Craig Murto: The Chase ensure Game 7 every year

CRAIG MURTO

 

All three of NASCAR’s top divisions utilize a Chase format to determine a champion, yet many fans still don’t understand why.

The reason is actually very simple. Remember how exciting it was just about a week ago when the World Series went to Game 7? The Chase ensure a Game 7 every year.

When The Chase in the Sprint Cup, Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series each comes down to a single race at Homestead-Miami with four competitors with an equal chance to win the title, that’s as good as any Game 7. And like ball-and-stick sports, the field of championship contenders is whittled down to those finalists through a series of “playoffs” — the races in The Chase leading up to the final event.

Most motorsports series count points through the entire season, then a crown a champion based on who has the most points following the final event. Often champions are determined before they even enter the final race. That is the traditional way of determining a champion in a racing series.

Some reject change so much that they keep track of points throughout The Chase as if the playoffs didn’t exist, so they can pronounce the champion illegitimate at the end of the year and announce who the “real” champion should/would be if a traditional points system were in place.

The Chase is not traditional. That is by design, and that is a good thing. When one thinks back to the traditional system, the last real standout year was 1992, when Bill Elliott, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki all entered the final race at Atlanta with a chance to win the title. It was also Richard Petty’s final race as a driver, and Jeff Gordon’s first. Through numerous twists and turns in the race, Kulwicki won the championship because he led just one more lap than Elliott.

That was 24 years ago. Do we really want to wait 24 years for a close championship finish?

Not only does The Chase ensure an exciting final event, but the elimination system ensures excitement throughout the entire Chase, and ensures that teams compete hard rather than coast, unless they have already guaranteed their place in the next round through a victory.

Take last weekend’s rain-delayed race at Texas. Carl Edwards was in a must-win situation. His place in the points was so low that the only way he could guarantee he could compete for a championship was to win. And that’s exactly what he did.

Edwards is a good example as to why The Chase was successful even before it eliminated racers. He tied Tony Stewart in 2011 points, and Stewart was given the championship based on a tiebreaker. Kurt Busch won the first Chase in 2004. It wasn’t until 2014 that The Chase began eliminating drivers and setting up a four-driver finale at Homestead.

A lot of people forget that The Chase wasn’t necessarily a NASCAR creation. The now-defunct Hooters Pro Cup Series used a playoff system to determine a national champion. There was a Pro Cup North and Pro Cup South division, each crowned its own champion. At the end of the regular season, the points were reset and the top-25 racers in each division were eligible to compete in the four-race, “Four Champions” series, which paid tribute to Alan Kulwicki and the three Hooters employees killed in the plane crash that took Kulwicki’s life in 1993.

Pro Cup’s four-race championship run was exciting, and packed a lot of pressure for competitors. But nothing puts the pressure on as NASCAR’s current Chase format. Each leg of The Chase demands that teams compete hard in order not to be eliminated, something that didn’t happen prior to 2014.

In the old Chase format, the fact that Martin Truex blew an engine at Talladega and fell out of the Top 8 didn’t mean his championship hopes were finished; it simply meant he had work to do to climb back to the top. But now, much like in ball-and stick sports, you can be a favorite as Truex was, and one bad event can knock you out of the championship hunt.

Heading into Phoenix, only Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards are guaranteed to be in contention for the championship at Homestead. Another remaining Chase contender could win and guarantee their place at Homestead; the odds are that would be Kevin Harvick, who has dominated the race there for the past few years.  But at least one of the remaining six will get into Homestead on points, do every position at Phoenix counts.

The Chase isn’t traditional. But it’s exciting. And it’s here to stay.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

 

 

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