When NASCAR introduced the Chase in 2004, the primary goal was to create a playoff-style system similar to professional team sports to generate excitement during the once-tedious final months of the season. Under the old points system, NASCAR's championship was often basically wrapped up several weeks -- if not months -- before the season finale, deeming the final races of the season irrelevant.
For example, during the four-year span from 1998 to 2001, the average margin of victory for the champion over the second-place finisher was nearly 300 points. Even under the old system in which there was as much as a 161-point difference between first and last place in a race, 300 points was a gap simply too wide to muster any true tension coming down the stretch.
Barring a string of mechanical issues or wrecks, the points leader could play it conservatively, rack up a steady stream of 10th-to-20th place finishes and run out the clock. There simply was no realistic way for the pursuers to catch up, and thus, the drama was drained out of the final weeks of the season.
The Chase has a few flaws -- most notably a heavy reliance on bland mile-and-a-half ovals -- but it's hard to argue that it is not an improvement over the old system. Sure, there are still seasons when a driver (Jimmie Johnson) is simply so dominant that the title is in hand with two or three races remaining, but it certainly is not as bad as it used to be. As early as August, Chase contenders come into discussion. And in the past two seasons the championship was still up for grabs entering the season finale at Homestead.
In professional sports many of the more thrilling moments occur in the weeks leading up to the playoffs. The final weeks of the NFL season consist of playoff talk, analyzing possible playoff scenarios and discussing how upcoming games could affect the standings. And there are few things in sports more thrilling that a September baseball pennant race. (The NBA, alas, usually has its playoff field set by the All-Star break.)
The Chase has given us the same thing in NASCAR. Some drivers are the New York Yankees and clinch a spot early. Some are the Atlanta Braves and Detroit Tigers, serious contenders who still have work to do down the stretch. And others are the Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland A's, scrappy underdogs scrambling for that final berth in the playoff field.
There are two races remaining before this year's Chase field is set: this Sunday at Atlanta and next Saturday at Richmond. A decade ago those simply would have been the next two races in a lengthy season, containing no more or less importance than races that were held in March. Now they represent the final playoff push. Tension is high as several drivers try to hold on to their spot in the Chase field, while others attempt to race their way in. Here is where things stand:
• Definitely in the Chase: Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. These have been four of the most consistent drivers this season, and all four are legitimate championship contenders. Kenseth has slipped a bit in recent weeks -- as a lame-duck driver who is leaving Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing after this season, there is some question as to whether Kenseth's team can maintain the continuity needed for a title run. But he will have the chance, which is always the first step.
• Almost in on points: Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. They are fifth and sixth in the standings, respectively, and would need a major collapse over the final two races to not qualify for the Chase. Truex likely will make it in despite being winless this season. Meanwhile, Bowyer has been quietly putting together a string of solid runs. He followed up on his victory at Sonoma with consecutive finishes outside the top-15. Since then, however, he has had five top-10s in the past six races and has vaulted from 10th to sixth in the standings. He is shaping up to be a serious darkhorse candidate for the championship.
• Almost in on victories: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart. Each of these drivers has three victories this season, practically ensuring them a spot at least as a wild card, which goes to the two drivers outside the top-10 in the standings who have the most victories. There is a convoluted scenario in which one of these drivers could still fail to make the Chase, but it would require at least two of them to fall out of the top-10, and then for one of the drivers outside the top-10 who currently has one victory to win at both Atlanta and Richmond. At that point there would be three drivers outside the top-10 who have three victories each, and the one lowest in the standings would be left out. While this could happen on paper, it's not going to happen on the race track. They're all in.
• Getting close, but still work to do: Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne. Harvick is winless this season, so he cannot count on getting a wild card. But he is 37 points ahead of 11th place in the standings, which means he should be able to remain in the top-10. Kahne has two victories and should be safe for at least a wild card. But if Stewart falls out of the top-10 and takes one of the wild card spots, and then one of the one-victory drivers picks up another win and passes Kahne in the standings, Kahne could be left out. It's not likely to happen, but it's still possible.
• Battling for the final spot: Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano. Right now Busch is in the Chase field because he is the one-victory driver who is the highest in the point standings (13th). Edwards is 12th in the standings, but he is winless this season. He can still make it in the Chase with a victory in the final two races or if he can sneak into the top-10 of the standings (he is currently 34 points out of 10th). Gordon, Newman, Ambrose and Logano have one victory each and could make the field with a win at Atlanta or Richmond. There are a few other drivers who are still mathematically alive, but they would have to sweep the final two races after going winless up to this point.
With an average career finish of 9.95, Johnson has been better at Atlanta than every other current Sprint Cup driver. He has 11 top-five finishes and three victories in 20 starts. But Johnson has not won at Atlanta in five years, and he certainly does not have the sense of desperation that is motivating some of the other drivers who are trying to qualify for the Chase.
Gordon, on the other hand, is in dire need of another win. He is 55 points out of 10th place in the standings, so it looks like his only chance to make the field will be as a wild card. With five career victories at Atlanta, including in last year's race, Gordon obviously is capable of winning at the track. Combine that with the incentive that comes from needing a win to make the Chase, and look for Gordon to find a way to end up in Victory Lane.