Chase For The NASCAR Sprint Cup: Easier Or Harder to Win Championship?

Kelly CrandallSenior Writer IJanuary 13, 2010

The Chase. The playoffs. The Jimmie Johnson show.

Alright, so that last suggestion hasn’t been used yet, but give it a few more years and we could very well be hearing it when describing the 12-man Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Since its inception in 2004 there have been many opinions about the Chase. Some love it, others hate it, and some don’t see the point. Ten races to crown a champion is not real racing and doesn’t show who a true champion is, they say.

But, winning the Chase championship doesn’t take anything away from any driver, doesn’t taint any of his accomplishments. That’s not what anyone is trying to say. Winning the Chase doesn’t make a driver any less of a champion, it just seems a little less pleasing since they didn’t do it over the 36-race season.

For the sake of this argument: If it is easier or harder to win the Chase or under the old point system, whether you love or hate the Chase, isn’t important. The only thing you need to decide is which points system you prefer and why.

The case for the old format would start with saying a driver had to be good for 36 weeks, on every type of track, and be able to salvage the day when it starts going bad. Teams had no choice but to build great cars every week and use them as soon and as often as possible.

It’s hard to be on your game for 36 races, short tracks, superspeedways, and road courses (which still isn't apart of the Chase), as well try to be the best of 42 other drivers. The old format had the history behind it and showed the driver that was truly the best of the best.

Definitely seems that under those conditions the old format is the hardest.  

But, along came the Chase and what many profess is actually the hardest way to win a championship. To that I say put me in an airplane and I’ll land it in the Hudson River like Captain Sully.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who has competed for titles under the new and old format, said it well.

“I love the [Chase] format. I just think it has not suited my style as much as the old one, because the one it’s about being consistent over 36 races, not just being able to knock it out of the park, or being consistent over ten races.”

Ten races to decide a champion is not an indication of which driver and team were on their game over the entire season. Gordon has never won a title under the Chase format, his four all came back when the season was decided each week, not in ten. There’s one big reason why he hasn’t accomplished the feat though, a reason that many haven’t won the title over the last four years, which will be clear in a moment.

For now understand this: Because of the Chase, no one cares what you do over 36 races, those races are not what the highlight reel will show. Being consistent is for the birds. Instead, the first 26 races are a test session, they pretty much mean nothing and any driver on a top team with great equipment knows they’re a given to make the Chase.

The first 26 races are to try things, what will work where, which track does a driver need to work on, etc. Because of that some drivers just lollygag around the first seven and a half months before putting up their best efforts in September, October, and November.

Where’s the racing in that?

When the Chase starts there’s the seeding process, meaning points that were accumulated by the drivers that actually put their best foot forward during the regular season don’t mean jack. Instead whoever pulled into victory lane the most was shot to the top of the point standings.

A few years ago the driver sitting seventh in points was moved to number one because of it, and was given a head start toward trying to win the title. And he did, the driver was Jimmie Johnson, who inherited the point lead by 20 over teammate Jeff Gordon instead of being lower in the points with a deficit.

Johnson didn’t earn his way to the top by being the best and consistent driver during the first 26 races; instead a NASCAR creation put him there. The same goes for Mark Martin, who last year was moved up nine positions to the point lead even though his team couldn’t do it during the first 26 races.

The opposite side of that are the drivers that were decently high in the points that lost their position because they hadn’t collected a checkered flag. In 2008 Kevin Harvick went from seventh in points to 11th and into an 80-point hole.

Ten races, that’s it. Fresh start once September comes, which wasn’t heard of back in the day. You didn’t get fresh starts, you had to go out and do the job every week. With that, and only having to compete against 11 other drivers instead of 42 makes the Chase a little easier to help capture a championship.

Cale Yarborough, three-time champion, agrees. “I think it may have been harder to win ‘em back then that it is today because you had to compete against everybody back then.”

Another thing going for the Chase drivers is the aforementioned racecars. Teams make no mistake about saving their best and fastest cars for last. They save them for when it really counts, since the only importance of the NASCAR season is now the end.

For those that say the Chase is the hardest way to win the title, why has Jimmie Johnson turned it into his personal playground the last four years?

Let’s be honest, Johnson in the Chase is like a geek in the classroom, no one likes him because he always has the answer and looks like a showoff, but yet they secretly want to be like him because he gets the job done.

Johnson’s the overachiever, and yet says the old format is the hardest. Can’t argue with him since he never won a title under that format. His first title came in 2006, two years after the Chase started, and he hasn’t looked back.

But to be honest, this whole piece is garbage; I’ve been lying to you. The Chase is hard; the Chase is so hard that it’s ridiculous. It’s the worst thing to happen in NASCAR, it’s unfair, and will never produce a good champion that deserves it.

So on and so forth, blah, blah, blah.

However, I'll spread the love: If anyone out there wants to make a case for the Chase being the hardest way to win a title, let's look at some of those arguments. 

The one about only having ten races and not being able to have a bad race goes out the window quickly. The reason is that in 2004 Kurt Busch had a 43rd place finish at Atlanta, the seventh Chase race, and still won the title by eight points. 

In 2006, Jimmie Johnson crashed in the first Chase race and was 139 points down, ninth in points. After Talladega three weeks later he was 156 points in the hole, seventh in points. He came back to win the title by 56 over Matt Kenseth. 

Last year he wrecked at Texas and lost 111 points. That was no problem, he just came back the next week, dominated, and won to make up for lost time of anyone doubting he was taking home another title. 

But, I can't hide it anymore, I'll admit it. The Chase is hard and the reason of course is none other than the man everyone has been talking about for years...

Jimmie Johnson. 

As mentioned, he’s made the final ten races his personal playground, and for the last four years, has made it impossible for any driver to win the title since he goes into the Chase (after using the first 26 races perfectly) and puts up just crazy, stupid numbers.

He won four straight races in the 2007 edition, and has nearly put up an average finish of 5.0 every year he’s taken home the big trophy.

The Chase isn’t the reason it’s hard to win the championship, Jimmie Johnson is the reason it’s hard to win the championship. Just ask Mark Martin, or Carl Edwards, ask Jeff Gordon, and even Matt Kenseth.

Other than that, I would love to see what anyone of us could do in ten races. 


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