When NASCAR changed the Sprint Cup points system in 2004, they created a playoff scheme they later dubbed the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The 10-race Chase at the end of the 36-race season lines up 12 drivers with the highest "regular season" points against each other with a new set of points. Tweaking increased the field to 12 from the original 10. Then NASCAR awarded 10 bonus points for a win.
Some fans and drivers complained then about the change and some still do, but most drivers and a majority of fans have endorsed a Chase playoff system that has worked. The Chase increased excitement at the end of the year.
The NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series followed NASCAR’s lead in 2006 by creating their Countdown to 1, a six-race playoff with 10 drivers in each pro class for their 23-race season.
One thing critics of the playoff format can’t deny is that the rules are the same for every driver, every team.
Four–time Pro Stock Car champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. sees beyond that reality. "No matter what you think of the Countdown,” Coughlin said, “you can’t argue that it creates an added level of competitiveness, real excitement."
A playoff system changes strategies during the long season because the goal is to make the Chase or Countdown and be there with as many points and wins as possible.
In NHRA drag racing six drivers have clinched positions in the Countdown to 1 going into the Sonoma race: six in Top fuel, one in Funny Car, four in Pro Stock Car, and one in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
14–time Funny Car champion John Force isn’t about to relax after clinching.
“I’m glad to be in the Countdown,” Force said, “but there’s no way I’m going to take it easy. I’m going to try and get as many points as possible. We want to have that top spot going into the Countdown. We want all the points we can get.”
John Force Racing’s champion driver Robert Hight hasn’t clinched yet, but seemed to echo the thoughts of his boss.
“You want to be as high in the points as possible because you get the bonus points for being in that No. 1 spot,” Hight said. “With as tough as the competition is those extra points can mean the difference for the championship. If you get that No. 1 spot and then can hold your own in the Countdown you can be in good shape for the championship.”
Top Fuel dragster leader Larry Dixon fully understands his present position at the top of the field.
“We have three races and 12 rounds of racing left in the regular season; we have almost a nine-round lead,” Dixon said. “Over the next three races, at a minimum, we want to defend our position and go into the Countdown as the No. 1 seed.”
Top Fuel ace Cory McClenthan is second in points and shared his strategy.
"I'd like to throw down some more wins before we get into the Countdown and move up in the standings,” McClenthan said. “But when it really comes down to it, I would save it all for the Countdown,"
Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Hector Arana has clinched and is confident.
“We're happy with everything that's happened so far," Arana said. "If we keep racing like this we will be in great shape when the Countdown starts. Getting a win or two or three before then would be wonderful.”
Jeg Coughlin Jr. looks forward to starting the Countdown to 1.
"They reset the points for the top 10 drivers and separate everyone by just 10 points each from top to bottom so it's close to starting from scratch," Coughlin said. "The exciting thing for us is I genuinely feel like this is the best race car I've had since I've been with Victor Cagnazzi Racing, and I say that knowing I've won two championships with this team. I just feel that much confidence in this car.”
The Countdown to 1 begins at Indianapolis in early September for NHRA Full Throttle Series and NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup starts at Loudon, N.H. in late September.
No matter when the motorsports playoffs start, fans can look forward to a fresh point setup and a strong charge that will eliminate contenders in swift action.
Photo credit: Gary Larsen @ Racetake.com