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Racing the Chase drivers




Steve Mickey

Steve Mickey

Ever since NASCAR went to the Chase format for determining its champion in 2004, there have been questions about how hard a non-Chase driver should race a driver that is competing in the playoff round of 10 races. In the 26 races leading up to the start of the Chase, the field of 43 drivers takes the same green flag to begin the race and competes against each other the entire race until the checkered flag waves. Why should it be any diff erent during the last 10 races of the season?

Sunday at Kansas, that argument once again came to the forefront of many conversations after Kyle Busch and David Reutimann swapped sheet metal a couple of times during the Price Chopper 400. The first contact occurred on lap 51 when Busch got into the rear of Reutimann sending him spinning but 100 laps later, it was Reutimann who seemed to go out of his way to pay back Busch for the earlier incident.

The contact again raised the question of just how those drivers not in the Chase should race those that are. The dozen drivers that have made the Chase deserve to be there and the opportunity to run for the title because that is the way that NASCAR wants it, but there are still 31 other drivers on the same racetrack running for the same trophy that shouldn’t be made to feel like they are just there to fill out the field.

There is no doubting that the 12 drivers that now make up the Chase field are the best in the sport at this time, but there are still several other drivers with the talent to win races and run up front that should have the same opportunity to do so. Chase drivers don’t need any drivers to make concessions for them on the track. They didn’t get any leading up to the Chase, so why should they or anyone involved in the sport think that it is the duty of the non-Chase drivers to get out of their way?

NASCAR wants desperately for the series to come down to several drivers still with a chance to win the title when the final checkered flag waves at Homestead in November. That may or may not happen, but what we saw on Sunday between Busch and Reutimann can easily take one of the drivers out of the hunt and that may be just one of the reasons that we will see some changes to the Chase announced for next season.

NASCAR has been entertaining ideas on what direction it needs to go, but it seems like there are two options that are getting a lot of discussion at this time. The first that has been talked about for several months now is increasing the number of drivers that make it into the Chase and then using an elimination format that would assure at least two drivers going into the final race with a chance at the title. The Chase, as it stands now, is somewhat of an elimination tournament as already a couple of drivers are so far behind that they have little chance of winning the title.

Another idea that has been brought up for several years now is the use of a separate scoring system for those drivers in the Chase. It would be like a race within a race, but a poor finish by any Chase driver would result in a finish of no worse than 12th as he would not really be competing with the rest of the field when it comes to the awarding of points. This would allow Chase drivers to be a little more aggressive knowing that they couldn’t loose a bundle of points by trying to stretch a fuel mile run like Tony Stewart in the first Chase race at New Hampshire.

Stewart was being aggressive that day and ended up running out of fuel while leading the race as the white flag was in sight. He coasted to a 24th place finish that dropped him from sixth to 10th in the standings, but if the Chase drivers were using their own point system, the drop would not have been as bad as he would have actually finished in 11th place because Jimmie Johnson finished one spot lower in 25th.

Of course, if the sport was still using the “classic point system”, Kevin Harvick would be in first by 228 points over Jeff Gordon, so if you want a close finish for the title there is no going back to the way it used to be. Change is coming.

Race Preview

Event:
Pepsi Max 400

Track:
Auto Club Speedway (2-mile D-shaped oval, 14 degrees of banking in the turns)

Date:
Oct. 10, 3 p.m. TV:
ESPN

Radio:
MRN Defending cham:
Jimmie Johnson

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