The inaugural Chase for the Championship was an unqualified success and we'll tell you why
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The following feature was originally published in the 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
Last winter, when NASCAR changed the point system that had been in effect since 1972, the naysayers were very vocal. Matt Kenseth saw the change as an attack on his less-than-thrilling championship season. Preseason favorite Ryan Newman thought the new system was a communist plot. Several members of the media were proposing scenarios that would spell doom for the new system.
Let’s take a look at four elements that will determine the success of the new point system.
1. How was the competition to get in the top 10 by race 26 at Richmond?
Only four drivers were in the top 10 in the points standings for each of the first 26 races. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler and Tony Stewart left the Daytona 500 in the top 10 and held a spot until the end.
Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Bobby Labonte and Kevin Harvick all hovered around the top 10 throughout most of the season. All four were in contention to qualify for the Chase heading into the Richmond event, but each ran into problems that prevented them from making the cut.
The story of the season had to be Mark Martin. After starting the season with a blown engine at Daytona that relegated him to 43rd place in the standings, Martin squeezed into the royal 10 after the September race at Richmond. Martin started the Richmond race with just a 25-point cushion and needed a strong finish to make the Chase. He did so, finishing fifth.
Jeremy Mayfield also provided some excitement at Richmond by leading the most laps and winning the event to qualify him for the Chase.
When the green flag dropped for race 26 at Richmond, there were four spots available and nine drivers with a mathematical chance to make the cut.
The new system was created to add excitement to the final stages of the season and it did so, as the race to get in the Chase went down to the last laps at Richmond. We declare this segment a huge success.
2. Did the race for 11th place and the million dollar bonus create excitement?
After the Chase for the Championship was set, the race was on for 11th place. After Richmond, Jamie McMurray held the coveted spot, with five drivers within striking distance. The race for the bonus was shaping up to be as good, or better than, the race for the Nextel Cup itself.
However, McMurray turned this into a runaway, with 10 straight lead lap finishes, and cruised to a crushing 320-point rout for the million bucks.
Although this race was not as exciting, Bobby Labonte, in 12th place, was just 63 points ahead of Dale Jarrett, who finished in 15th place.
We will call this element a draw, thanks to McMurray, who spoiled the excitement.
3. Did several teams have a shot at the Championship in the final race at Homestead?
Going into Homestead, five teams were within 82 points of the lead. Realistically, only Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon had a shot. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin needed the top three teams to melt down in order to claim the championship.
The final race had a little of everything and was the most exciting finale since 1992. NASCAR wanted the points race to go down to the wire and that is what it got. This element gets a resounding yes for success.
4. Did the new format prevent points racing?
This answer is both yes and no. In the late summer, the teams that were at the front could relax. Many think the Hendrick teams experimented with their engines because of their cushion on the 10th-place driver.
When it was show time, the top 5 teams had to race harder than normal in their effort to win the Championship. The team that won the most races did not win the Championship, which would have been a bonus. We did learn one thing: Jimmie Johnson proved you could come back from more than one bad race to contend in the Chase. Johnson recovered from 247 points out, losing the title by eight to Busch.
The racing was harder, more intense and more exciting than we have seen in years.
We see the overall program as a huge success. Almost everyone will agree but Jeff Gordon, who would have won under the old format.