New Chase Format Works But The Title Will Be Won The Old Way
NASCAR CEO Brian France is very pleased with how the Chase is unfolding and he believes that the changes the sanctioning body made to its “playoff” system have greatly improved it.
Given what’s happened so far in the 10-race format, it’s hard to argue with him.
“Obviously I’m not sure we can be any more pleased with how the Chase is unfolding,” France said. “Frankly, we’re pleased with how the season has unfolded, the level of competition and the closeness in the Chase.”
Indeed the Chase has, to date, produced the type of drama for which it was created and I have to agree that the tweaks NASCAR made in the off-season have played role.
“The ‘wildcard’ is one,” France said of the modifications, “And streamlining and simplifying the points system is another that have made it easier for people to understand how you qualify. And they have added some drama.
“It’s done all of that and if you look back, at the time, those moves were considered small ones. But they have actually had a big impact and that’s terrific.”
Again, it’s hard to disagree.
However, it doesn’t matter, really, under which system NASCAR uses, or has used, to determine its champion. Whether it was with the old points format – with the absence of a Chase altogether – the “old” Chase or today’s modified one, how a title is ultimately won is always based on performance.
A champion is the driver who runs consistently well on the track and avoids problems. If he does have them he and his team, together, routinely overcome them.
Sounds simple, but it’s certainly not that easy to achieve. Any competitor will tell you that.
The drama that is a big part of this year’s version of the Chase has been created by the fact that there are currently eight drivers within 20 points of one another with six races remaining.
The top five in points are separated by a mere 12 points and the drivers who rank among the top three are separated by a margin of just four points.
As for the top two, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, respectively, a single point splits them.
This excruciatingly close championship scenario was partly created by the modifications NASCAR made to the Chase.
But, more so, it exists because all the drivers and teams involved have piled up consistently high finishes and surmounted occasional problems.
In his a quest for a sixth-straight championship, Jimmie Johnson’s efforts in the Chase have been well documented. He stumbled out of the gate, especially at New Hampshire, where he finished 18th, but overcame with finishes of second and first in the last two races to rise from 10th to third in points, four in arrears.
That’s an obvious combination of surpassing bad fortune and consistent performance.
But there are a few more pronounced examples of this.
Edwards, the man many have said would knock Johnson of his pedestal – that’s been said of him for the last three seasons – has been the most consistent driver in the Chase.
His worst finish in four races has been eighth. All the others were in the top five. That kind of performance week after week will put make any driver a serious championship contender.
But Edwards and his Roush Fenway Racing team have overcome, also. This was especially true at Kansas. If they hadn’t done so in the Hollywood Casino 400 they certainly would not be No. 1 by any means.
As soon as the Kansas race started, Edwards began dropping back into the pack in a car that slid all over the track. In just 47 of 267 laps he was in 20th place and fighting to keep from losing a lap.
He pitted for a lengthy period of time during the second caution period, restarted 25th and fell a lap down to Johnson by lap 159.
His crew constantly worked on his car thereafter. Edwards regained the lead lap with a free pass on lap 206 and moved forward from there. He was 13th as the race wound down and, after the green-white-checkered finish, he had climbed all the way to fifth place.
“I can’t believe we finished fifth,” Edwards said. “It feels like we won the race. This is the most we’ve ever done with a car that wasn’t capable of winning the race so I’m proud of my guys who made good adjustments.”
Like Johnson, Edwards and his team serve as a perfect example of what it takes to earn a title.
That can also be said of Harvick and his Richard Childress Racing outfit.
Harvick’s Chase record so far isn’t as good as Edwards’, but it’s good enough. He has finished outside the top 10 only once. Among his top-five runs is a second place at Chicago, which pushed him from second in points – his rank when the “playoffs” began – to first.
But he and his team have also overcome adversity, again at Kansas.
Harvick and his team had an ill-handling Chevrolet at the start of the race and worked hard to improve it. They did enough to earn a sixth-place finish, one spot behind Edwards.
“It was a long day to say the least,” Harvick said. “Everyone on the team kept adjusting and nothing seemed to work right as far as the adjustments were going.
“But we kept swinging at it. On the next to last pit stop we put four tires on and I knew we were going to be close to cutoff line of when the other guys would pit.
A glance at the Chase records of almost all the leading contenders clearly indicates they have been consistent and have prevailed over adversity.
Brad Keselowski, for example, started the Chase as a “wildcard” entry and was 11th in points. He’s now fourth and only 11 back, due largely to three top-six runs in four races. He earned sixth place at Kansas on a rebound from a mediocre 20th-place finish at Dover a week earlier.
Yes, the revamped Chase has provided us with plenty of drama and most likely will continue to do so. France should indeed be pleased.
But in the end nothing will change. As it always has been, the driver who becomes champion will have done so by consistency of performance and the ability to overcome misfortune.
We’ve seen enough evidence of that already.