Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: A Chase Game of ‘What If?’

Time to play an incredibly pointless but vaguely interesting game of ‘what if?’

Oh, good, already lost half of you. Whatever, it’s the end of the season. We’ll get through this.

So, entering this Sunday’s conclusion to the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, four drivers are vying for a chance at the title. Two — Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch — are past champions, one (Johnson’s six titles) more than the other (Busch’s one). The other two, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano, are looking for their first Cup championships.

And all they’ve gotta do is beat everyone else in that group of four.

That’s the way the Chase is nowadays. In the final race of the season, it could be any one of four emerging as the series champion, just as long as they out-duel the other three. It’s all about finishing order and bonus points, not whatever happened over the previous 35 races.

To that end, it’d be simple to look up each driver’s previous record at Homestead to crown a prospective champion based on, say, average finish. We’d take a gander, rank them based on that and call it a day. (For the record: Edwards has an average finish of 9.2 in 12 races, with two wins, leading the Championship 4 competitors in both categories.)

Instead, how about based on the last few races at the track? Who would have won each season?

2015: Busch (first), Logano (fourth), Johnson (ninth), Edwards (11th). Everyone but Johnson would have scored bonus points, too, but Busch would have wiped the floor with this roster. Next.

2014: Johnson (ninth), Logano (16th), Edwards (34th), Busch (39th). Picture, if you will, a season in which the series champion finishes ninth and wins pretty much by attrition, with half of the Chase field finishing multiple laps down. Seven spots separate Johnson from his next closest competitor, too. Good thing Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman were there instead to make this one actually interesting.

2013: Busch (seventh), Logano (eighth), Johnson (ninth), Edwards (12th). That’s more like it… kind of? I mean, you’re still looking at a champion who finishes seventh, but his competitors were one, two and five spots behind — not bad. Also, OK, that’s three straight years of Johnson finishing ninth at Homestead. Mr. Consistency, I’ll tell you.

2012: Busch (fourth), Edwards (12th), Logano (14th), Johnson (36th). Hey, look, Johnson finally finished somewhere other than ninth! Except… now he’s out of the race with a rear gear issue. Welp.

2011: Edwards (second), Logano (19th), Busch (23rd), Johnson (32nd). No contest for Edwards. Think that’s the slightest comfort for him after losing the actual championship this year because Tony Stewart finished first in the race? No? OK.

2010: Edwards (first), Johnson (second), Busch (32nd), Logano (39th). This could have been quite the battle… had, you know, Edwards not been well over 200 points behind Johnson coming into the final race.

2009: Johnson (fifth), Edwards (seventh), Busch (eighth), Logano (24th). Eh, it was Logano’s rookie season, cut him some slack for lagging behind.

2008: Haha, never mind, Logano wasn’t running full-time yet.

So, what does this reveal? Again, not a whole lot, but it does paint a bit of a portrait with regards to who you can count on in the pressure of the season-closing race. Busch has been comparatively great. Edwards has had his moments, too. Johnson’s been fairly consistent. Logano? Fairly absent.

But pre-2014, the game was different. Yeah, ever since all four drivers have been in the series together, the Chase has been around, but between 2009 and 2013, elimination-style playoffs weren’t part of the challenge. That’s changed since then, and that’s an important distinction to make, because it makes running at the front all the more important.

That’s what you’ve seen the past two years with Busch and Harvick, and that’s likely what will occur Sunday as well.

The question is, will all four be around at the finish to vie for that title? On paper, it seems like a yes, at least on everyone’s part but Logano. But even the young gun of the bunch is likely to have some tricks up his sleeve; after all, he’s won two of the last four races this season and has only more recently come into his own as a driver versus his iffy first few seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing. You’re looking at a guy who finished fourth last season, and he wasn’t even competing for the title anymore.

The positive of this Chase format is that there are more unknowns than sureties entering the final race than there ever has been before, and judging by most recent results, none of these drivers have a monkey on their back when it comes to racing at Homestead.

Is it too much to hope for a 1-2-3-4 finish from the Championship 4 this season? Maybe not.

About the author

Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.

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Bill B

A 1-2-3-4 finish is possible because the other 36 drivers may get out of the way making that 1-2-3-4 finish a farce much like the chase itself.


I think “metrics” will go out the window, as they often do when the championship is actually on the line, as opposed to 90% of the season-ending races under the pre-Chase format when the last race was nothing but a coronation. Kevin Harvick in previous years had shown an uncanny ability to win when he faced elimination. Kyle Busch won at Homestead for the first time when he had to win to score the championship. And if you go W-A-Y back to the “glory days” of 1992, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki finished 1-2 in the season finale even though Kulwicki rarely won and Elliott hadn’t won since March of that season.

1-2-3-4 is possible, because the Chase forces those four drivers to bring their A game to the finale. And note to Kevin Rutherford: bonus points mean nothing in this race, so the leader of the most laps who finishes second will not get an advantage over the winner.

Biff Baynehouse

In my eyes, what once was the epitome of Motorsports Championships is now a mockery of the sporting world. It is no longer a sporting competition, but more resembles drawing straws, draw poker or a duel at high noon. And the last man standing is typically anything but the “classic” format’s champion.
’16 “Classic” Driver Points (no Chase, after Phoenix, race 35 of 36)
01) #4-Kevin Harvick(EC), — 1120
02) #22-Joey Logano(C1), — 1095, -25
03) #2-Brad Keselowski(EC), 1083, -37
04) #18-Kyle Busch(C4), —- 1069, -51
05) #11-Denny Hamlin(EC), — 1052, -68
06) #41-Kurt Busch(EC), —- 1027, -93
07) #19-Carl Edwards(C3), — 997, -123
08) #78-Martin Truex Jr.(EC), 986, -134
09) #48-Jimmie Johnson(C2), – 963, -157
10) #20-Matt Kenseth(EC), — 963, -157
What if “classic” points format instead of “chase” format?
’04 – Jeff Gordon (not KuBu) (x 5)
’05 – Tony Stewart (either way)
’06 – Jimmie Johnson (either way) (x 1)
’07 – Jeff Gordon (not JJ) (x 6)
’08 – Carl Edwards (not JJ) (x 1)
’09 – Jimmie Johnson (either way) (x 2)
’10 – Kevin Har-ick (not JJ) (x 1)
’11 – Carl Edwards (not TS) (x 2)
’12 – Brad Keselowski (either way)
’13 – Jimmie Johnson (either way) (x 3)
’14 – Jeff Gordon (not Harvick) (x 7)
’15 – Kevin Har-ick (not KyBu who was -454 pts behind) (x 2)
’16 – Kevin Har-ick (with Mia outstanding, Logano -25 pts) (x 3)
Most interesting is how this perspective COMPLETELY changes the landscape & history of the category. This would put JG at SEVEN not four. JJ at THREE not six. KH would have TWO & a THIRD pending instead of one & CE would have TWO instead of NADA.
As for me, the “chase” formats relegate the championship, there-in, the entire season as effectively devoid of meaning. You can not reset points without rendering them meaningless first. This, to me, is an absurd & unthinkable notion to apply to a motorsports “season”! However, I will not deny, that having 3 championships on the line in one weekend, at Miami, does as advertised & puts an incredible amount of emphasis on the finale & makes it incredibly exciting. I can not deny, much to my chagrin, that seems to offer a modicum of success. But, I will ALWAYS maintain that what the “chase” adds to the ONE Miami weekend is NOT worth what is detracts from the entire (non-chase worthy) field & the sport as a whole thru the course of the season. That is to say I think it does irreparable damage to all of the season’s events, the value of the championships & completely obliterates the value of sponsorships of non-chase teams.
It was most successful out of the box (in ’04) & maintained that for a few years. Then the ratings dropped off. Now, presumably in efforts to get ratings to spile again, it’s added to the NXS & CWT. I predict, the “16 weekend will indeed spike. But in the long term rating will again sag & considerably drop off as the newness of the format’s gimmicky “dog & pony show” circus atmosphere again becomes normalized,. Then the lack of sporting integrity & ethical bankruptcy of the format will again come to the forefront.


What Biff said.

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