NASCAR: 10 Old-School Drivers Who Likely Would Have Excelled in the Chase Format

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 1, 2012

NASCAR: 10 Old-School Drivers Who Likely Would Have Excelled in the Chase Format

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    In its nine-year existence, a number of positive things have resulted from the Chase for the Sprint Cup format.

    It's brought about a semblance of excitement and a thrilling playoff atmosphere that was rarely seen in pre-Chase championship runs.

    In the first few years of the Chase, comparisons with the old format were numerous. How many thousands of times did fans ask, "Yeah, I know he won the Chase, but where would he have been in the points if there wasn't a Chase?"

    Even to this day, nine years into the Chase tradition, some folks STILL want to know where drivers would have finished under the old points, non-Chase format.

    That kind of still-lingering refusal by some fans and observers to fully accept the Chase format—hoping upon hope (and likely never will they see it happen) that the Chase format goes away and the Sprint Cup series returns to its old winner-takes-all championship—got us thinking.

    What if, hypothetically, the Chase had always been omnipresent? In other words, when NASCAR formed in the late 1940s, one of the first things on the agenda in creating a yearly championship would have been implementation of a Chase-style format.

    And if so, might that have changed the course of NASCAR history?

    So we thought we'd pull out our little time machine and go backwards, coupled with the use of a crystal ball for prognosticating, to see what old school drivers might have loved the Chase format of today.

    There are a lot of drivers that could easily make this list, including some drivers that retired just before the advent of the Chase.

    Conversely, some of our 10 picks may not have been complete fans of the Chase because it could have severely affected their ultimate achievements in the sport, but we still included them in our list.

    And speaking of lists, this is not a chronological listing of the 10 drivers we picked. We simply put forth facts and hypotheses and let the readers decide for themselves if they agree or disagree.

    So without further ado, we present the 10 old school drivers who would have loved the Chase format:

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    We couldn't think of a better way to start out our little presentation than to focus on a guy with the initials J.J. and the surname of Johnson.

    No, not five-time Chase champ Jimmie Johnson, but the "other Johnson," namely, NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson.

    Junior—no, not Dale Jr., but the sport's original Junior—could very well have been the one driver who benefited the most if the Chase had been in existence back in his racing career.

    Consider this: Johnson won 50 Cup races as a driver and six Cup championships as a team owner, but in one of the sport's biggest oddities, he never, ever won a Cup championship as a driver.

    That's right, the driver, who is tied for 11th place on NASCAR's all-time wins list with "Gentleman Ned" Jarrett, is the only driver in the top 16 winners of all time to never have won a Cup crown behind the wheel.

    In fact, only Johnson and two other drivers among the sport's top 22 all-time wins list have won more than 28 races and never won a Cup championship: Mark Martin (40 wins, 17th on the list) and Fireball Roberts (33 wins, 20th on the list).

    If the Chase had been around during the Last American Hero's prime behind the wheel, his aggressive style and mechanical innovations—sounds a lot like Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, doesn't it?—might very well have earned the "other Johnson" a few Cup crowns of his own as a driver.


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    DW would likely have been CW in his Cup career. No, not country and western, we're talking Chase Winner.

    Sure, Waltrip won 84 races and three Cup crowns—and he did it the hard way, oftentimes battling adversity as much as he battled fellow competitors on the racetrack.

    But if there's one thing Waltrip was during much of his career, it was that of a streaky driver. We don't mean that in a negative tone, but one look at his statistics will show you that when Waltrip got hot, he usually stayed hot.

    And, conversely, when he got cold, it took him a while to thaw out at times.

    However, if the Chase format had been around in his time, old DW likely would have won probably at least another one or two championships because, much like Jimmie Johnson, the Chase would likely have brought out the best in him at the time it mattered most.


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    Richard Petty never hesitates to pay David Pearson the biggest compliment a fellow champion can give his toughest rival, calling Pearson the best driver—and hardest to beat—he ever raced against.

    Indeed, Pearson was, with 105 race victories (second on the all-time list only to Petty's 200 wins) and three Cup championships.

    The way we see it, Pearson would have been a natural for a Chase-style format—and could potentially have changed Cup history in the process.

    The reason: Pearson raced in the Cup series for 27 seasons, but came close to competing in full seasons (he never had a 100 percent attendance mark in any one season) just fours times.

    So, essentially, Pearson was a part-time driver for the majority of his career.

    Had he enjoyed more full-time seasons, particularly with the Chase format, we predict he likely would have taken away some of Petty's 200 wins and added them to his own tab—not to mention maybe win another one or two or more championships, as well.


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    While David Pearson may have been the toughest opponent that Cup racing has ever seen, Cale Yarborough would likely have been a close second or maybe third.

    The Darlington, S.C. resident was a monster behind the wheel—and we mean that in the most complimentary fashion possible. With 83 wins and three championships—all in a row from 1976-78—Yarborough won those championships in some of the hardest ways possible.

    We're not saying that, if the Chase format was around when Yarborough was in his prime, his chances of winning more championships would have been easier. But it certainly would have played to his strengths as both a tough competitor and a thinking man's driver.

    While guys like Pearson and Petty were muscle style drivers, Yarborough was more of a cerebral-type driver, similar to Jimmie Johnson.

    It's our contention that Yarborough may not have earned more wins under a Chase-style format, but we firmly believe he could have taken home at least two more Cup crowns that way.


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    If there was ever a man made for racing in the Chase, it was the late Dale Earnhardt.

    For as legendary of a career that he enjoyed, with 76 wins and a record-tying (with Petty) seven championships, Earnhardt would likely have taken his reputation as The Intimidator to even greater heights in the Chase.

    While he displayed a gruff exterior with the thick Snidely Whiplash mustache and the all-black No. 3 Chevrolet, Earnhardt, much like Jimmie Johnson, didn't just win races and championships through brute force or with his fabled "Chrome horn."

    No, rather, Earnhardt raced like some Grand Masters play chess—always thinking several moves (or in Earnhardt's case, several laps) ahead of his opponents. He had an uncanny way of knowing how the next several laps of a race would unfold, but he'd do everything in his power to take advantage of his prophecy powers, and tried to be in the right place at the right time to cash in.

    That's virtually the same formula Jimmie Johnson used to win his five Cup crowns from 2006-10, as well as how Tony Stewart won his second and third Cup crowns in 2005 and 2011.

    And, add newly crowned Cup champ Brad Keselowski to that same thinking man's driver way of racing.

    Had Earnhardt not been killed in the 2001 season opening Daytona 500, he very well may have raced in the first Chase in 2004—and may have claimed that first crown under the new format than Kurt Busch.


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    While some may wonder why we didn't mention Richard Petty at the start of this diatribe, there's actually a reason for that.

    We're not 100 percent convinced Petty would have excelled in a Chase-style format.

    When he was en route to winning a record 200 wins and record-tying seven Cup championships (along with Dale Earnhardt), Richard Petty unquestionably had the best equipment, best cars, best crew chief in Dale Inman and the best crew.

    To put it simply, Petty dominated NASCAR's formative years. But if a Chase format had been around during his racing days, we're not 100 percent convinced that he still would have won seven Cup crowns, let alone 200 race wins.

    You see, Petty drove from the seat of his pants, the kind of driver that mashed the gas pedal and hung on for dear life. His mindset as a driver was less cerebral than guys like Yarborough or Earnhardt, and more Pearson-like in that Petty dominated so much by simply having the fastest and most powerful car.

    Of course, an argument can be made that Petty still would have excelled in the Chase for the same reasons he did under the old points structure as we just mentioned: fastest car, best crew chief and best team.

    Still, I'm not 100 percent convinced the Chase would have played out more often than not in Petty's favor. Anyone care to take a stab at such and explain to me why you think he would have been a Chase success? If so, please leave a comment below.


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    Anthony Joseph Foyt, aka A.J. Foyt, earned seven wins in his 128-race Cup career (compared to his longevity in open-wheel Indy Car racing).

    But had the Chase been in existence back then, Foyt may very well have rewritten history—at least his own—by sticking more with NASCAR and foregoing much of his Indy Car career.

    Foyt rose to the occasion when he needed to most in his Cup career. That's why he's one of only two drivers (the other is Mario Andretti) to ever win both a Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, the latter which he did a record-tying four times.

    But here's the key: Foyt's 128 Cup starts came over a 30-year span, meaning he averaged just over four starts per season. By comparison, he had 297 starts in 35 years on the Indy Car circuit—and really, the last 12 years of that skein didn't count for much as he ran only 15 races total, earning just one win.

    Still, if a Chase format had been in existence, it's likely Foyt would have adapted to it like a duck to water and could easily have gone on to several Cup crowns—at the expense of his Indy Car career.

    Foyt would have liked the challenge of the playoff structure and the countdown aspect as the championship drew closer with each passing race. His racing approach is almost a carbon copy—in fact, it inspired—Tony Stewart's own style of racing…and he's already won two Chase titles, with the likelihood of at least one more in the remainder of his current Cup career.


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    The last three slides are what I call the "What if Club."

    What if death hadn't tragically taken the last three drivers we chose for this little exercise, namely, Alan Kulwicki, Tim Richmond and Davey Allison? Would they have become some of the biggest superstars the sport has ever known, rather than losing their lives far too early and far too prematurely in their respective racing careers?

    Alan Kulwicki, we feel, would have also excelled at driving in a Chase format because he welcomed tough odds and situations that seemed insurmountable.

    In fact, the suburban Milwaukee native, who was the most recent combination driver and team owner to win a Cup championship until Tony Stewart did so in 2011, likely would have embraced the Chase format because it presented the kind of challenge Kulwicki thrived on throughout his career.

    In other words, the little guy beating the big guys at their own game, much like the way Brad Keselowski won the Cup title this season.

    Kulwicki won five races and just one Cup championship in his all-too brief NASCAR career, tragically losing his life in a plane crash just outside Bristol, Tenn., less than six months after he stormed from behind to win the 1992 Cup crown by a mere points over the heavily favored Bill Elliott, doing so in the last race of the season.

    Coincidentally, that race was also the last of Richard Petty's Cup career and the first of Jeff Gordon's Cup tenure.

    Had he not died so young and prematurely, we could easily have seen Kulwicki win at least two more championships under the old format—and who knows how many more under a Chase format.


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    Tim Richmond won 13 races in his Cup career. He never won a championship during his tenure—although he did finish third in his last full-time season in 1986.

    Tragically, Richmond passed away at the far-too-young age of 34 in 1989 due to complications from the AIDS virus.

    Many observers, including the late David Poole, the long-time and well-respected NASCAR beat writer for The Charlotte Observer, believed Richmond would have been a multi-season champion had he not fallen ill and eventually passed away.

    I concur in that belief.

    And, had Richmond been part of a Chase format, he likely would have shot to the top of the charts because if there was one thing he thrived upon the most, it was challenge.

    And a Chase format would have presented the ultimate challenge to Richmond, to be the best you could be in a given number of races, be it the current 10-race Chase or perhaps a different amount of races back in his time.

    Richmond was one of those drivers who thrived on excitement both on and off the racetrack, and the excitement of a Chase-style format would have likely brought out the best in him.

    Once again, we refer back to the "What if?" dilemma, but we feel confident that many NASCAR oldtimers that either raced against or watched Richmond grow up in the series would likely agree that he would have been a multi-season Cup champion some day—Chase format or not.


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    Picking Davey Allison was one of the most difficult choices we had in this exercise.

    On the one hand, the younger Allison had 19 wins in his career, but never won a Cup championship.

    On the flip side is his father Bobby, who is tied with Darrell Waltrip for fourth on NASCAR's all-time wins list (each with 84 victories) and earned one Cup championship during his career.

    Bobby was, without question, old school to the core, one of the original members of NASCAR's fabled "Alabama Gang." Had the Chase been around in his day, we feel Allison's competitiveness and hard-charging ways would likely have earned him at least another one or two more championships.

    Unfortunately, tragedy befell both Allisons and prevented each from achieving even greater success—even if there had been a Chase format in place.

    Bobby was nearly killed in a wreck at Pocono that ended his racing career abruptly.

    Davey, sadly, did lose his life, less than a year after brother Clifford was killed while practicing for a race at Michigan International Speedway. Davey's death came not on the racetrack, but in a parking lot adjacent to Talladega Superspeedway, where he was practicing takeoffs and landings of a brand new helicopter he had just purchased.

    If the Chase format had existed during both of the Allison's racing careers, we feel it would have favored father and son equally—and they would likely have both reaped the benefits of it.

    Unfortunately, much like Earnhardt, Kulwicki and Richmond, we'll never know.

    Still, given the way the Chase has evolved and presented numerous great, close storylines in its nine-year run thus far—particularly when Kurt Busch won in 2004, Tony Stewart beat Carl Edwards in 2011 and how Brad Keselowski won in 2012—something tells me that old school drivers not only would have embraced the format, but would also have kicked some major butt in it, as well.