In its fifth year of competition, the Chase for the Championship is a baby compared to the playoff systems of other major sports. With such a limited time under its belt -- and several tweaks to the format already -- the whole concept is deemed a work in progress. However, we've already seen some basic patterns develop which give us an indication of what a driver needs to do to win this year. Here's what we know heading into this year's version of NASCAR's playoffs:
You're going to have to win a race -- a lot of them. Critics of the Chase format believe it opens the door to a winless driver taking the title. It's true that five of the 12 drivers in this year's field have been shut out of Victory Lane -- including former champs Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth -- but if they're going to come out on top, don't expect things to stay that way.
In the four years of the Chase's existence, no champion has finished the season with fewer than three wins (Kurt Busch in 2004). And only Stewart in '05 has made off with the trophy without winning once in the 10-race playoff. (But the five victories he already had that season went nicely with three runner-up finishes in the fall to seal the deal.)
Could Gordon, Stewart, or Kenseth conceivably buck this trend? It's mathematically possible, but all are starting 40 to 80 points behind the top three seeds -- and prohibitive favorites -- Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. With the way those guys are running, you're not going to make up that gap by running fifth every week. This year's Chase champion will have plenty of wins under his belt.
(P.S. In case you're wondering, only Busch, Edwards and Johnson have at least three wins so far this season. And you wonder why they're the favorites...)
If you can't win ... bonus points are key. Here's a little-known stat that might surprise you: Each of the four Chase winners led or tied for the lead in bonus points through the final 10-race stretch. Remember, NASCAR gives you five points for leading a lap and another five for leading the most -- and in a race with 11 of your closest rivals, every point counts. All four Chase champions have also led at least seven of the year's final 10 events.
Think this type of stuff doesn't matter? Just check out the series' first playoff race in 2004. Kurt Busch accumulated 55 bonus points for laps led, while challengers Johnson and Jeff Gordon had 30 and 35, respectively. If you take that advantage away, Johnson would have been sitting in Homestead with his first title trophy -- not Busch.
So, look for teams to figure out every which way possible to get themselves out front for a lap -- and keep track of those teams that do. Of course, the frenzy to get in front of the field will lead to some behavior not everyone will be happy with. Since four teams with three drivers apiece comprise this year's playoff field, don't be surprised if -- gulp! -- team orders come into play at some point. If a Chaser's running second and he finds his teammate leading the race, the old "pull over to let your 'friend' lead a lap" routine could come back in style. As one non-Chaser said to me this week, "That's part of your job."
The whole "mulligan" theory is a myth -- you can't always have one. It works like clockwork every year -- at the Chase's first race in New Hampshire on Sunday, someone will have a mechanical problem or a wreck that'll lead to a poor finish or a DNF. Some say that's nothing to worry about, that 10 races give you enough time to recover if you're saddled with a race that doesn't go your way.
But last year Jimmie Johnson proved that a driver can't afford to make a mistake. In breezing to his second title he put together an average finish of 5.1 -- ending the year with four wins and 10 straight Top 15 finishes. It was a flawless performance, nearly matched by his teammate Jeff Gordon -- who never finished any race lower than 11th.
The message from that season is clear: With the competition so close and an expanded playoff field, you just can't afford a hiccup. If someone goes on a similar run this season, a 35th-place finish at Loudon would make it just about impossible for anyone but the Chase's top three seeds to make a serious comeback. Anyone from fourth-place man Denny Hamlin on down -- all of whom start the Chase 70 points behind Kyle Busch -- is going to need to be flawless from beginning to end in order to have a chance.
Making it through Talladega is a must. Here's another trait that all four championship winners share: In the race that produces NASCAR's Big One, each went 187 of 188 laps without being involved in a crash (Jimmie Johnson wrecked while leading on the last lap, but only slumped to 24th place -- it could have been a lot worse). Johnson himself knows all about being snakebit at this track: In 2005 he wrecked out to 31st while eventual title winner Tony Stewart finished second -- a nearly 100-point swing which could have given him the lead throughout most of the playoff's second half.
Avoiding the dreaded disaster of a 50-lap stint in the garage often comes down to luck more than anything. With restrictor plate racing at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, everyone's stuck together in one big pack: You can race at the front, race in the middle or race at the back, and there's still a great chance that multi-car wreck will find you. So no matter how big the points lead is heading into this race, there's no one capable of breathing easy until this 500-mile roller coaster finishes up.
Expect a non-Chaser to spoil the party at least once. Unlike other major sports, those who didn't make the playoffs keep racing every week right along with the title contenders -- and expect them to get some coverage of their own. A driver outside the Chase has won at least one race every year since the system began in 2004, and sometimes they've even stolen the show: Tony Stewart won three times in '06 with a run that would've left him third in points -- if he had qualified for the postseason.
Who are this year's most likely candidates? Look no further than David Ragan and Brian Vickers. Ragan's had a scintillating sophomore season that ultimately fell just short of the playoffs when he wrecked at Richmond. But the 22-year-old is still searching for his first career win, and a track like Talladega -- known for first-time winners -- favors a kid who has made an early habit of finishing strong at restrictor plate tracks.
As for Vickers, he's the comeback story of the year, going from missing races with Team Red Bull to nearly making the playoffs. A Top 10 staple at the intermediate tracks, he's got to be licking his chops that five of the next 10 races are at "cookie cutter" 1.5-milers like Atlanta, Texas, Kansas and Lowe's. If the No. 83 doesn't visit Victory Lane by the end of the year, it's got to be considered a borderline disappointment.
Here's one final thing to look for, a new addition to this year's battle: payback. Top seeds Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards have done more than their fair share of ruffling people's feathers this year, and Edwards pulled the dangerous move of bumping the hot-tempered Busch out of the way at Bristol. With both drivers gunning for their first championship, they'll stop at nothing to beat each other -- but there's also a handful of angry men who'd like nothing more than to simply beat them out of the way. If Clint Bowyer gets to Edwards or half the field gets to Busch and gives them a little love tap, their title dreams take a big hit: a scenario that's realistic enough to give third seed Jimmie Johnson the edge for his third straight title.