What the Point(s)?

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NASCAR's 2011 season could do without Chase

NASCAR's 2011 season could do without Chase

by Tom Bowles

It happens in every sport, every year: the end-of-season playoff push causes fans to lose focus on what’s really important. With so many teams battling simply to make it into the postseason, others that have dominated for months get ignored faster than anything Bruce Pearl ever said while at Tennessee. Are you the top seed? 14-2? Clinched your spot and a first-round bye this winter? Sorry, NFL Franchise, but your fans don’t care about you until the next game that actually matters.

In the eighth year of NASCAR’s Chase format, the same philosophy rings true for the sport’s top contenders. If not for “Kurt Busch/Jimmie Johnson Catfight XII” both drivers would be far down the list of plotlines heading to Watkins Glen; their Chase spots all but clinched, it’s win-or-who cares all the way from now to Richmond in September. Indeed, it’s a weird year for the postseason format in that points-wise, seven of the sport’s top 10 in the standings are more than a full race’s worth of points ahead of 11th-place Denny Hamlin. Barring some sort of unforeseen collapse — as in five consecutive DNFs — title contenders Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon have already clinched their spot in the postseason a month early. Another, Ryan Newman, is a whopping 40 points up on Hamlin — the difference between winning, leading the most laps and 36th place — so he’s in a rather comfortable position as well.

That means for the Dog Days of Summer, these drivers will sit back and watch the public converge on three major stories — none of which involve them. Number one, will Dale Earnhardt, Jr., 10th in points, finally summon up enough consistency and confidence to make the postseason, making just his second Chase since 2008? Number two, will Hamlin, last year’s runner-up finisher to Johnson, suffer such a hangover he won’t even make the cut for the title chase this year? And finally, there’s the “wild card” system, NASCAR’s phenomenal decision to award the final two spots in the field of 12 to whoever is 11th to 20th in points with the most wins. Right now, Brad Keselowski in 18th, seems to have a handle on a spot while the other appears wide open — anyone from Paul Menard, to David Ragan, to even the ageless Mark Martin can pull a used-car-sale type of steal.

But how much do those stories ultimately matter in the grand scheme of things? Come September, it’s unlikely anyone struggling to 18th in points, despite two wins could contend for the title when they’re running under the same system that rewards consistency, not race-winning trophies in the postseason. Junior, for the 10 steps he’s taken in the right direction, is still on pace to lead less than 100 laps all season — hardly a number that screams “title contender.” And Hamlin, with his team in such disarray they pulled a “come to Jesus” meeting inside the Joe Gibbs Racing shop this week, hardly seems capable of putting together a run that brought Johnson to the brink of losing his mojo last November. For now, their battle to stay on the radar screen makes a mighty good story, but by late fall the box office draw will have moved over to someone — and something — else.

Which is why it’s worthwhile to sneak a peek at NASCAR’s Chase itself, in desperation mode after ratings have dropped 44 percent since its 2005 peak (last year, the ratings mustered only a 2.6, compared to a 4.7 back then). Even the Johnson-Hamlin-Harvick battle, leaving the title in question until the last laps of the 2010 Homestead finale, failed to salvage the audience, leading to major change: a revamped, 43-to-1 point system that would supposedly bring the field closer together. And it’s working. Right now, the top six drivers in the standings, from Edwards to Kenseth, are within just 26 points of each other heading to Watkins Glen. It’s the first time in the history of the Chase Era one of six different drivers enters the 22nd race of the season with a chance to leave as the points leader. Even better, it’s the first time in NASCAR’s modern era that’s it’s been the case, making this regular season — as meaningless as the final point totals are — the closest points race in NASCAR history at this point.

Just sit there and digest that for a second. The cruel irony this season is NASCAR doesn’t actually have to reset the point totals to make the championship exciting. If it just let the system play out, any one of those six along with a fast-closing Gordon, would have a chance. And, with a full three months to go you can already make a case for any one of them to come out on top.

There’s Edwards, newly re-signed with Roush Fenway Racing and by far the most consistent driver this season. You have Johnson, five-titles strong who remains the slight favorite until he’s knocked off the pedestal. Kyle Busch has gone from the sport’s most temperamental driver on-track to someone capable of recovering from adversity, turning Sunday’s Pocono spin into a second-place finish. Kurt Busch, a former champ himself has shown the perfect mix of ruffling feathers to get proven results (despite borderline abuse of his crew on the radio). Harvick, the only Richard Childress Racing car in serious title contention has the experience of last year’s Chase plus the information sharing of four cars focused on the title for him at his disposal. Kenseth, the 2003 champ has quietly won twice and can top 10 anyone to death — the key to succeeding under this point system. And Gordon, having a renaissance season under crew chief Alan Gustafson, is one of the sport’s hottest drivers of late — he’s posted six straight top-11 finishes while flashing speed at every type of track.

Unfortunately, as much as you’d love NASCAR to leave well enough alone, the Chase system will still be reset, meaning each of these seven drivers will be even closer once the green flag flies at Chicagoland Speedway. That means, in theory, after three-to-four years of entering the Chase with a limited number of favorites, more than half the field should be in contention for the title down to the wire, clearly a first under this postseason format designed to include almost everyone. Each of them would be a worthy titleholder, since they could have won it under the “old” system as well as the “new” and as we’ve seen anyone from Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch or Harvick that no one’s afraid to ruffle feathers along the way. Honestly, a stock car racing public relations person couldn’t draw up a better postseason scenario if he or she tried.

Which means, clearly, this postseason becomes make-or-break for an eight-year format that screams, “For fans, their passion over who wins the ‘championship’ overshadows everything else about the sport.” If NASCAR can’t find an audience now, with this type of setup it’s hard to sell the Chase ever working without some sort of drastic revision.

So sit tight for now, and enjoy the sport’s “double bonus” this season: a fight for postseason spots among the sport’s favorites and then a championship battle that would be tight under any system NASCAR put forth. And if you’re still bored by the end? Postseason haters may finally get the drastic revisions they’ve been wanting for years.

How could you possibly justify any other decision?

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles examines the NASCAR title chase as the season hits the dog days of summer.</p>
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