Chase format is working ... again
This Chase thing, the playoff system so many of you claim to hate, is working.
This has become an annual message each August when many reasons become obvious as to why the Chase format was installed back in 2004.
Whether it was Brian France, Mike Helton, Bill France Jr. or Bozo the Clown who made the final decision to add a playoff formula, it was the right thing to do.
The problem is the race to the Chase often is better than the Chase itself. The easiest way to explain why is to look at where the 2009 season would be without the Chase looming ahead.
In what sports universe would it make sense for the competitors who won the most to have no chance of winning the title?
This isn't to say the Chase system is perfect. Far from it. Busch and Martin still could end up outside the top 12 and miss the Chase, but at least they have a shot at it.
The points system doesn't place enough emphasis on winning. It's still possible for a driver to win the championship without winning a race all season.
As it stands now, four winless drivers would make the Chase and four drivers who have won this season wouldn't make it.
Drivers get seeded by wins when the Chase starts, but a change is needed if guys with the most victories could either start the playoff on top or not make the show.
Yes, I know. Consistency matters. The Sprint Cup title is about showing you can run near the front every week and pile up top-10s.
That's a little like saying a 7-9 NFL team was really good because all nine losses were by less than a touchdown.
Sports competition is about winning, not about finishing seventh every week in a 43-car field.
Give me the guy who wins six times in a season, even if he finishes near the bottom several times, over the guy who never has a bad finish but also never wins.
Without the Chase, Tony Stewart almost could coast home the rest of the way and still win the championship. He's 220 points ahead of second-place Jimmie Johnson with 12 races remaining. Jeff Gordon (254 back) is the only other driver within 400 points of Stewart.
Sure, Stewart's dominating season could go unrewarded if he falls short in the 10-race playoff. And the Yankees could lose to Colorado in the World Series this year. You have to get it done at the end against other top competitors.
The Chase also works wonders for sponsors. Eight drivers are battling for six playoff spots with two races to go before the Chase. All of them are receiving attention and exposure they wouldn't receive without the Chase format.
Kasey Kahne is 11th in the standings. In the old system, that wouldn't mean a thing. Kahne would be just another driver making laps unless he won the race.
But his sponsor, Budweiser, is benefiting because reporters are talking about him, wondering whether he will make the Chase. The same is true for every sponsor of a driver in Chase contention.
Reporters ask drivers how they feel about their chances.
"We lost points to 13th place," Biffle told reporters after his fourth-place finish Saturday night at Bristol. "That's what people have got to keep in mind. We're trying to stay ahead of 13th. We're going to have to wait and see.
"I know we gained on the 83 [Brian Vickers, 14th in the standings], obviously, but the 18 [race winner Kyle Busch, 13th in the standings] is who we've got to stay in front of, and he gained on us a little bit tonight."
Without the Chase, this entire thought process would be meaningless. Biffle's top-5 at Bristol would be nice but have no real impact on his season.
Trying to make the Chase adds drama. It adds emotion. Clint Bowyer was furious after his 21st-place finish Saturday, knowing it probably cost him a spot in the Chase.
"I'm not really sure what happened," Bowyer said. "But we're not out of this thing yet. We'll keep fighting over these last two races."
Without a Chase, Bowyer isn't fighting for anything right now other than trying to get better for 2010.
People want to watch the next two races to see who makes it and who doesn't. Interest is higher for the events at Atlanta and Richmond because of the playoff implications.
And interest will be higher at New Hampshire because fans want to see who is on top and who starts poorly after the first Chase race.
Granted, the Chase hasn't always produced the end-of-season drama NASCAR was hoping to generate in the last race at Homestead. Johnson made it a little anticlimactic the previous three seasons.
But it isn't just about the final race. It's about all the races, giving more teams, more sponsors and more fans a goal for their driver to reach.
If you're a Vickers fan, you'll be on the edge of your seat the next two races, hoping he can make the playoff. You still would root for him without a Chase, but it sure makes things a lot more fun.
The Chase format works. It's here to stay.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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