Before the 2004 season, it was pretty easy math trying to figure out who had the best chance of capturing the championship as the schedule began to move from summer to fall. The point system was simple, each race awarded the same number of points and those points kept accumulating until the final race of the season and whoever was on top after the final checkered flag waved was the champion.
To some extent it is still that way, whoever is on top after that last checkered flag is still the champion, but it is how we get to that point that has changed. Matt Kenseth in 2003 was the last champion to be crowned under the old system of point keeping which gave way to what the sport uses now known as the Chase.
The Chase has divided the schedule into a 26-race span that separates 12 drivers from the field that will move into the championship round of the final 10 races. This weekend the schedule takes the series to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the running of the Emory Healthcare 500 that is the next to the last race before the field for the Chase is set.
Whether you are a fan of the Chase or not, it does actually give us two seasons in one as there is plenty of competition just to make it into the Chase. It seems as soon as the checkered flag waves after the Daytona 500 to begin the season that the pressure to make the Chase starts to build as every driver knows that only a couple of bad finishes early in the season can take away any chance of ever making it into the Chase with the opportunity to become the series champion.
It seems that drivers start the season “points driving” as they have to protect their spot in the top 12 if they want to move on into the championship round. The first month of the season will usually produce a lot of changes in the top 12 after every race, but it isn’t long until a few drivers start establishing themselves firmly in the Chase field as they stay out of trouble on the track and start to string together top-10 and top-5 finishes.
Still, not every spot is always accounted for with only two races remaining. The history of the Chase shows that drivers close to the bubble still have the chance of moving up into the Chase field or falling out. Five drivers in the last six seasons have driven their way into the Chase field with two races remaining. The latest was Brian Vickers, who was able to bump Matt Kenseth out of the top 12 last season.
This season it seems that Clint Bowyer is the only driver on the bubble now in the top 12. Going into Atlanta, he is the only driver that can actually drop out of the Chase field as the rest of the drivers in the top 12 have enough of a cushion in the standings that, regardless of where they finish on Sunday, they will go into the last race at Richmond still in the Chase.
Chasing Bowyer this weekend for the final transfer spot will be Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin. McMurray trails by 100 points and Martin finds himself one point behind McMurray. Even though Martin made the field last year, it is McMurray who may be the biggest threat to Bowyer this weekend. McMurray has picked up five spots in the standings over the last five races and has actually outscored Bowyer by 81 points during this five-race span.
McMurray may or may not be able to bump Bowyer from the 12th spot but either way, he has put together somewhat of a dream season. He opened up the year by winning the biggest race on the entire schedule when he took the checkered flag in the Daytona 500. He followed that up earlier this summer with a win in the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
McMurray will no doubt have to race this weekend for the win while Bowyer’s crew chief will keep his calculator busy adding up the points between the two drivers. It will be two different styles but the math of the Chase dictates that some run for the win while others race just to protect their spot.
Emory Healthcare 500
Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.54-mile oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns)
Sept. 5, 7:30 p.m. TV:
PRN Defending champion: