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:
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.