This week will look at the history of the Chase and where it will go from here.
Change was the key word when it came to NASCAR in 2004. Gone was the long-time series sponsor Winston. In its place was Nextel, a move that was certainly geared toward the younger demographic. Texas and Phoenix would be given two races a year beginning in 2005. Darlington’s annual Labor Day Southern 500 was moved to November and would only be hosting one race a year on Mother’s Day Weekend beginning in 2005. Finally, Rockingham hosted its final race in the Cup Series in February. Also in 2004, new NASCAR CEO Brian France announced that there would be a new way to crowning the series champion. In years past, the drivers would earn points throughout the season and whoever had the most points at the end of the season was the champion.
This format resulted in several instances where the championship was decided long before the season was over. While it wasn’t mathematically decided, it was a forgone conclusion who would win the title. It especially didn’t help that Matt Kenseth won the final Winston Cup, despite winning only one race in 2003. Too often drivers played it safe and settled for a “good points day” instead of going for the win. Due to that and the fact that the championship had long since been decided, viewers were tuning out racing late in the year. France wanted that to change so he set about coming up with a new way to determine the champion.
What France came up with was a playoff-like competition called the Chase for the Nextel Cup. The drivers would accumulate points throughout the season much like they had in previous years through the 26th race on the schedule, which was the September race at Richmond International Speedway. After the Richmond race was over and the points had been added to the drivers’ totals, the top ten in points and anyone within 400 points of the leader would make the Chase for the Nextel Cup and have a chance to win the championship over the final 10 races. The drivers would have their point totals reset and the leader would have 5050 points and the rest of the field would be behind in five-point increments. (Second place would start with 5045, third place would begin with 5040, and so on.)
Going into the 2004 September Richmond race, there were eight drivers battling for three spots in the Chase. Jeremy Mayfield took the lead with two laps to go and won the race and raced his way into the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup. Kurt Busch won the opening Chase race at New Hampshire and held on to win the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup by a scant eight points over Jimmie Johnson. The Chase was everything NASCAR officials could have hoped for as the top three drivers were separated by 16 points.
In 2005, despite not winning a Chase race, Tony Stewart claimed his second championship and became the first (and so far only) driver to win a title under the old season-long format and the new Chase format. One of Stewart’s five wins came at his home track of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the one place Stewart wanted to win at more than any other. Roush teammates Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards tied for second place, but Biffle took runner-up honors thanks to six wins on the season compared to Edwards’ four wins.
2006-2010 were the years of Jimmie Johnson. He won five straight titles, taking down Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, and Denny Hamlin respectively. Johnson won 35 races in those five seasons, including 10 in 2007. Johnson was at his best in the Chase those years as he was able to put away or overcome his opponents.
The 2011 Chase could possibly go down as the best title fight ever. Tony Stewart declared before the Chase that his team wasn’t very good and didn’t deserve to be in the Chase. Then Stewart turned around and won four races in the Chase to close to within striking distance of Carl Edwards. Edwards and Stewart went down to the wire at Homestead, knowing that they needed a good run to win the title. Stewart was in the ultimate win-and-in situation, as only a win would give him enough points to take down Edwards. Late in the race, Stewart and Edwards were running 1-2 and that’s how they finished with Stewart getting the win he needed to claim the title. With Edwards finishing second, Stewart and Edwards were tied for the points lead after the race! Stewart had five wins on the season (all coming in the Chase) while Edwards only had one. NASCAR’s tiebreaker is number of wins on the season, so Stewart won his third championship. It was the first time since Stewart himself won the title in 2005 that the champion was not named Jimmie Johnson. Johnson finished sixth in the final standings. The 2011 Chase also saw the addition of two wild-card drivers. The top two drivers between 11th and 20th following Richmond who had the most wins made the Chase as wild-card drivers.
In 2012, Brad Keselowski came out of nowhere to win the championship, and give team owner Roger Penske his first Cup title. Keselowski found himself fighting Johnson for the title, but refused to back down and when Johnson found trouble at Phoenix and Homestead, Keselowski took advantage and won the title. Keselowski won five races in the 2012 season, including two in the Chase to take down Johnson.
Johnson returned to the top and earned his “six-pack” as he took the 2013 Chase for the Championship. He won the Daytona 500 for the second time in his career and won five more races, including two in the Chase to hold off Matt Kenseth by 19 points. The 2013 Chase had its share of craziness before it started when Martin Truex, Jr. was removed and Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon were added to the lineup following what NASCAR said was an attempt by Michael Waltrip Racing to ensure that Truex received one of the two wild-card spots.
The Chase is now a decade old. Has it worked? Most fans would say that it has only worked in the years that Jimmie Johnson has not won the title. All the drivers have the same rules to follow and have to race on the same tracks in the Chase. Johnson has just been better at capitalizing on his best tracks, minimizing his mistakes, and capitalizing on the mistakes of others. That’s why he’s won six titles. One problem with the Chase is a driver who has a bad run in the first race is almost assuredly out of the hunt for the championship right away. Kurt Busch got wrecked at New Hampshire in 2005 and never had a chance to defend his title. In 2013, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. blew an engine at Chicagoland and only rebounded to finish fifth. Jr. Nation can only wonder how well Earnhardt could have done had he not blown an engine in the first race.
What will the 2014 Chase bring? If it’s anything like the 2011 Chase, race fans are in for a treat. However, the chance for an ending like that only happens once in a while, and the chance for the top two drivers to tie for the lead is even slimmer. As long as more than two drivers have a mathematical chance going into Homestead, fans and officials should be pleased with the end result.
David Barr is an intern at Berks-Mont Newspapers and is a graduate of Daniel Boone High School. He is currently studying Communications at Mansfield Universtiy.