?Nothing is as good as the first time?.We have all heard that old adage at somepoint in time.This is especially truewhen it comes to NASCAR's championshipformat, the Chase for the Championship.
When Brian France and his team of constituents revealed thisinnovative way of determining the champion in 2004, it was a gimmick indeed,but at the same time, they envisioned an annual barn-burning championshipbattle, something that was few and far between with the previous championshipformat.
The new format was widely ridiculed by traditionalists, aswell as many drivers.Some fans vowed toboycott the final ten races, but most of them tuned in with curious eyes.As September neared, interest began topique.On that warm late-summer night inRichmond, Virginia,Jeremy Mayfield and Ryan Newman barely squeezed into the top ten in dramaticfashion while Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, and Dale Jarrett justmissed the cut.
Heading into the inaugural Chase for the Championship,Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon emerged as thefavorites as they dominated the first 26 races, winning nine combined.Other solid favorites included DaleEarnhardt, Jr., who won four races during the regular season, and Ryan Newman,who at the time was one of the more streaky drivers and could very well hit hisstride as he did in the previous season.
However, Kurt Busch pieced together a masterful run ofconsistency, finishing in the top ten in nine of the final ten races.Meanwhile, Johnson limped through the firsthalf of the Chase for the Championship, but won four of the final six races toclose to within 18 points of Busch.Gordon was a mere 21 points behind Busch heading into the seasonfinale.This was exactly what NASCAR intended, a snug battle to the end,with three star drivers.
The race itself was full of drama.As non-Chaser Greg Biffle dominated theevent, championship hopefuls Busch and Johnson had to battle throughadversity.Johnson started the race withterrible track position, and Busch had a wheel fall off while pitting undergreen early in the race.Busch evadedcomplete disaster and patiently and methodically worked his way back to thefront.Johnson and Gordon also madetheir way to the front.However, Johnsonwas unable to pass Biffle for the win, and settled for a runner-up finish.Gordon finished in the third position.All they needed was for Busch to slipup.In the latter stages of the race,Busch picked up positions by passing Jamie McMurray and Brendan Gaughan.He rallied to finish in the fifth position,therefore holding on to win his first Sprint Cup championship.
It was intense drama right down to the very last lap.NASCARcould have superciliously laughed in the face of the cynics.
It is a good thing that they did not.Four seasons have come to pass since thesuspenseful conclusion to the first Chase for the Championship, and not one ofthem has even come close to matching the intensity or excitement level.In 2005, Tony Stewart owned a 52-pointadvantage over Jimmie Johnson heading into the season finale.While 52 points is not exactly a mountain toclimb, Johnson would have needed a near flawless race, and a mediocreperformance from Stewart.Well, Stewartwas mediocre in that race, as one of NASCAR's most aggressive drivers played itsafe, but Johnson blew a tire and finished 40th.
The 2006 rendition of the championship battle was just asanticlimactic.Johnson headed into theseason finale at Homesteadwith a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth.In 2007, it only got worse.Johnsonowned an 86-point lead over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.It only gets worse from here.In 2008, Johnson owned a commanding 141-pointlead over Carl Edwards.
In each of the four years since 2004, the championshipbattle has become less of a battle and more like a one-man show.
Conversely, under the traditional championship format, thiswould have been one of the most exciting championship battles of thedecade.Johnson would have had a56-point lead, but by finishing fifteenth while Edwards won the race by leadingthe most laps, Edwards would have won the title by 16 points.For most of the race, Johnson struggled whileEdwards had the fastest car bar none.The drama would have intensified right down to very last lap.
NASCAR has altered the Chase for the Championship formatsince its implementation, but adding two more slots, and adding ten bonuspoints for winning a race during the regular season has not remedied thelackluster championship format.
It does not help that the Craftsman Truck Series title, andeven to a certain degree, the Nationwide Series battle, came down to the wireunder the classic format.
NASCARcannot turn back the clock on the championship format.What's done is done, and they must stick to theirguns.Obviously, this format is notperfect, but it can be fine-tuned.Unfortunately, even some fine-tuning cannot guarantee an excitingchampionship battle.Regardless of theformat, sometimes there is just one driver and team that are faster and luckierthan the rest.Over the past threeyears, that driver is Jimmie Johnson.
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