Nextel Cup’s regular season of 26 races comes to an end this Saturday night with the running of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 from Richmond International Raceway.
Unlike the first three years that the Nextel Cup Series used the Chase format, Richmond will not be the battleground for several drivers to make their last attempt to get into the playoff round as only Dale Jr. has a remote chance of moving into the top 12.
In the past only the top 10 in points and any driver within 400 points of the leader moved into the Chase round. No driver outside of the top 10 was ever within the 400-point margin when the green flag waved at Richmond’s September race, but there were a couple of drivers still in contention for one of the spots in the Chase. The racing for those final transfer spots made the race one of the most exciting of the year but the Chase’s new format has taken away much of the suspense heading into the Saturday night shootout as everyone in the top 12 is all but locked in.
The format was tweaked this year by raising the number of guaranteed spots in the Chase to 12 regardless of how many points out of the top spot. Also, new this year will be how the points will be set when the Chase begins the following weekend at New Hampshire. In years past the second-place driver started with five less than the leader and each spot following also had a five- point reduction. This season every driver that makes the Chase will have his point total re-set to 5,000 with each driver receiving a 10- point bonus for every win during the first 26 races.
This new method of setting the points to begin the Chase is NASCAR’s way of seeding the championship run and in the process make running for victories during the regular portion of the schedule more attractive. In years past, drivers that were locked into the Chase were content to just run up front and protect their position in the points than risk running for the win.
By starting every driver in the Chase with the same amount of points this season, NASCAR hoped to entice more drivers to run for the win as the final laps of a race went off the board. During the early portion of the schedule most drivers were still racing to protect their position in the points but as more drivers became comfortable in their place in the Chase, the competition at the end of a race seemed to increase. We saw drivers taking chances that in years past would never have been attempted.
NASCAR also did some tweaking of the point system used for each race that could really go a long way in determining which driver is crowned the champion after the last stop on the schedule at Homestead- Miami. This season saw the winner of each race receive 185 points, which is only a fivepoint increase from last season, but when you count the fivepoint bonuses available for leading at least one lap and leading the most laps, a race winner now can earn a maximum of 195 points, creating a possible maximum of 25 points between the first and second place finishers.
That doesn’t sound like a lot of points but the Chase breaks the long Cup season that runs from February to November down into a 10-race sprint that makes every point so valuable to any driver wanting to have his name engraved on the championship trophy. A driver wants to be consistent each and every race during this stretch, but with the competition so close the amount of points a driver can earn by winning may be the motivation for a driver to try a late race move that could result in a trip to victory lane and a climb in the point standings.
When NASCAR introduced the Chase in 2004, it said it was more or less a work in progress and that it would watch it each year and make adjustments when needed. The previous three Chases did what they were intended and that was to keep the interest and excitement in the sport until the last lap of the season went into the record books. With two more drivers and a few extra points for winning, the excitement level created by this year’s Chase promises to keep us glued to the action until the champion is crowned.
Race Preview – Event: Chevy Rock & Roll 400. Track: Richmond International Raceway (.750-mile tri-oval, 14 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: Sept. 8, 7:30 p.m. TV: ESPN. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Kevin Harvick.