Commentary

Get over it, Gordon fans: Chase is here to stay

Have y'all forgotten why the Chase was invented in the first place? If you need a reminder, just check out five of the biggest points beatdowns in NASCAR history.

Originally Published: November 14, 2007
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

It's amazing how quickly people can forget why a change was made.

I'm talking to you, Mr. Traveling Businessman. The one who demanded tighter post-9/11 security but still refuses to go to the airport a little earlier, and then raises a ruckus in the slow-moving X-ray line.

I'm talking to you, Mr. I Hate Instant Replay Guy. The dude who cried for video playback in the NFL and college football, but now loves to scream and yell about game delays every time it's used.

And yes, I'm talking to you Mr. The Chase Has Ruined NASCAR. The guy who likes to drag out the old pre-2004 points system and talk about how much better it was, how Jeff Gordon is getting a raw deal, and how more exciting life was before Brian France's brainstorm.

Are you nuts? You think the old way was better? If so, you probably also think "I Love Lucy" should still be airing in prime time and Pat Boone is cutting edge.

Have you forgotten why the Chase was invented in the first place? That glorious day at Rockingham in November 2003, when Matt Kenseth clinched his first Cup title with one race left in the season, the final stanza of a sleepy six-month waltz to the championship? The following week's season finale at Homestead-Miami might as well have been run inside an airport hangar in the middle of the Sahara. Kenseth finished dead last with a blown engine on Lap 28 and sat in the garage for three hours waiting for an awkwardly staged week-late celebration. It was the fifth time in six seasons that the final race of the year had been as meaningful as Brit and K-Fed's marriage license.

Yes, we realize that Jimmie Johnson's Cup is all but engraved (thanks, Gordon, for being so kind as to point that out at Phoenix), but at least there is still some doubt. Thanks to the Chase, Johnson holds an 86-point lead with one race remaining, what amounts to about a 20-position difference on the track. One blown motor and his Cup is gone. Without the Chase format, Gordon would have closed the door on another ho-hum points title nearly a month ago and this weekend we'd all be talking about Michigan-Ohio State instead of racing.

In case you need a reminder, or five, here's a look at the biggest points beatdowns since the current scale was first implemented in 1975. Perhaps a look back on what frequently was will remind you of how boring this year could have been.

5. 1994, Dale's Demolition -- Dale Earnhardt by 444 points over Rusty Wallace, clinched with two races to go

In 1994, Dale Earnhardt closed out one of the great show-killing performances in NASCAR history with one of the best one-man shows in racing. The Intimidator left Rockingham with a crushing race victory and a record-tying seventh Winston Cup title. The Cup officially became his on Lap 303 of 492, when Rusty Wallace popped an engine. With two races still remaining in the season, Earnhardt eventually built his final margin over Wallace to a massive 444 points.

4. 1977 and '78, Cale's Bells -- Cale Yarborough by 386 and 474 points, clinched each with two races to go

The second stanzas of Cale Yarborough's historic Cup three-peat were nearly identical smackdowns of the ugliest order. Both championships were clinched at Rockingham with two races remaining in the season. He outlasted Richard Petty by 386 points in '77, the final nail coming via a fourth-place finish at The Rock, his 25th top-10 finish in 30 races. One year later he won the Cup by picking up his 10th win of the season. Over the two years his combined average finish for 60 starts was a tidy fifth.

3. 1987, Start Fast, Finish Fast -- Dale Earnhardt by 489 points over Bill Elliott, clinched with two races to go

If it had been a prizefight, they would have thrown the towel over Elliott's head in the second round and hauled Earnhardt off to jail for cruel and unusual punishment. Awesome Bill started the season with a win in the Daytona 500, then sat and watched as the Man in Black cranked out six wins over the next seven weeks, including four straight. With 10 races remaining in the season, Earnhardt's lead was already 498 points, but to prove his point, he won three more in a row. The title was clinched at -- where else? -- Rockingham on Oct. 25.

2. 1998-2001, Early Finales Abound -- All four titles clinched with one race remaining

After three consecutive tight points races, the dullards moved back in to stay in 1998, ushered to the forefront by Jeff Gordon's 13-win season of 1998, the finest single year since Earnhardt's '87 effort. Gordon won his third title in four years by 364 points over Dale Jarrett (and, yes, he clinched it at Rockingham), but it wasn't actually that close. Jarrett won in '99 by 201 points over Bobby Labonte, Labonte came back to win the Cup in 2000 by 265 over Earnhardt, and Gordon stunk up the show once again with a 349-point back-breaker in '01.

Four years, four early clinches, average margin of victory: 295 points. This was the stretch that planted the idea of the Chase into Mr. France's brain, finally kicked into action after Kenseth's nearly identical snoozer effort two years later.

1. 1975, A Royal Butt-Whupping -- Richard Petty by 722 points over Dave Marcis, clinched with four races to go

When the 1975 season started, NASCAR was employing its fifth different points system in nine seasons. Richard Petty had won Cup titles under each of the first four systems thanks to a simple philosophy. "We tried to figure those new systems out, but quit after a while. We figured that if we just kept winning races, the championships would come. That seemed to work out for us."

And how. The King won 13 races and picked up 24 top-10s in 30 starts, and his average finish of 6.6 was nearly two times better than the next closest competitor, Dave Marcis. Petty clinched his sixth Cup with a whopping four races remaining in the season, the only NASCAR title ever won at the Charlotte … ahem … Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"Richard may have clinched at Charlotte," Marcis recalled. "But in reality it was over by July fourth."

So next time you start grousing about the Chase, take a moment to ponder that thought. July 4? Any real race fan will always take a meaningful final 10 races over a midsummer beatdown any day, any year, any time. Unless, of course, it's his favorite driver who would have been the champ.

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."

Ryan McGee | email

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