Wake up every one! The actual 2019 Cup season will now officially begin. Yeah, OK, it’s actually September 9 as this is written, but I’m using an artistic license that currently isn’t revoked. Yes, they’ve been racing the Cup cars since the frosty days of February into a rainy spring and into the late summer deluge that postpone the Darlington race last weekend into the wee hours of the morning.
But forget what you think happened so far this year. It may have or may not have. Bobby Ewing is getting out of the shower and the whole game is changed. The Cup Series drags on a sometimes interminable nine months, but only the final 10 races matter when it comes to crowning a champion. February 17 may seem eons ago (in addition to an artistic license I have a hyperbole permit). Yes, the Daytona 500 is the highest profile race of our season, but in determining who gets to NASCAR’s postseason it means no more than the next 25 races that followed it during NASCAR’s annual Sea to Shining Sea trek back and forth across the United States.
Happily enough, this year’s Daytona 500 winner, Denny Hamlin, will in fact advance into the postseason. And best of luck with that. Since the year 2000 the winner of the Daytona 500 only went on to also win the Cup twice; Jimmie Johnson in 2006 and 2013.
Anyone get the official memo on that we’re calling the title drive this year? Is it still the “Playoffs,” and if so is that one word or two, and should either be capitalized? Or have we switched back to “The Chase,” NASCAR’s original title for the “All singing, all dancing, all live, all beautiful” new method of determining a champion? Yep, that was Brian France’s concept to inject a little excitement into the late season to help boost our sport close to and perhaps beyond that pesky NFL season every year. France ran his brainchild up the flag pole to see if NASCAR fans saluted it. Overwhelmingly they did not. In fact they tossed poop at it like monkeys in the low branches of the gum-gum tree at the zoo.
Many of those fans, or former fans, used the profanest of terms to ridicule and hate on the Chase concept. Faced with such outright contempt for the Chase, NASCAR did the only logical thing and changed the name to the playoffs. You could rename Charles Manson “Captain Feel-Good” but you still wouldn’t want to tell him to drop by your place some night.
In 26 races this year to date 11 drivers have claimed a Cup win. Three JGR drivers; Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin have claimed four wins a piece. Their teammate Erik Jones won at Darlington just last week. I don’t know that there’s an odds-on favorite to win the championship this year, but the JGR team is the clear favorite to claim the prize. Busch has the most top 10 finishes this year, but hasn’t won a race since June 2 at Pocono.
After Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Kevin Harvick is up to three wins this year, all of them occurring in the last seven races. Brad Keselowski has also won three Cup races but the last of them was Kansas in May. Joey Logano has two wins this year. Chase Elliott has won two Cup races this year. Alex Bowman won at Chicago. Kurt Busch won at Kentucky. Justin Haley scored his improbable win in the Firecracker 400 due to weather and people are still scratching their heads as to how that happened. Haley is not eligible to compete in the playoffs because he’s running for points full-time in the Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing
Almirola, Larson and Blaney will be in the playoffs based on points accumulated even without winning. Johnson will not. To date, no Cup driver has won a title without winning a race that season. Ryan Newman very nearly did in 2014 when he finished second in the standings, just one point behind titlist Harvick. Austin Dillon did in fact win the Xfinity Series championship without a win in 2013. That was under a more traditional points system.
Of the tracks that will host this year’s 10 playoff races, eight have already hosted a Cup race earlier this season (I am not counting Charlotte in that total). In May, the Cup stars drove the traditional oval course. When they return in late September they’ll be using the ROVAL layout that debuted last year at Charlotte. Homestead hosts just one race a year, the season finale, though it will lose the finale next year and move to the sixth race.
Of the eight tracks we’ve already run at this year Logano won at Las Vegas, Truex at Richmond and Dover, Keselowski at Kansas and Martinsville, Hamlin at Texas, Elliott at Talladega and Kyle Busch won at Phoenix this spring. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s four wins for Joe Gibbs Racing, three for Penske’s drivers and one for Hendrick Motorsports. Like all those prospectuses read in the fine print, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future success.
The Chase/Playoff method(s) of crowning a NASCAR champion is a bit of foolishness that’s been foisted upon fans since 2004. If I’m recalling correctly, Jimmy Spencer leaked the idea to John Kernan on an episode of RPM Tonight the evening after the end of the 2003 season, saying NASCAR had contacted him to get his thoughts. Again, if I recall correctly, NASCAR types weren’t too happy with Spencer for doing so. But as I recall NASCAR being unhappy with Spencer was not out of the ordinary.
There was some indignation that year because Matt Kenseth had gone ahead and claimed the Cup championship while only winning one race that year and it was early in the season as well. Newman had won eight races in 2003 and finished sixth in the points. Oops. Obviously there needed to be more of a points reward for winning races since nobody remembers who finished second especially not after the NFL season starts.
The Chase system that Brian France came up with to address the problem equates to going to the doctor with a sprained ankle and having him decide amputating your right leg is the best course of treatment.
Fan reaction was almost immediate and universal. In an attempt to put it politely it was along the lines of “WTF, are you kidding me?” That Friday night at the banquet, NASCAR admitted no they were not kidding us. The idea was that interest in and TV ratings for NASCAR races tended to dip (OK, plunge) once the NFL season started in the autumn. At the time, France was still telling people that someday NASCAR would be a bigger draw than the NFL.
Ever wonder what might have been if there’d been a palace coupe and the rest of NASCAR Officialdom had the brass to tell France “Heck, no, that’s a dumb idea. We’re not doing this!” Here’s a quick look though with the usual disclaimer about monkey-math. Obviously if the criteria to win a title was different drivers might have chosen to drive differently and thus there could and likely would have been different finishing orders.
2004- Kurt Busch won that year’s title. Under the old points system Jeff Gordon would have won his fifth title. Two other drivers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have entered the season’s final race still mathematically eligible for the title.
2005- Tony Stewart won that year’s Cup under the new format. He’d have won it anyway under the old system.
2006- Jimmie Johnson won five races and that year’s title under the new points system. He’d have been champion under the Classic points system as well. Go figure.
2007- There were a few tweaks to the Chase. Most notably the field was expanded from 10 drivers to 12. It seems some high dollar sponsors were mightily unhappy that their play-pretty racecars were missing the cut and going all but invisible on TV for the rest of the season.
Also that year, drivers had their points totals cut back to 5000 at the end of the regular season with a 10-point bonus added for each win. Jimmie Johnson won his second consecutive Cup title that year. Under the old points system Jeff Gordon would have claimed his sixth title. Gordon won six races that year while Johnson won 10.
2008- Going into the season finale Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards would have been the only two drives mathematically with a chance at the title. And Edwards would have won it by 16 points thanks in part to the fact he won that day. Under the Chase type format Johnson prevailed by 69 points. Edwards won a total of nine races that year while Johnson won seven. Whoops.
2009- Under the old system three drivers; Johnson, Gordon and Stewart would have arrived at Homestead with a shot at the title. Under either system Johnson would have claimed his second championship. Under the old system Johnson would have beat Gordon by 66 points. Under the “improved” system Johnson beat Mark Martin by 141 markers. DOH!
2010- Under the new system Johnson wins another title. Under the old system Kevin Harvick would have crushed him by a mere 285 points. Being for the benefit of Mr. J there will be a farce today…..
2011- When you can’t explain your actions just do your best to confuse the hell out of your critics, NASCAR made another tweak to the Chase. The top 10 drivers still had a berth. Two additional drivers, the two outside the top 10 who had won the most races got in as “Wild Cards.”
Oh, but it got a whole lot more complicated than that to put it mildly. Richmond hosted the 2011 regular season finale. Late in the race Clint Bowyer seemed to spin for no apparent reason. Turns out the resultant caution was the boost his teammate, Martin Truex Jr. needed. Ryan Newman had been battling over the 12th playoff position. Newman needed to win the race to beat Truex for that spot in the playoffs. When Brian Vickers dove into the pits Newman did as well. Eventually Newman finished third, which left him tied with Truex in points and each driver had one win that year. The second tiebreaker was number of top five finishes and Truex had more of those. But given some suspicious radio chatter, and the odd way Bowyer seemed to spin for no reason, NASCAR decided they’d purposely gamed the system. All three of the Michael Waltrip teams were penalized 50 points. The loss of points knocked Truex out of the playoffs and let Newman back in.
In other radio chatter, members of Roger Penske’s team were heard negotiating with member of Front Row Motorsports to have their driver David Gilliland slow down, pull over and surrender a spot to Logano. That single position was enough to get Logano into the playoffs and knock Jeff Gordon out of the postseason. Facing a playoffs without one of their more popular drivers NASCAR set a new precedent and expanded the Chase to 13 drivers so Gordon could participate. It was one of the most unsavory messes in NASCAR history.
When the dust had settled after the controversies Tony Stewart won the championship. Under the old system (with revised points that year) Carl Edwards would have been crowned.
2012- Brad Keselowski would have been crowned champion under either system. With the Chase format he beat Clint Bowyer by 39 points and Johnson by 40. If the old points system was still in use he would have beat Greg Biffle by 19 points and Jimmie Johnson by 28.
2013- Under either system Jimmie Johnson would have been champion. Under the Chase rules he beat Matt Kenseth by 19 points. Under the traditional system Johnson beat Kevin Harvick by 41 points.
2014- The Chase had proven to be about as popular with the fans as warm beer and Fiats. Rather than dump the failed experiment, NASCAR decided to overhaul it. The field of contenders for the title was expanded to 16 drivers meaning that more than half of the teams that were competitive week in and week out got to the postseason.
NASCAR also adopted that elimination rounds. After every three races in the Chase the four drivers lowest in the points were eliminated and presumably given lovely parting gifts. With four final drivers left heading into the Homestead-Miami season finale, whichever one of them finished the best would be crowned champion.
I recall being so repulsed by the idiocy of the new system that was a soft boom between my ears indicating my brain had just blown up. It was OK. I think I saw visions of Heather Locklear flying through my garden like a hummingbird. I got better in about a week other than some dental damage from grinding my teeth together trying to understand what NASCAR had wrought.
Kevin Harvick beat Ryan Newman by a single point under the new system. That’s easy enough to explain. That day in Miami, Harvick won the race and Newman finished a season-best second. Under the old system Jeff Gordon would have edged Joey Logano by 37 points for the title. Under the old system Harvick would have slipped to fifth in the standings.
2015- We have to make a judgment call when discussing 2015. You’ll recall that was the year that Kyle Busch broke a leg and an ankle in the Xfinity race at Daytona. Under the old rules he’d have had no chance at all at competing for a NASCAR title after missing 10 Cup races. Under the new rules, heavily modified to Busch’s benefits, he went on to win the championship anyway.
Under the traditional points system he’d have ended up 20th. Under the traditional system Kevin Harvick would have been champion beating Logano by 21 points. Busch won the title here in the real world because he won that Homestead race. It’s sort of silly to crown anyone champion for what they did in a single race rather than the entire season, no? Especially with Kyle having missed upwards of 20% of the races while recovering.
2016- Johnson won Homestead and thus he won the championship. He beat Joey Logano by three points. Logano finished fourth in that race. Do the math. Under the old system Harvick would have repeated as champion. Logano still would have been second, but by 27 points. Johnson would have found himself left with a less than remarkable eighth-place result in the final standings. What a tangled web we weave when we first set out to deceive. …….
2017- Under either points system Mart Truex Jr. would have been the 2017 Cup champion. Under both systems Kyle Busch would have been second and Kevin Harvick third.
2018- Joey Logano was crowned last year’s NASCAR champion. Under the old system Kyle Busch would have been champion. Busch had eight wins to Logano’s three. That would have made sense.
So it would seem far and away Jimmie Johnson has been the primary beneficiary of the Chase/playoff type systems. Ironically, the system seems to have most hurt Johnson’s former teammate Jeff Gordon. With all due apologies to Gordon, I’d actually say the fans have been the biggest losers under the new points system which Brian hath wrought.
The change took something that was real, understandable and fair, and turned it into something contrived, artificial, biased and downright despicable. Which might be why there are so many fewer fans in today’s NASCAR than there were back in the days of a season long points change without gimmicks.
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.
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