ROBINSON: While Imperfect, Chase Does Create Unexpected Results


When any sport adopts a playoff system, it promotes the unexpected. That’s the whole purpose, from a business standpoint, to keep the contest wide open as long as possible.

It’s not the intent to reward mediocrity, but sometimes it happens. The 1973 New York Mets made it to the World Series after a regular season of 83 wins and 79 losses. NFL teams have challenged for a Super Bowl spot at 9-7. In the NBA playoffs, squads with records below .500 have made deep runs into the playoffs.

One of the understood goals of the NASCAR Chase to the Sprint Cup when it was introduced in 2004 was to avoid another championship like 2003, when Matt Kenseth wrapped up the title fairly early despite only one race win. That wasn’t unprecedented, as Bill Rexford (1950), Ned Jarrett (1961) and Benny Parsons (1973) had all won NASCAR’s premier honor with one victory.

In Parsons’s case, it was his only finish on the lead lap all year. None of them were strokers and Jarrett later won 15 races in 1964 without taking the crown. (He lost to nine-race winner Richard Petty.)

So here we were at the opening round of the 2010 Chase, with five of the 12 drivers having no victories. Clint Bowyer reduced that number in dominant style and the biggest winner of the year, Denny Hamlin, emerged as the Chase leader with a solid second place.

Most sage observers pick Hamlin, regular season leader Kevin Harvick, mercurial Kyle Busch, or the perennial champion, Jimmie Johnson, to come out on top when the big check is handed over at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. All are multiple winners, as is Kurt Busch.

There are persistent rumors that the Chase format will be changed for 2011. Best guess is that three or four more drivers will be added, with cynics asserting the purpose is to give Dale Eaarnhardt, Jr. a better chance to attend the dance.

Even with a field of 16, the Chase would still be about as selective as the NFL playoffs (12 of 32 teams) and more selective than the NHL or NBA (16 of 30 teams).

Another suggestion is that a different point system apply to the Chasers than to the rest of the field. That’s a tough call since there might be 15 non-Chase cars between the ninth and 10th Chase driver. It hardly seems fair to disregard all the other drivers in the field when awarding Chase points.

There’s also the concept, like NHRA, to progressively eliminate drivers from the Chase, leaving only two or four eligible at the finale. That seems rather harsh on the team that gets hot one week after elimination, but it’s really no different than declaring three-fourths of the field eliminated when the Chase begins.

In the end, the Chase will always be different from other playoffs because the same teams are on the field as in the regular season. Regardless of the structure, the possibility always exists that the point leader will wreck on the oil dropped by the 33rd-place car.

But like we said at the top, a playoff system, no matter how imperfect, promotes the unexpected. So enjoy the Chase, whatever the details.

– The five races at NHMS over the Sylvania 300 weekend produced five close finishes of four distinctly different kinds. The main event ended with Tony Stewart running out of gas with a lap to go. The Camping World Truck Series event saw a three-way slugfest among winner Kyle Busch, runner-up James Buescher and third-place Kevin Harvick in which slide jobs and wall contact were rampant in the last two laps.

Both the Whelen Modified Tour and K&N Pro Series East races were influenced by late accidents that took out leaders and required overtime. The American-Canadian Tour Invitational was the purest race you could imagine, with the winner coming from 27th with almost no help from the caution flag, which last waved on lap two.

Which finish did the fans enjoy the most? I’d vote for the truck race in a close contest with the ACT event. There was beating and banging aplenty between Busch and Buescher, but none of the contenders got wrecked. It was kind of like a Bon Jovi record — loud and raw but it carried you along and left you wanting more. The ACT show was more like a Roy Orbison classic, steadily building tension to a crescendo and leaving no doubt about the outcome.