BURNS: Around The Track

Jimmie Johnson's win in the Quicken Loans 400 at the Michigan Int'l Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich. on June 15 was his third of the season. He's firmly in the title hunt again. (Robert Benko photo)
Jimmie Johnson’s win in the Quicken Loans 400 at the Michigan Int’l Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich. on June 15 was his third of the season. He’s firmly in the title hunt again. (Robert Benko photo)

MOORESVILLE, N.C. – The Chase for the Sprint Cup has added intrigue to NASCAR’s top series since 2004.

Sure, it’s been changed more than tires in last week’s race in Sonoma, Calif., but it keeps you interested through the fall. Whether it’s necessary or not depends on whose perspective you’re observing.

NASCAR needs it. The Chase brings guaranteed – well, kind of guaranteed – drama to the final 10 races in the midst of the NFL, MLB and NBA seasons. Drivers can go from 10th in points or even 16th to claim the trophy if they stay hot through the elimination stages.

Drivers don’t mind the Chase, at least when we ask them about it. It’s not their decision. Many like it that way. Like Marcos Ambrose said last week regarding a road-course Chase race, let NASCAR makes the call.

He’ll just drive.

But do fans need the Chase? Television ratings, the very catalyst that spurred the Chase, have been down in all but three races this season. Some call it manufactured excitement. For an idea of what a Chase-less NASCAR season can be under present-day conditions, look no further than the Nationwide Series.

You could put a blanket of points, a small one, under the series’ top three drivers: Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler and Chase Elliott. Sprint Cup regulars often dominate Nationwide headlines because they win most of the races. Since they no longer can claim the championship, it means the battle for second and third becomes the eventual battle for first in points.

Think of it as battling for three or four yards over and over. Suddenly, you’re in the end zone when the clock strikes zero.

It’s a throwback to what NASCAR desperately wants every year: for the championship to come down to the final laps in the season finale. Alan Kulwicki’s 1992 battle with Bill Elliott at Atlanta Motor Speedway provided the perfect storyline. Never mind it was Richard Petty’s last race and Jeff Gordon’s debut.

The Chase has served its purpose on occasion. Jimmie Johnson has to love it. He wins it more often than he wins, well, he wins a lot of things. There’s a better example out there.

You can’t get closer than the 2011 title fight between champion Tony Stewart and runner-up Carl Edwards.

When the season ended, they were separated by as many points as you or I have. Hint: None.

Unless you were in the Chase, too.

It’s hard to say whether the Chase is the best thing for the sport as a whole. When its feeder series provide just enough of a compelling battle to not put it in their divisions, the answer becomes even less clear.

The Nationwide Series doesn’t need a Chase. It’s got a great battle unfolding.

But who’s watching?