So in 2004 "The Chase" was born - a playoff system that would set the stage for a more exciting end to the season, and (hopefully) leave the eventual champion in doubt until the last possible moment. (More on that in a minute.) The 36-race season is broken into two parts. There's 26 races to decide who qualifies to compete in The Chase, and the 10-race chase itself. The cutoff race is the Chevy Rock 'n Roll 400 at Richmond on September 9th - after that, the whole thing changes.
Drivers who are in the top-10 in points, or within 400 points of the championship leader after Richmond, are eligible for The Chase. If you log on to www.nascar.com and check the standings at the bottom of the page, you'll see who's in, who has a shot, and who's mathematically eliminated from contention. Look closely at the current situation, and you'll see it's going to be ten drivers, and that's it. Jimmie Johnson has run so well week-in and week-out that he merely has to show up for the next couple of races and he's set. Prior to the start of the Bristol race on August 26th, Jimmie has a 58 point lead on Matt Kenseth. After Kenseth the gulf widens (from Johnson) by 317 points to Kevin Harvick in third, 395 to Mark Martin in fourth, and 406 to Tony Stewart fifth. So you can see that this is pretty much a two-horse race with 13 races to go.
The Chase takes all that separation away, and bunches up the competitors for the 10-race playoff. Those in The Chase are bumped up and the leader starts at 5050 points, second at 5045, and five point increments back from there. Those outside The Chase maintain the number of points they had previously, but race for a million dollars, awarded to the first place points finisher outside the playoff. So all bets are off when the teams head to New Hampshire for the first race of The Chase.
The 2004 Chase went down to the last lap of the last race at Homestead. Kurt Busch won the championship by eight (yes, 8) points over Jimmie Johnson, and 16 over Jeff Gordon. If Johnson had led one lap at one of the races, or finished two positions better, he would have won. Similar could be said for Gordon, who would have won the championship under the old format over Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Lead a lap here and there, or finish a couple of spots ahead of the other guy, and that can make all the difference at the end. Consider this: if you can manage to lead a lap in all ten Chase races, either by being the fastest car or by clever pit strategy, that's 50 points toward your season-end total.
Last year's Chase was a little more on the given side. Tony Stewart had to finish better than "X"; Jimmie Johnson, "Y"; Greg Biffle, "Z"; and Carl Edwards had a shot as well. Johnson wrecked due to a bad tire, Tony struggled to finish 15th, Edwards was 4th and Biffle won. The end result was Stewart winning the title, Biffle and rookie Edwards tied for second, 35 points back, and Johnson fell from second to fifth in the final standings. That's how critical and close it can be under The Chase format.
There have been concerns voiced, as the sport's two most popular drivers in Earnhardt and Gordon missed The Chase last year, with Gordon collecting the million-dollar prize for finishing first of the also-rans. The television ratings did not suffer, which wasn't surprising, since many fans root for more than one driver anyway. NASCAR, however, is concerned since this year's Chase field has been very dynamic from week-to-week. Earnhardt, Gordon, and Stewart (the three most popular drivers) have been outside the top-10, and at one point in July it appeared all three could miss The Chase. We'll have to wait until the end of the season to see if the bigwigs make "tweaks" to the format. Fans would seem to like to see more drivers - such as the top-15, or those within 500 points of the leader made eligible for The Chase. The concern now is that one bad run due to being caught up in someone else's wreck could take a title hopeful (read: popular driver that could adversely affect attendance or ratings) out.
It would seem that the desire for change stems from the "run to finish" rather than "run to win" strategy that tends to make some races less than exciting. Teams such as Johnson's, who has been the most consistent driver over the past three seasons, will try to run consistently well, rather than fight for wins (though Johnson has four wins this season and an average finish of 8.5). Other teams qualify very well, only to fall back early in races with mediocre results (see Ryan Newman - pick a year, that's been his most consistent "quality").