A decade after its debut, examining the Chase
November 24, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is now officially 10 years old. Yet a decade later, fans and competitors alike seem divided on its merits.
While some still believe that determining a champion based only on a 10-race stretch lessens the accomplishment, it's worth noting that a driver and team have to be reasonably successful leading up to the Chase to qualify for a shot at the title. The first 26 races of a season are no less important today than they were before the new format was implemented.
It's also notable that in seven of the past 10 years, the eventual champion has been seeded no lower than third once the field has been determined, an indication that the better-performing teams were simply able to continue to run well down the stretch.
The Chase format, which debuted in 2004, has undergone several changes through the years. Officials have tweaked the size of the field from 10 to 12 (excluding this year's 13-team field, which was expanded due to issues arising in the Richmond, Va., event) and adjusted how the qualified teams are seeded (with the addition of bonus points for wins). Even some of the venues have changed, although those moves were not necessarily made with the Chase in mind.
NASCAR officials say they are pleased with the format and what it has provided, allowing more drivers the opportunity to compete for the title during the closing 10 weeks of the season. And that has led to more competitors still being in contention heading into the final race.
Six of the 10 drivers in the inaugural 2004 Chase field were in the title hunt before the start of the final race. Other occasions have seen three, four and five drivers still in contention heading into the final stop.
That wasn't always the case before the arrival of the Chase. The championship was already decided six times with at least one race to be run in the 10 years prior to 2004.
The Chase has provided the opportunity for memorable moments – from Kurt Busch bouncing back in 2004 to win the title in the final race after losing a wheel, to Tony Stewart's and Carl Edwards' back-and-forth battle for the title in 2011.
"I would tell you that, from NASCAR's perspective, the Chase has delivered what we had hoped it would do," NASCAR president Mike Helton said Nov. 15 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It has created "extraordinary moments," he said, adding that "… I think we could sustain an argument that it's one of the most challenging championships in all of sports."
More drivers have had the opportunity to win the championship under the Chase format, although fewer have actually succeeded. Only four drivers have won at least one title since '04. In the decade preceding the change, seven different drivers wore the crown.
However, the fewer Chase title winners are primarily a result of the success of one driver and team: Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports organization.
Johnson's accomplishments -- six titles in an eight-year span -- is reason enough to dislike the format, joked Matt Kenseth, who won the last pre-Chase championship and finished second to Johnson this season.
"The one thing that I don't like is there's one guy that thinks he has to win every single one of them," Kenseth said, ribbing his fellow competitor. "Doesn't leave much for the rest of us.
Kenseth (Joe Gibbs Racing) has come to terms with the format, saying it does have its merits. A bad race during the regular season won't erase what a team has been able to otherwise accomplish, he said.
"I guess if you're running well and you feel like you have a solid team, a solid year going … you can have some bad races, have things go wrong, (then) kind of get reset when you get to the Chase."
While Johnson has been the most prolific winner in the Chase, it's unrealistic to try and credit his success to the format. The El Cajon, Calif., native was racing in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series full time before the '04 season, scoring six wins and finishes of fifth and second under the season-long title-determining system.
That it is somewhat similar to how other professional sports determine champions isn't necessarily a bad thing, he said.
"I think it's great to have our sport relevant to others in the fact that we have a playoff system," Johnson said. "I think that's one key component."
Kevin Harvick, the former Richard Childress Racing driver who will be plying his trade for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, said he's comfortable with the format but would like to see a change in Chase scenery.
It is, he said, "the same race tracks year after year."
"I think it would help our schedule, it would help … build some excitement around some different race tracks," Harvick, third in points this past season, said.
Specifically, he said, "I think there needs to be a road course in it.
"I think there definitely needs to be some things mixed up in it. I think the format is great, but … the tracks need to change on a yearly basis."
A schedule change greeted teams in the inaugural Chase season, with Darlington Raceway's Southern 500, a Labor Day weekend staple, moving to November and replacing one of North Carolina Motor Speedway's (Rockingham) two annual dates.
The following year, Texas Motor Speedway added a second date, and it slid into the Darlington slot when the South Carolina track began hosting only one Cup race annually, in May.
The schedule was altered twice more: In 2009 when Auto Club Speedway's second race was moved into the Chase (swapping dates with Atlanta Motor Speedway); and in '11 when ACS dropped its Chase spot and Chicagoland Speedway began hosting the opening Chase race.
Helton didn't say changes in the tracks hosting Chase races were likely, but he didn't discount the possibility either.
"When we first started the Chase, we said that we weren't going to change the schedule to fit the Chase," he said, "but that was 10 years ago.
"Things change, and you never know what may or may not happen."
The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule has already been announced, meaning any possible moves, should they occur, wouldn't take place before the 2015 season.