory, one point for a draw (tie) and nothing for a defeat. With that easy scoring system, the league title is calculated just as simply: the team at the top of the pile – with the most points after 38 games – wins it all.

Now, there isn’t much English football fans agree on, but one of the most commonly accepted tenets is that, come the end of the season, the league table doesn’t lie. The team that finishes on the top of the pile deserves the accolade, even if they’ve spent the previous 37 games in second place or below. You may not like the way it happens (especially if your team leads all the way and loses it on the last day) but when the final whistle blows on the season the best team always, always wins.

Having watched this system of points all my life, I thought about how I’d feel if the EPL adopted a similar “Chase” format with teams being split off after, say, 28 of the 38 league games. My initial, instinctive reaction was utter horror – and I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone. I imagine this is probably how some of you felt when the Chase was first debuted back in 2004. Back home, the outcry from fans everywhere would reach legendary proportions, and they would kill the idea stone dead before it even began.

Let me put it another way: there would be more of a chance Scott Riggs wins 10 straight races than there would be for a Chase format in English football. So, in short, I get the argument of the long-term fan. I see the point they make about the Chase format killing the integrity – allowing the “wrong” guy to win the championship and cheating the rightful points leader out of the crown. I understand why you might despise this “arbitrary” system.

I just don’t necessarily agree.

For me, as a late convert to NASCAR, the only points system I’ve ever known is the Chase – so in many ways, I don’t have the benefit of perspective or comparison to the old style. By the time I arrived in the business, the Chase had been instituted and that was that. So the truth is, despite feeling almost guilty, when I read some of the critical articles about it I really have to disagree – for I quite like the Chase.

Some might say that maybe I’m not a “real” devotee of the sport, that for running against the common accepted theme of the hardcore fans I’m an idiot who doesn’t understand it. Well, let me be clear here: I’m not saying I love the Chase or that it’s the best scoring innovation in the history of motorsports – nor am I saying it couldn’t get better. What I will say, though, is that it gets a worse rap than perhaps it deserves, and that many of the haters are being critical for the sake of being critical.

Here’s why:

The Chase is still 10 races

The Chase still makes up a 10-race stretch of the 36-race system – nearly 30% of the overall schedule. This is a large portion for the playoff: not some two or three-race sprint where the big upset has a better chance of occurring. The fact is that the Chase, just like the old system, rewards consistency. Winning five races and finishing 43rd in the other five isn’t going to get it done, while finishing in the top 10 each race might do it. So just like the old points system (as Matt Kenseth showed in 2003), the Chase ultimately rewards those drivers who make the fewest mistakes.

Another point I’d make here is that if you’re the best in the first 26 races, you should probably also be the best in the last 10. It’s enough of a sample size, and given that all the protagonists are aware of the system, this is even more the case. 10 races also gives you the chance to slip up and recover, a mulligan of sorts that keeps you in the running even if you hit some untimely bad luck. Let’s not forget, either, that before 2004 no driver has ever been outside the top 10 with 10 races to go and come back to win the big prize.

You might not like it – but in 10 races, an awful lot can happen that’s not just dependent on the outcome of one winner-take-all showdown.

It’s an equitable and relatively balanced schedule

Of the 10 scheduled races in the playoffs, eight are at tracks teams will visit for a second time this season. Only Kansas and the final race in Miami are first-time events, so it does at least give the participants some comfort in terms of what to expect (and of course, any pertinent notes from the first time around.)

Secondly, the types of track that make up the Chase are relatively representative of the whole season. Of the 10 facilities, one is a short track (Martinsville), three are 1-milers (Loudon, Phoenix, Dover) while five are 1.5-mile tracks (Atlanta, Texas, Miami, Kansas and Lowe’s) with the final event being the plate race at Talladega. The upshot is that if you were good in the first 26, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be in the last 10. It’s not entirely fair (you’d probably have one less 1-miler; but overall, it’s representative and balanced).

The Chase is not the first scoring system change, either

Since the first engines were gunned in race one back in 1949, there have been 11 different scoring systems. While this doesn’t mean that a radical change like the Chase is automatically OK, it still shows that for all the questioning and carping about the playoffs, a points restructuring is not exactly a new invention in NASCAR.

Of course, the Chase was the first major alteration since the previous system was implemented in 1975 – but the fact remains that change in the way the points are calculated is not new. Don’t forget that back in the day, most systems cut off the points at 25th place; so again, the Chase is a massive evolution, but it’s not the first time (and surely won’t be the last) that the scoring system has been revamped.

It creates a whole new category of Chase hopefuls… a new benchmark in the sport

With the Chase cutoff coming post-Richmond, we’ve seen a whole slew of new driver categories pertaining to the Chase. You have the solid Chasers (the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, etc.), the Chase aspirants (Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, etc.), and the Chase Long Shots (a category David Ragan would squarely be in right now). Then, you have the Juan Pablo Montoya-style “Chase or Bust” types. In short, the possibility to get into the Chase (or get close) creates a different series of expectations and opportunities – not to mention a measuring stick year-on-year.

Some may consider this contrived or manufactured excitement. Tell that to the likes of Ragan, for whom just making the Chase would represent a massive achievement – not to mention a sure sign to sponsors that the kid is for real and more than worth a punt.

Having a playoff system doesn’t make it like any other sport

There are those that say the Chase is good because NASCAR is now in line with other sports, and that this is a reason to have the it. I don’t believe that’s the case, per se, although I’m not denying that wasn’t the idea. But it’s also not that comparable to what exists already in other sports. It takes four playoff games to win it all in the NFL and a minimum of 16 and a maximum of 28 games in the NBA and NHL, which has an 82-game regular season.

In baseball, it’s much worse. After 162 regular season games over six long months, you can go three and out in round one of the playoffs. It only takes a minimum of 11 and a maximum of 19 games to get it all done – creating percentages far lower than NASCAR’s 30% playoff schedule I mentioned earlier.

Yes, the Chase is a playoff system of sorts; but again, it’s not that comparable. Plus, I come back to an argument I’ve made more than once in this column, that NASCAR isn’t like any other sport however you hand out the prizes – and I’ll continue to say this until I’m blue in the face.

It’s not perfect — but it’s not bad, either

In 2004, Gordon held a 60-point lead over Johnson and a 61-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the points were reset for the first time. In the end it was Kurt Busch who would, improbably, take the inaugural Chase crown; his winning margin was a mere eight points over Johnson. Had the Chase not been run, Gordon would have won his fifth championship by 47 points over his teammate.

Those are the facts, but here’s my question: Who’s to say Gordon (or Johnson or Earnhardt) wouldn’t have run differently without the Chase – perhaps a different fuel strategy, a risky two-tire call, etc.? The fact remains that the participants will race according to how the points are given out. Gordon was Chase racing up to and then during the final 10 races. How would he have run differently? No one can know, but I think it’s a point worth making in conjunction with this argument. 47 points over 5,500 total markers is a tiny margin, and it’s hard to say things wouldn’t have played out very differently without the Chase.

Yes, based on the old rules Gordon would have won but neither he, Busch, nor any other drivers who turned a lap in the Sprint Cup Series in 2004 were playing by the old rules.

Tony Stewart beat out Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle by 35 points to win his second crown in 2005. In the traditional standings, he would have held a very comfortable 215-point lead over the Biff and been 428 ahead of Johnson. Edwards, meanwhile, would have been 602 back. In short, the right driver won the championship even if it was closer than it should have been.

Likewise in 2006. Johnson won his first title, topping both the Chase and traditional points standings. He beat out Kenseth by some 56 points in the Chase, but using the old scoring method, was just four points ahead of the No. 17. In this case I refer you to the point above about Gordon… four lousy points. If that doesn’t change the way you race, I don’t know what does.

And then we have 2007, when Jeff Gordon had a season for the ages… well, almost. The driver of the No. 24 beat Johnson handily in the traditional standings by a margin of some 353 points. And with an average finish of 5.3 in the last 10 races, it wasn’t as if he was a slouch in that department, either. But Johnson reeled off four wins in the last five races to nip Gordon at the post.

See also
Voice of Vito: Enjoy It While It Lasts - Kyle Busch's Dominant Season to be Derailed by Chase Format

This makes 2008 the most interesting season yet. The Chase has been “right” twice and “wrong” twice, so it will be interesting to see how it swings. If Kyle Busch doesn’t win, would it be that much of a disaster? And come to that, how would the Junior fans react if it were their driver who pulled a “Kurt Busch” and “stole” the championship?

The best teams step up and win it

This is seen by anti-Chasers as one of the biggest problems with the format. “The best teams always step up,” they scoff. NASCAR isn’t pinochle, after all. Every. Race. Counts.

Well frankly, I don’t see what the fuss about this point is. Why wouldn’t the best teams step up? Isn’t that exactly what they should do? Don’t the best teams always get it done when they need to? Most of the time, yeah, they do. So yeah, in the Chase the best teams do step up – and why this is a problem with some fans, I’m just not sure. Does Johnson try twice as hard because it’s a Chase race? No, not at all. Does Junior, Jeff or Smoke? No. No. No.

The fact is, the Chase could be a lot worse despite what the hardcore fan thinks. Yes, it is more exciting for the new or casual fan; but the fact remains NASCAR needs those new fans. If new fans are not brought into the sport, how can it grow?

Is the Chase perfect? No, far from it; but what is? What’s important is that I’ll be glued to the screen come Loudon – that’s for sure. And so will you.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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