NASCAR's Chase for Sprint Cup: Intensity Climbs Leading Into AAA 400 at Dover

Hank EptonCorrespondent ISeptember 24, 2010

Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin dice positions while Carl Edwards sneaks by.
Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin dice positions while Carl Edwards sneaks by.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The NASCAR Sprint Cup series heads to Dover, Del., this weekend for Race 2 of the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. If last weekend’s race is any indicator, the racing among the top 12 drivers should be just as aggressive as last weekend during the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire.

It seems that the teams competing for the championship—particularly the guys behind the wheel—are beginning to see the implications of gaining (or losing) just one extra spot. The racing at New Hampshire makes it hard to believe that there were a few fans arguing to move the Chase opener out of New Hampshire just a few weeks ago. 

The racing is getting more intense at every track now that teams are getting their heads around how quickly one can gain or lose ground after the points reset. At least half of the 12 Chase drivers were involved in some sort of incident during last week’s race, some of them with each other. A quick look at the numbers shows why the positions are more valuable now than ever. 

Consider how the ultimate champion has performed in the last five years against the last five “non-chase” seasons. The average finishes begin to tell the story. 

From 1999 to 2003, five different drivers won the Sprint Cup Championship. In the final 10 races of those years combined (50 races), the eventual champion posted an average finish of 10th. The worst 10-race average finish was Matt Kenseth’s 2003 season. Car 17 posted a 17th-place average finish over the last 10 races. Dale Jarrett performed best, with a sixth-place average in 1999.

The Chase has raised the bar for what it takes to win a title. From 2005 to 2009, the average finish of the eventual champ over the last 10 events has jumped to 7.4. Jimmie Johnson posted the best number in 2007 with a fifth-place average, with four wins along the way. The worst average for the last 10 races was JJ’s 2006 campaign, where he averaged a finish of 10.8.

Comparing the non-Chase champs with a 10th-place average and the Chase champs with a 7.4 shows a 25 percent improvement in finishing position. May not sound like much, but look at the NFL: Drew Brees threw for 4,388 yards and the Saints won the Super Bowl. Imagine how he would gamble throwing the ball if he knew he had to perform 25 percent better to repeat. He’d have to throw for almost 5,500 yards to take home the Lombardi Trophy again.

The points reset has had another impact on how these races are run. When it was decided that each regular season win would be worth 10 bonus points after Richmond, the intent was to emphasize winning. What’s ultimately happened is quite the opposite. The tale of two teammates shows how quickly those wins can be neutralized.

This season, Jimmie Johnson has posted five wins, all in the first half of the season: Fontana, Las Vegas, Bristol, Sonoma, and Loudon. In those five races Johnson was awarded 960 points.

In the same five races that Johnson won, his teammate Jeff Gordon posted three top fives, a 14th, and a 20th-place finish. He was awarded 719 points, meaning in those five races he lost 241 points to his teammate. 

Gordon was in third place in the points using the traditional formula after Richmond. It didn’t mean much other than making the Chase without wins and locked in a five-way tie for last among the Chasers. But on the other hand, Johnson’s five wins didn’t mean much more.

Going into the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire, Johnson had a 50-point lead over Gordon by virtue of his five victories against Gordon’s winless season. Johnson finished 25th and pocketed 88 points. Gordon finished sixth and took 155 points out of the Granite State. That’s a 67-point difference: 17 more than the reset awarded Johnson for all five of those wins this year. The 241-point difference in those five races evaporated with a reset and 19 positions between two teammates in one race.

Every position in the top five is worth five more points than the one behind it. If the guy you’re racing had one more win than you and you can pass him for fourth, you took five away from him by dropping him a spot and gained five for yourself by picking one up. That’s a 10-point swing—just happens to be the same amount of bonus points for winning a race during the regular season. Just one pass can take away the cushion a win provides.

The intensity is picking up because every single spot just means so much. The cream always rises, which is putting the Chasers in close proximity near the front of the field. Every pass between Chasers is worth double the value, since you’re gaining for you and taking from the other guy. In another football analogy, it’s like when your opponent fumbles just one yard from the end zone and you run it all the way back for a touchdown. You took six from them, and got six for yourself.

The AAA 400 at Dover should bring more of the same, since one pass, or one spin, or multiple spins, can have a dramatic impact. Every driver knows it’s just nine races to the end zone and a Sprint Cup title. The more you can double up on another chaser, the better. The numbers don’t lie.