NASCAR & Auto Racing

In The Pits: Spice up the Chase by changing format

No offense to Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, who trail Jimmie Johnson by substantial point deficits yet still think they can win the championship.

Mathematically? Sure.

Realistically? Not a chance.

Just give the Sprint Cup to Jimmie Johnson right now because there's very little chance the two-time defending champion will fold over the season's final month.

Oh, the engine on his No. 48 Chevrolet could certainly fail — maybe even this weekend at Atlanta, where motors are vulnerable over the fast 500 miles. And he could get caught up in a crash just about anywhere.

But in terms of preparation and rising to the occasion, it's rather unlikely that Johnson will give anyone the opportunity to deny him a third consecutive title. Following his victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, Johnson extended his lead in the standings to 149 points over Biffle, 152 over Jeff Burton and 198 over Edwards.

It's shaping up to be a runaway, and that's hardly the exciting close to a season NASCAR hoped for when it implemented its 10-race Chase for the championship format.

Launched in 2004 after Matt Kenseth's no frills run to the title — he won just one race, but notched 25 top-10s en route to the 2003 championship — NASCAR hoped to devise a playoff system that would draw hype and excitement to the final two months of the season. The idea was to reset after the 26th "regular season" race and give the 10 highest-ranked drivers an equal shot at the title.

But what they came up with isn't exactly the same thing as the New York Giants earning the opportunity to knock off the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

The system isn't really a playoff at all — nobody gets eliminated after a "loss" — and it's still points-based over 10 long weeks. A bad start to the Chase could sink a driver deep into the standings, to never recover over the final two months of the season.

That was proven the very first year of the format, when Robby Gordon wrecked Biffle early in the opening Chase race and Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield were collected. Stewart and Mayfield were innocent victims, yet neither recovered to contend for the first Chase title.

It was that very next week that critics of the format began calling for a separate points system. Why, many wondered, aren't the contenders graded on a system just for them? Mayfield finished 35th that day, earning 58 points under the standard scoring system.

It dropped him to 10th in the Chase field (the format wasn't expanded to 12 drivers until last season) and 142 points out of the lead. Just 64 laps into the Chase, his title hopes were ruined: Mayfield finished last in the Chase that season.

NASCAR's defense back then on not using a separate points system is that a championship is won with consistency, and any driver capable of running near the front for 10 straight weeks is title worthy. That's absolutely right. But it also sucks all the life out of what the creators had hoped would be a thrilling buildup to a winner-takes-all finale each year in Homestead, Fla.

The truth is, under the standard scoring system, there's been very little on the line by the time the field gets to Homestead.

In fairness, there were five drivers mathematically eligible to win the title in the 2004 season finale. Separated by just 82 points from Kurt Busch at the top to Mark Martin in fifth, anything theoretically could have happened that day.

But it didn't, and Busch finished fifth in the race to lock up the first Chase championship to start a string where the points leader headed into Homestead has won the title in every year of this format.

The 2007 Chase version was decent in that Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon battled for the title with two near-flawless performances. But when Johnson started his string of four-straight victories late last season, the title was his a week before they rolled into Florida.

The results have had so little mystery, that the last three season-finales were an exercise of the eventual champion simply staying out of trouble and making it to the finish. Stewart won the 2005 title by finishing 15th at Homestead, while Johnson was ninth and seventh the past two years.

So maybe it's time to revisit a separate scoring system. Not for the sake of fairness, but to pump some life into the Chase and truly create an all-of-nothing finish to the year.

If you scored the contenders on a 1-12 system — 12 points to the highest-finishing Chase driver, one point to the lowest — the current standings actually wouldn't look that much different. Johnson would still be on top, Biffle would be in second, and Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch would still be bringing up the rear.

But Johnson's lead would be just 10 points over Biffle, while Busch would be within striking distance at 38 points out. Busch is currently 445 points out of the lead and dismissed his title hopes after mechanical failures in the first two Chase races.

That system would still have the bottom drivers in mathematical contention, at least for another week or so, and send at minimum three drivers into the finale with a chance to pull off an upset.

Alas, NASCAR argues that creating a separate points system makes the Chase too contrived, adds too much manipulation to crowning a champion. But isn't that what the creators did simply in inventing the Chase?