‘Nothing is as good as the first time’. We have all heard that old adage at some point in time. This is especially true when it comes to NASCAR’s championship format, the Chase for the Championship.
When Brian France and his team of constituents revealed this innovative way of determining the champion in 2004, it was a gimmick indeed, but at the same time, they envisioned an annual barn-burning championship battle, something that was few and far between with the previous championship format.
The new format was widely ridiculed by traditionalists, as well as many drivers. Some fans vowed to boycott the final ten races, but most of them tuned in with curious eyes. As September neared, interest began to pique. On that warm late-summer night in Richmond, Virginia, Jeremy Mayfield and Ryan Newman barely squeezed into the top ten in dramatic fashion while Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, and Dale Jarrett just missed the cut.
Heading into the inaugural Chase for the Championship, Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon emerged as the favorites as they dominated the first 26 races, winning nine combined. Other solid favorites included Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who won four races during the regular season, and Ryan Newman, who at the time was one of the more streaky drivers and could very well hit his stride as he did in the previous season.
However, Kurt Busch pieced together a masterful run of consistency, finishing in the top ten in nine of the final ten races. Meanwhile, Johnson limped through the first half of the Chase for the Championship, but won four of the final six races to close to within 18 points of Busch. Gordon was a mere 21 points behind Busch heading into the season finale. This was exactly what NASCAR intended, a snug battle to the end, with three star drivers.
The race itself was full of drama. As non-Chaser Greg Biffle dominated the event, championship hopefuls Busch and Johnson had to battle through adversity. Johnson started the race with terrible track position, and Busch had a wheel fall off while pitting under green early in the race. Busch evaded complete disaster and patiently and methodically worked his way back to the front. Johnson and Gordon also made their way to the front. However, Johnson was unable to pass Biffle for the win, and settled for a runner-up finish. Gordon finished in the third position. All they needed was for Busch to slip up. In the latter stages of the race, Busch picked up positions by passing Jamie McMurray and Brendan Gaughan. He rallied to finish in the fifth position, therefore holding on to win his first Sprint Cup championship.
It was intense drama right down to the very last lap. NASCAR could have superciliously laughed in the face of the cynics.
It is a good thing that they did not. Four seasons have come to pass since the suspenseful conclusion to the first Chase for the Championship, and not one of them has even come close to matching the intensity or excitement level. In 2005, Tony Stewart owned a 52-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson heading into the season finale. While 52 points is not exactly a mountain to climb, Johnson would have needed a near flawless race, and a mediocre performance from Stewart. Well, Stewart was mediocre in that race, as one of NASCAR’s most aggressive drivers played it safe, but Johnson blew a tire and finished 40th.
The 2006 rendition of the championship battle was just as anticlimactic. Johnson headed into the season finale at Homestead with a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth. In 2007, it only got worse. Johnson owned an 86-point lead over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon. It only gets worse from here. In 2008, Johnson owned a commanding 141-point lead over Carl Edwards.
In each of the four years since 2004, the championship battle has become less of a battle and more like a one-man show.
Conversely, under the traditional championship format, this would have been one of the most exciting championship battles of the decade. Johnson would have had a 56-point lead, but by finishing fifteenth while Edwards won the race by leading the most laps, Edwards would have won the title by 16 points. For most of the race, Johnson struggled while Edwards had the fastest car bar none. The drama would have intensified right down to very last lap.
NASCAR has altered the Chase for the Championship format since its implementation, but adding two more slots, and adding ten bonus points for winning a race during the regular season has not remedied the lackluster championship format.
It does not help that the Craftsman Truck Series title, and even to a certain degree, the Nationwide Series battle, came down to the wire under the classic format.
NASCAR cannot turn back the clock on the championship format. What’s done is done, and they must stick to their guns. Obviously, this format is not perfect, but it can be fine-tuned. Unfortunately, even some fine-tuning cannot guarantee an exciting championship battle. Regardless of the format, sometimes there is just one driver and team that are faster and luckier than the rest. Over the past three years, that driver is Jimmie Johnson.