The 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup was everything, and more, that NASCAR officials ever dreamed when they made the initial switch to a playoff format to determine a champion in 2004.
Much maligned, the Chase format truly delivered in 2011. It truly saw the emphasis on winning, so desired by fans, mean a great deal when the last checkered had waved.
Still, it could use a few tweaks to inject even more drama and intrigue into the final product.
It certainly does not need many alterations, as 2011 proved that a truly exciting tournament could proceed under the current formula.
However, nothing is perfect. Here are a few wrinkles that could make the Chase even more exciting.
As a caveat, it would be ridiculous to inculcate all of these ideas simultaneously. Rather, the adoption of one or two of these stipulations could, and would, make the Chase format a more interesting system.
For the past few years, the tracks and the order in which they are raced in the Chase have remained relatively the same.
The Auto Club Speedway, near Los Angeles, has been dropped and replaced by Chicagoland Speedway. Atlanta also used to hold a Chase race, but it was bumped off because of the addition of the Kentucky Motor Speedway to the regular season schedule in 2011.
Those are about the only real differences between now and five years ago. The 2012 Chase schedule mirrors 2011.
Admittedly, reworking the schedule is very difficult and must be done at least a year in advance. However, it would be a little more interesting to vary the tracks from year to year by location and order.
To place even more emphasis on winning, it should be a regular season requirement to become a Chase contender.
If more than 12 different drivers won during the regular season, it would have to come down to points. Therefore, Paul Menard and Regan Smith, despite winning races in 2011, would still not be Chasers.
This seems like the ultimate way to place the utmost and ultimate emphasis on winning races.
This is a simple idea. On the last day of the season, there could be a race that includes all of the non-Chasers.
After that, a feature race could include only the 12 Chase contenders to battle it out for the title.
That might not be totally fair to all, but it would make for an interesting finale to the season. It would have been great this year to see Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards duel on a sparser track.
NASCAR takes its show to two road courses per year. There is little doubt that putting a road course into the Chase schedule would put a wrinkle in the playoffs.
As it stands right now, including a road course would be more interesting to watch than the tandem drafting that happens at Talladega.
Restrictor plate racing has become quite bland, and the winner seems have to be more lucky than good to end up finishing first.
A road course in the Chase would rectify that immediately.
NASCAR, much like golf, involves events that are simply more prestigious than others. Winning a major tournament in golf includes being invited, automatically, to the other major tournaments.
Introducing this into NASCAR could really shake up the Chase from year to year.
Winners of the Daytona 500, Southern 500 (Darlington), Brickyard 400 (Indianapolis) and the Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte) races would be automatic Chasers under this stipulation.
In 2011, Trevor Bayne, Paul Menard and Regan Smith could have made the final cut.
This might not be completely fair, but it would make the four races even more important than they already are and could really introduce some new drivers to championship contention.
Making Chase race victories worth double the points from the regular season would have actually made the 2011 Chase less interesting. Tony Stewart would have won by a much bigger margin and the last race would have been much less dramatic.
However, in most years, this could help shake up the points and help some drivers contend for a title that would have otherwise been done.
It probably would not make that much of difference every year, but it does have the potential to allow for a third- or fourth-place driver to climb out of a points deficit and be more competitive.
NASCAR would never actually allow this to happen, but wouldn't it be interesting if Chase contenders were relegated from 43rd to 32nd places to start every event?
Basically, they would refrain from qualifying and would have to race to the front every race. 12th place in points would start 43rd, 11th place in 42nd, etc.
If nothing else, it would change the entire strategy of the teams and pit crews once the regular season finished and the Chase commenced.
This could create more incentive with non-Chase drivers to score a victory and make for some great racing.
For example, in 2011 Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the Chase despite going winless.
Tony Stewart won the first Chase race and would have been safe from elimination. On the other hand, Dale Earnhardt Jr. never won and would have been eliminated by Clint Bowyer after his victory at Talladega.
Bowyer would then be a Chase contender and take over whatever points that Earnhardt Jr. had amassed.
Thus, the only way to truly be safe over the course of the last 10 races would be to already have, or score, a win in the Chase.
Rather than counting points, the criteria could be simplified into an easier formula to follow.
Simply, whoever has the most wins, the most top-fives and top 10 finishes would make up the field.
In 2011, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick would still have qualified in the first and second spots. They each had four wins, but Busch had 13 top-five finishes as opposed to Harvick's seven.
Brad Keselowski would have been seeded fourth with three wins behind Jeff Gordon, who also had three wins but more top-fives.
Once again, Tony Stewart and Dale Jr. would have been replaced by David Ragan and Marcos Ambrose based on having a single win.
This is, in a sense, an alternative to the wild-card entries. It would not alter the initial order of the competitors very much, but it would create a crucial need to win while not necessarily having to be consistent.
The bottom line with probation and NASCAR is that it essentially means nothing. For the most part, it is a penalty in word only.
When Kyle Busch was placed on probation and parked in Texas, he should have been out of the Chase completely.
He was mathematically eliminated once he missed the Texas race, but NASCAR could solve many problems by being more strict with probation.
If drivers knew that their behavior and actions could result in them having to miss the Chase, many of these bad behaviors would likely cease because of the serious risks involved.
This may never happen again. 2011 actually had a tie in points at the end, but Tony Stewart won by the virtue of having more victories.
If it ever were to happen again, it may be more interesting to have those drivers who are deadlocked in points close the season out with a 20-lap head-to-head duel.
Fans of Tony Stewart would probably be against this, while Carl Edwards fans would most likely welcome it.
In any event, the 2011 showed just how exciting and nail-biting the Chase format can be. It is a solid model; it could just use a few tweaks, here and there, to strengthen its already solid composition.