Commentary

New Chase format a good idea ... but not this year

Adding two Chase spots didn't do NASCAR any favors in 2007. But under last year's 10-driver Chase format, this Richmond race would've been a doozy, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: September 9, 2007, 2:30 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- The reality of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 Saturday night was that no one was chasing anyone for a Nextel Cup playoff spot.

Defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson starts the playoff on top after winning for the second consecutive weekend.

NASCAR's royal hero -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- never had a decent chance at earning that 12th and final position in the Chase field.

It was the first time since the Chase format started four years ago that a playoff position wasn't determined in the final qualifying event.

But what a show everyone could have seen had the 2006 Chase rules been in place. Had 10th remained the cutoff point, no hype was needed to play up the drama.

Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. tied for 10th with 3,160 points. Both drivers would have made an 11-man Chase.

Kevin Harvick, who finished seventh, would have fallen only five points behind them.

None of that mattered. For NASCAR, it's just plain old bad luck. Adding two more drivers to the Chase was a good idea, but the math didn't add up in NASCAR's favor.

The reverse situation might play out next year, but this time, 10th was where NASCAR needed the make-or-break point for the playoff.

Fighting for 12th wasn't a big deal, but Saturday's race did have a brief moment of tension for bubble boys Harvick and Busch midway through the event.

It was false hope for Junior fans. No catastrophe was coming for Harvick or Busch. No miracle was coming for Earnhardt.

Earnhardt blew an engine with six laps to go after a gutsy run near the front all night. It didn't change anything, but it has been that kind of year for the No. 8 team.

Knowing Earnhardt's chances were slim didn't stop the sellout crowd of 112,000-plus from showing up and loving every minute of action on the Richmond short track.

This place has played host to a full house for 32 consecutive Cup events, long before a Chase was ever a thought.

Chase Standings

With the win at Dover, Carl Edwards climbed five spots in the Chase standings. Jeff Gordon grabbed the top spot while Jimmie Johnson, who led entering Sunday, fell to fourth.

Driver Points Behind
1. Jeff Gordon 5340 --
2. Tony Stewart 5338 2
3. Carl Edwards* 5337 3
4. Jimmie Johnson 5336 4
5. Kyle Busch 5330 10
6. Clint Bowyer 5322 18
7. Martin Truex Jr. 5294 46
8. Jeff Burton 5265 75
9. Kevin Harvick 5225 115
10. Matt Kenseth 5224 116
11. Kurt Busch 5189 151
12. Denny Hamlin 5182 158
* Failed postrace inspection. NASCAR likely to dock points.

For those who enjoy the Chase, that 10th spot was the action slot. Instead of one driver (Earnhardt) with a Hail Mary long shot of making it into the final qualifying spot, four drivers would have scratched and clawed all night for the final two playoff berths.

Earnhardt started the night 128 points behind 12th-place Harvick. But only 38 points separated Clint Bowyer in ninth from Harvick in 12th.

Truex was 10th, five points behind Bowyer. Busch was 11th, only 20 points behind Truex.

Those four drivers were close to each other most of the night. On Lap 244, Harvick drove through the infield turf to avoid a wreck, causing a clump of grass to cover the grille.

The grass caused Harvick's engine to overheat. Steam was billowing out of Harvick's hood when the cars came down pit road for a red flag. But once Harvick's crew cleaned the grille, he was good to go.

Busch banged up his left rear quarter panel in the accident that caused Harvick's problems, but it wasn't a dent that mattered.

Both those problems would have been more meaningful if these guys had been playing for 10th as the last playoff spot rather than 12th.

What we saw instead was drivers locked into the Chase vying for the 10-point bonus a victory would bring. Nothing else mattered.

The Chasers are seeded by wins, so those 10 points could make the difference when the drivers get to Homestead-Miami Speedway in 10 weeks.

Johnson's sixth victory this year means he starts the Chase with a 20-point lead on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

Carl Edwards, maybe the hottest driver in the Cup series entering this race, was going for the 10 points when he blew an engine on Lap 183 while leading the race.

"This thing was awesome," Edwards said. "It was so fast. But if we have to blow up, now's the time. This was a throwaway race."

Going for the win was a factor in Bowyer's spinning up Turn 3 halfway through the race. Bowyer was racing for the lead, side-by-side with Denny Hamlin, when they bumped and Bowyer spun on Lap 201.

It dropped Bowyer back to 27th, but he recovered to finish 12th. Here's what we don't know: Would Bowyer have driven as aggressively if his Chase spot had been on the line?

As it was, he wanted those 10 bonus points. Bowyer's the only Chase racer without a victory. But he's in the show, only 60 points behind Johnson.

Now the real drama begins.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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