For the last couple years the Chase has, to put it nicely, been lackluster. With no drama leading up to the Chase and the fleeting drama during the first few races, the Chase has been far from exciting.
In recent years, two drivers end up pulling away from the rest of the field. In 2007 Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson battled the entire season and in the Chase, Johnson won it all.
In 2008 it was all about Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards until the Chase. When it came down to the final races of the year, Busch struggled and Edwards and Johnson were battling for the championship. Johnson won again but Edwards did not go down easy.
The Chase field is 12 drivers; the very best of this sport battling it out for the championship.
The result is through bad luck or poor runs, week by week the championship comes down to one or two drivers.
2009 will be different. I believe what we have been seeing is the buildup for one of the best Chase series since its inception in 2004.
So far in 2009 the competition has been at its best, with 13 different winners. 35 different drivers have scored top 10 finishes.
When the Chase starts in a week, seven different organizations will be represented in the Chase, an increase from the four organizations that were represented in 2008.
The struggling car manufacturers in 2009 are all well represented with every manufacturer having a car in the playoffs. In 2008 Dodge was the only manufacturer to not have a car represented.
Unlike years past, only 40 points could separate the first place seeded driver and the last place driver. That could change if Busch makes the Chase and wins at Richmond, or if Mark Martin wins then it will be 50.
With the possibility that only 50 points separate the Chase drivers at New Hampshire, every race in the Chase will be critical. Minimizing mistakes will be crucial for the contenders to keep in touch with the leader.
Now usually the point spread has been as large if not larger of a gap. The difference this year is the competition is at its best.
Last year after the point reset, five of the 12 drivers had not won a race.
Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne was on the outside looking in with two wins and still missed the Chase. This year Busch could be the driver looking in with four wins.
We will still run into the same issues that we have seen in past Chases For instance, one bad race can knock a driver out of contention, but one good race can put a driver back into contention.
Take the Atlanta race; if you look at the top 10, most of the drivers were Chase contenders, often including David Reutimann, Busch or Brian Vickers who all still have a shot at making the Chase.
The close competition also plays a lot into the fact of this new car, lack of testing and strict rules that put both the driver and the crew chief in a box. Because of that the speeds and times are so close no team has an advantage.
Last year Edwards won the most races during the season and the Chase, but Johnson won the trophy. In 2007 Gordon was one of the most consistent drivers all year long, but in the Chase Johnson won the most races and won the trophy.
In 2009 to win the championship, a driver has to be both consistent and win a fair amount of races. For the first time in the Chase though, consistency might be the deciding factor.
With only two drivers having the possibility of not winning, the points spread is close and the 12th place driver coming in could be leading the standings by the checkered flag at Loudon.
This weekend’s race at Richmond will be the most important race of the year, for 15 drivers. Some drivers will be fighting for bonus points, while others will be fighting for their season.
History could be made this year.
Can Johnson win four in a row?
Will Tony Stewart be the first owner/driver since Alan Kulwicki to win the championship?
Can Gordon finally win his fifth title, in a hall of fame career?
Can Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman or Juan Pablo Montoya pull out an upset and win their first title?Can Kyle Busch race his way in? Or will Vickers?
These questions will have to be answered. Richmond this weekend begins to answer some of these questions.
Even so there will the critics who still are not happy with the current system.
Think about it without the Chase, Stewart has this title run all but finished.
Where is the drama in that?
There is no excitment when your driver is 400 points out of first and they are sitting in fourth, fifth, or sixth place.
Why tune in and watch, when it was over in September?
Criticizing the Chase has increased in popularity over the years for good reason. It’s not perfect and changes could be made, but this year the Chase might take us by surprise.
As far as competition goes, it can make or break the success of the Chase, but in 2009, it could be the best we have seen yet.
The Chase brings drama and this year the drama has been building for the last two months. Now fans can sit back and cheer on their favorite drivers as they battle for our sports biggest prize.