Racing 101, Part 1: The Chase for the Nextel Cup

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Racing 101, Part 1: The Chase for the Nextel Cup
I'm sure there are plenty of NFL fans out there.  After all, it is the number one spectator sport in the U.S. today.  Question is, do you know what number two is? If you guessed Major League Baseball or the NBA, cue the Family Feud buzzer.  NASCAR would be the correct answer, but thanks for playing.
 
In case you don't know what NASCAR stands for (and understand that it is ALL CAPS because it is an acronym), it is "National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing."  I'm sure you've been watching FOX, NBC, or other channels and seen advertisements for NASCAR, the racers, or their sponsors. Actually, if you're walking, breathing, and venture out from home, you've probably seen something NASCAR-related. From vending machines at the local home improvement warehouse, to grocery stores, hair salons, fast food joints, cell-phone outlets, even your local beverage dealer - NASCAR is everywhere.  I'd argue that no other sport has the marketing power than NASCAR does, and on a national level at that.
 
So you might have seen the word NASCAR before, or maybe even watched a race for a few minutes.  Since knowledge is the key to understanding, I'd like to start a series of columns to 'splain some of the world of NASCAR and other forms of auto racing to those who might like to know, but just hadn't bothered to check it out.  For this first installment, I'll address a message posted to my first article.  A reader requested an explanation of "The Chase," a.k.a. NASCAR's "playoff season".
  
NASCAR's top series is the "Nextel Cup" (formerly the "Winston Cup," but the sponsor and name changed when legislation limited the tobacco industry's marketing efforts), and it has a 36-race season running Saturday nights and Sundays from mid-February to November.  Points are awarded to the drivers for where they finish, for leading a lap, and for leading the most laps.  The winner gets 180 points, while second gets 170; five point increments then separate the positions back to sixth place, then four point increments to eleventh, and then three points back to 43rd (last).  Lead a lap, get five bonus points.  Lead the most laps in a race, receive five more bonus points.
 
The way it used to work at season's end was the driver with the most points won The Cup.  Simple.  After signing its big-dollar, multi-network television contract, NASCAR identified a weakness in viewership. Seemed that the guy who was going to win The Cup might well have an insurmountable lead over the competition with two or three races to go, and so people might not watch or attend races - a valid concern no matter where you stand opinion-wise on The Chase.  Essentially, it wouldn't be good television if you knew who the eventual winner of the football or baseball season would be with a few games to go.
 
However, if you look back over the history of NASCAR's senior series, you'd see there have been close points races without "The Chase" format.  Matt Kenseth won by 90 points in 2003, Tony Stewart by 38 in 2002, Jeff Gordon by 14 in 1997.  Look in between, though, and the winner was decided before the final race, sometimes two races.  It became a numbers game, and still is - just more convoluted.

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"). 
 
A potential solution would be to award points for qualifying, and expanding the difference between finishing positions.  Perhaps not awarding points for finishing outside the top-20 would be a thought, similar to Formula 1 (where only the top 8 finishers are awarded points in a race).  The idea of a "mulligan" comes to mind - allowing a driver to drop his worst finish from the final results. 
 
Whatever the case, NASCAR now has a playoff system that provides the fans two seasons to watch: one to see who makes it, and one see who races for the championship - and the big bucks.
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