The NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup has made three new friends in Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
They’re keeping it alive and proving that the idea of NASCAR’s version of the playoffs was sheer genius.
This Sunday, Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick will all head to Homestead with a real shot to win the 2010 Sprint Cup Championship.
Hamlin is the only driver in control of his own destiny. If he finishes second and leads the most laps or wins the race, he’s the champ.
It’s that simple.
Both Johnson and Harvick need for their closest competitors to finish some combination of positions behind them and lacking in lap leader bonus points.
The 15-point margin between Hamlin and Johnson is the tightest since the 2004 birth of the Chase when Kurt Busch enjoyed an 18-point edge over Jimmie Johnson.
It’s also the first time since 2004 that three drivers have been inside of 50 markers from each other heading into the season finale.
For the last couple of seasons, there’s been debate over whether the Chase is working. Going into the last few races, there’s a lot of talk about “tweaking the Chase.”
That sounds dubiously like code for “make it so Johnson won’t win again.”
He’s won the last four titles because he’s been the best driver in the Chase format. Currently it’s the way NASCAR crowns its champion, and the No. 48 team has excelled at it.
This year, a fifth title doesn’t seem like a sure thing. The Chase is working just fine.
The Chase was devised at the end of the 2003 season, in part a response to the remarkably unremarkable one-win championship season of Matt Kenseth. NASCAR was feeling mounting pressure from its broadcast partners and fans that the final races were meaningless since the trophy was in hand.
Since then, the Chase is evening out the spread.
In the 14 seasons from 1990-2003, six championships were clinched before the season’s final race. Dale Earnhardt clinched early in `94, Jeff Gordon clinched early in ’98 and ’01, Dale Jarrett sealed up his 1999 title with time to spare.
Bobby Labonte hit cruise control in 2000 and, of course, Kenseth did it in 2003.
Get out the calculator and figure the percentage of early clinches. It’s 42.8 percent of the seasons.
NASCAR is now in the seventh year of the Chase. Without it, those seven seasons would have looked a lot different.
Over the course of those years, the classic points system would have produced a different champion on three separate occasions.
Gordon would have won in 2004 and 2007 instead of Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson respectively. Carl Edwards would have won the 2008 title after his remarkable nine-win season instead of Jimmie Johnson.
To both Edwards and Gordon’s credit, neither complained about the system that denied them the title in any of those years.
For Edwards, the title would have been an exclamation point on a spectacular 2008 campaign.
For Gordon, the loss of those titles has to be particularly painful. He’d have six titles, hot on the heels of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, in pursuit of a record-tying seventh championship.
Something else would have happened, though, in the seven years since the inception of the Chase using the classic points.
Three of the titles would have been clinched with racing to spare.
Heading into the last race in 2005, Tony Stewart would have enjoyed a 282-point lead over Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon would have had a whopping 344-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in 2007, and Kevin Harvick would have stolen championship implications from Homestead with an insurmountable 295-point lead this season.
Three times in the last seven seasons, the title would be claimed before the last race.
Do the math again: 42.8 percent of the time. Remarkably, that’s exactly the same clip for early clinches over the previous 14 seasons.
Since the Chase began, no driver has been able to pack up the trophy before Homestead. In each of the seven seasons with the Chase format, at least two drivers have had a shot at the title in South Florida.
In 2004 and 2006, five drivers had a shot at it headed to the final race at Homestead.
In 2005, it was four drivers. And in the last three years, two drivers still could mathematically win it.
Considering that this season, three drivers have a shot at it, in four out of seven years the Chase has given us more than two drivers in contention at Homestead.
2009 is the aberration. For those of you who hate the Chase, pay attention because this is your year.
Jimmie Johnson carried a 141-point lead over Mark Martin to Homestead. Martin was the only driver within the 162-point window to catch Johnson in the season finale.
Using the classic points, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon would have both been within a manageable 56 points of Johnson with a shot to win the championship.
Remarkably, Martin would have been long eliminated. He would be 361 points back in fourth place with no shot at his first Sprint Cup title.
The Chase is working just fine. It’s wasn’t broken as Johnson collected his remarkable four straight titles, and it’s sure not broken now.
It’s giving fans more suspense and reason to watch at Homestead, which was why it was invented in the first place.
Jimmie Johnson could claim history again, with a staggering fifth straight title.
Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick could prove that they have unraveled the mystery of winning the Chase.
The Chase ain’t broken. It never has been.
Don’t try to fix it.