It’s all anyone is talking about. Even the presidential campaign has been pushed to the backburner, so intrigued is the general population by this year’s edition of NASCAR’s Chase. Sports talk radio stations have reported their switchboards have hit meltdown as race fans call to weigh in on the ten-race playoff.
Snack, beer and soda companies have jumped in with both feet offering special commemorative packaging dedicated to each of the 16 Chasers. Grocers say they can’t keep that merchandise on the shelf. In a rare bit of bipartisanship, Congress is set to pass legislation making the Mondays after each of the final four Chase events national holidays to allow people time to recover from the excitement and clear the streets for anticipated parades nationwide. Even the NFL has suspended its regular season until after Thanksgiving rather than face a bloodbath in the ratings trying to go up against NASCAR’s perfect playoff format.
OK, so none of the above is true. Truth be told, this year’s Chase has registered barely a blip on the public consciousness. Much like last year’s Chase. And the Chase before that and the Chase….
Years ago, as we know the powers that be at NASCAR felt they had to come up with some sort of gimmick to be able to compete with the NFL and the World Series each autumn. Starting in 2004, they came up with the Chase. I recall hearing that a working definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior that produced failure on previous attempts but expecting a different outcome. That pattern could apply to NASCAR CEO Brian France, who admitted in a recent interview “I can’t see anything we [NASCAR] would change” in terms of the current Chase format.
Yep, they’ve got their bad sneakers laced up tight and their transistors turned up to 11 this year. Pina Coladas all around!
To a reasonable mind, the Chase was sure to fail from Jump Street. There are two key differences between stock car racing and the stick and ball sports France wants to emulate that ensure the dumb idea should have been a non-starter. Firstly and perhaps primarily, stick and ball sports involve two teams in every game. While a pro football team typically faces the other teams in its division twice a year, if they advance to the Conference championship round, there’s a good possibility they hadn’t played the opposing team that year. The same goes with the Super Bowl contenders in most cases. Compare that to NASCAR, a sport in which all 40 some-odd teams compete against each other every week.
Secondly, in stick and ball sports once a team is eliminated, they stop competing. In the Chase, the teams that didn’t make the cut continue to compete. Even as more drivers are eliminated in each round, they will continue to race every Sunday. It’s a quirk that makes stick and ball sports fans scratch their head and wonder what the devil is going on.
It also, in this NASCAR day and age makes it harder to play fair. I worry that a teammate (say, from Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing) eliminated from the title might choose to aid a teammate still eligible by blocking or even wrecking another driver from a competing organization. Imagine, for a moment, if during the Super Bowl the two teams that lost the conference championship contests played on the same field at the same time during the Super Bowl. Yep, that’s right; four teams out there each with their own agenda.
How rough has this playoff been for the sport? Let’s take a look back at the Chases to date and how they’ve worked out.
2004: A little background here. The Chase was foisted upon us after the 2003 Cup season that saw Matt Kenseth take the title despite having won only one race, and an early season race at that. In the season finale at Homestead in 2003 Kenseth finished dead last after popping an engine on lap 34. By comparison, Jimmie Johnson won three races that year and finished third at the Homestead finale. But it wouldn’t have mattered if he won and led the most laps that afternoon; Kenseth took the title by 90 over Johnson. Earnhardt Jr. won two races that year, including Phoenix in November but he finished third in the standings, a sobering 207 points behind.
So NASCAR officials stole one right out of Otter’s playbook, deciding “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part!” And thus was born the Chase. It was supposed to be announced at that year’s banquet but Jimmy Spencer leaked the details on the last episode of RPM2Nite that season. I immediately sat down and wrote a blistering column on how much I hated the idea and what a stupid concept it was. Since then, I’ve spent enough time hating the Chase that if I got paid five cents an hour to hate it, I’d have enough money to buy Miami.
How did the first Chase work? The top 10 in points (irrespective of wins) made the cut for the playoffs. So did any other driver within 400 points of the leader. Nobody had ever won a title coming from a 400-point deficit in the final ten races, though 1992 Cup Champion Alan Kulwucki came back from a 278-point gap in the final six.
In the inaugural playoff, Kurt Busch won the title by eight points over Jimmie Johnson with Jeff Gordon finishing third another eight points in arrears. Busch had won three races that season, Gordon five and Johnson eight. All along, most fans had been saying that the old points system was fine and that NASCAR just needed to add more bonus points for a win; perhaps as many as 50. That would have fixed things in 2003 and made for a more valid champion in 2004.
2005: This was one of those years that that the Chase didn’t matter. Tony Stewart would have won under the old points system and he won under the new one, too. Stewart won five races that season. Greg Biffle, who finished second under both point systems, won six. The difference was under the Chase format Biffle was tied with Carl Edwards for second just 35 points behind Stewart. Under the old points system, Stewart would have crushed Biffle by 215 points. As it turned out, Biffle won that final race of the year while Stewart finished 15th.
2006: In an odd coincidence the alleged poster boy for the Chase, Matt Kenseth, had the idea come back to bite him. That year, Kenseth won four races while Jimmie Johnson won five events. Kenseth lost the title, though falling short by 56 points under the Chase system.
By comparison, Kenseth would have lost by just four points without the playoff reset. See how the Chase makes the battle for the championship more exciting?
2007: Whoops. Back to the drawing board. NASCAR changed the Chase rules to include the top 12 drivers after Richmond in the fall. The 12 anointed would have their points totals reset to 5,000 with a 10-point bonus for each win a driver scored during the regular season. 10-point bonus? Pah-shaw. That’s like kissing your sister if your last name ain’t Locklear.
Under the Chase points system Johnson beat Gordon by 77. Under the old system, it wouldn’t even have been that close. Gordon would have tromped Johnson by 353 points, almost two races’ worth. Johnson won 10 races that year, including four straight in the Chase. Gordon won six races in ’07, including two straight in the Chase. However, Johnson endured four DNFs that year while Gordon suffered only one.
While they both drove for the same team, Johnson and his team figured out the Chase strategy better than the No. 24 gang. It’s notable Gordon won all four of his titles under the old points system while Johnson has won all six of his under the Chase format.
2008: Carl Edwards had nine Cup wins in 2008 compared to Jimmie Johnson’s eight victories. With the old points system, Edwards would have edged Johnson by 16 points. Under the Chase format, Johnson won by a comfy, 69-point margin. Edwards did all he could do, winning the season finale at Homestead and leading the most laps while Johnson finished 15th. But that’s all Johnson had to do as he had won the penultimate race of the year at Phoenix and led Edwards by 141 points after the race. Yep, once again the Chase added to the excitement… oh, wait a second, it actually diminished it.
2009: Jimmie Johnson would have won the title under either points system. He did, in fact, win seven races that year. Under the Chase system, Johnson beat Mark Martin by 141 points. Martin had won five races that year after running part time in 2008. The big difference was that Johnson had won four of the ten Chase races. Under the old points system, Johnson would have beat Gordon by 66 which still would have been OK since Jeff had only won one race that year.
2010: For the record, 2010 was the last year NASCAR used the Latford system for awarding points. (Some of you will recall that system awarded 185 points to the winner and 43 points to the last-place driver with increments of five, four and three points between finishers as you went down the list. It was tough to explain but the Latford system worked. And it allowed for far bigger point swings than the current system.)
This season really showed how well Johnson and the No. 48 team had learned to play the game. From that year’s Firecracker 400 to the Bristol night race, Johnson went into a slump and was plagued by bad luck. Under the old points system that would have ended his title chances. Even the Chase didn’t get off to a good start. Johnson finished 25th at New Hampshire and basically waved the white flag on his title chances for that year, at least in speaking to the media.
But Johnson won the next race at Dover and finished in the top 10 for the rest of the Chase races with six of those eight finishes inside the top 5. Under the Chase system, Johnson beat Denny Hamlin by 39 points and Kevin Harvick by 41. Without it, Harvick would have crushed Johnson by a whopping 285 points. Harvick hadn’t had his best season, scoring just three wins to Johnson’s six, but he’d been consistent all year long with 26 top 10s in 36 races.
Johnson, unfortunately had demonstrated you didn’t have to run well all year anymore. As long as you made the Chase cutoff, then ran well in the final ten races you had a good shot at the title. It begs the question, “Then why should fans bother watching those first 26 races, much less choose to attend one of them?” Welcome to the Law of Unintended Consequences.
2011: Proponents of the Chase will point to 2011 as an example of how good it is for the sport. Yep, it came down to the last race of the season at Homestead. Edwards held a slim three-point lead over Stewart going into that race. The two put on a great battle, with Stewart taking the win by eight-tenths of a second over Edwards. The two ended up tied in season-ending points as a result with Stewart getting the nod on the first tie-breaker with five wins to Edwards’ single victory. Under the old points system, Edwards would have beat Harvick by 78 (yawn). Yep, the Chase system worked out better in 2011. What’s that expression about blind swine and acorns?
Of note is the fact that the Chase eligibility rules had been reshuffled for 2011. The top 10 drivers got into the Chase automatically, as did the top 2 drivers in eleventh through 20th in the points with a win. If nobody between 11th and 20th had a win, I think they decided the final two contestants based on a game of rock/paper/scissors but my recollections are a bit hazy there. Stewart had not won a race during the regular season but made the playoffs anyway as did Earnhardt Jr. who hadn’t won that year either. Yep, could have seen that coming. Best I can recall no NFL team that has failed to win a game during the regular season has ever made the playoffs.
2012: Brad Keselowski would have been the Cup champion under either points system in 2012. That year, Keselowski and Johnson both drove to five wins, Clint Bowyer rang the bell three times and Biffle won twice.
Under the Chase setup, Brad beat Bowyer by 39 points and Johnson by 40. Under the old system, Keselowski would have beat Biffle by 19 points and Johnson by 28.
2013: This was another where, cue up the Tripper Harrison, it just doesn’t matter. Johnson was going to win his sixth title either way. He won six races to Kenseth’s seven, but two of JJ’s wins were in the Chase. Under the Chase rules Johnson beat Kenseth by 19 and Harvick by 34. Under the old points system, Johnson would have beaten Harvick by 41 and Kenseth by 56. It just didn’t matter.
2014: Not one to rest upon his laurels, ones he or his toadies had bestowed, Brian France had another massive cranial bowel movement of an idea. Starting in 2014, NASCAR adopted the “Eliminator” rounds to the horror and dismay of ZZ Top fans everywhere. I think they tried to sell sponsorship naming rights to each round but that didn’t work. Yep, it got even harder to explain how the damn points system worked to folks who didn’t routinely follow the sport and even to a lot of folks who had followed it pretty closely. And the harder a concept is to explain, the less likely it is to work out. It’s been tested.
But France wasn’t done. Not by a long shot. He had another visionary idea that the Chase would consist not of drivers, but of nations. Yep, the Junior Nation declaring war on the Newman Nation, etc. Nothing like introducing some more hostility into an already fragile world on the brink. The problem is NASCAR neglected to tell the presumptive emperors of the drivers’ various nations about the program. Thus, when the drivers showed up for the media availability event to kick off the Chase they saw those “Nation” banners with their names on them and were left scratching their chins wondering WTF was going on.
Matt Kenseth allowed, at least that he was going to need to find more citizens for his nation so he could collect more taxes from them. Those damn tax and spend Toyota drivers, right?[yop_poll id=”23″]
NASCAR put together a heavy advertising campaign centering under the Nations concept which ran mainly during…er…NASCAR races. I mean, come on, you already have those folks watching the races. Wouldn’t the trick have been to run them during other programming? Either ,way my guess is you could have stuffed all the “Nation” T-shirts sold as a result of that promotion inside a child’s thimble with room left over. The Cosmic Beings in Charge are still debating whether that promotional campaign was the stupidest thing to ever happen in the history of the universe as they debate flicking the planet earth like a little blue marble into the nearest black hole. But they might be waiting for the upcoming presidential debates first….
Anyway, back to the ranch. By golly, four drivers showed up at Homestead all with an equal chance of winning the title. If the system hadn’t been rigged and fabricated to ensure that’s how it would turn out every year that might have been quite remarkable. Also of note was the fact Mr. Johnson wasn’t one of those four drivers. In factm he missed the 2014 title by 2,769 points which would sound like a whole lot if you didn’t realize just how stupid the system to award points became in 2014. Also of note was the fact that Ryan Newman was, in fact one of the four drivers eligible for that year’s title despite not having won a single damn race all season. Hell, he managed only five top-5 results all year. Yep, it would have been the ultimate irony if a new points system made up in part to keep a driver who won only one race all year from being crowned champion handed the crown to a winless driver instead.
So the race started and the NBC crew waved their hands over their heads and talked in tongues like Holy Rollers seeing the first snakes slither out of the sacks. At the end of the day, Harvick won the race and the title. Newman, still winless, finished second and missed by only one point. It was a historic moment and I am certain all of you remember just where you were when this sport’s milestone occurred. More importantly, do you remember if you were having a pleasant dream or know if you were drooling out of the corner of your mouth as you napped?
Under the old points system, Gordon would have won that year’s title by 37 points over Joey Logano. As he accepted the crown, no doubt a little teary-eyed Gordon could have announced he planned to retire after the 2015 season. NASCAR would have had that happy, feel-good story they hoped someday a Chase might have produced but of the sort I doubt any Chase ever will. It just goes to show you…it’s always something.
2015: For the first time I can recall in the modern era a driver who didn’t start every Cup event took the title anyway. Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races of the season after busting his foot and leg in an XFINITY Series crash down in Daytona. As such, NASCAR issued him a special exemption from a rule that to be Chase eligible you must attempt to qualify for every event.
In Busch’s defense, he did come back and win four races, three of them consecutively and made the top 30 in points prior to the Chase. I’m all for NASCAR granting medical waivers to drivers injured in a Cup event. I’m not so certain about granting such waivers to drivers who were cherry-picking one of the lower series when they got hurt. Busch then went ahead and won the 2015 Cup title by one point over Harvick. Coincidentally, Busch also beat Harvick by one position in the race. Oh, right. That’s not a coincidence, is it?
Under the old system, Harvick would have beaten Logano by 15 points. You’d have had a two-time champion and a two-time runner up. People with too much time on their hands could have prattled on about the start of a Harvick Dynasty and invented out of whole cloth a blood-feud rivalry between Harvick and Logano. Yep, the Joey Nation might have gone on ahead and used nukes on the Happy Nation which would have been good for at least a couple new good Neil Young songs. Oh, and Kyle Busch would have finished 20th in the points, so there’s that.
So what’s in store for 2016? Dunno. Stay tuned, same Matt time, same Matt channel. I’ll got out on a limb here and predict that this year’s Super Bowl, World Series and NASCAR’s Homestead season finale will attract huge amounts of attention even among casual sports fans who might not know what night of the week Monday Night Football is on.
Umm. No. I doubt it. But don’t be sad, ’cause two out of three ain’t bad.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.