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Postcards from the battlefront....

  Carl Edwards, awaiting the first race in the NASCAR playoffs. Under the non-chase system he would have won the 2008 NASCAR championship, not Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   JOLIET, Ill.
   The chase, the chase, the chase.
   Jimmie Johnson, Jimmie Johnson, Jimmie Johnson.
   Indeed his playoff numbers are striking. Of the 70 chase races since the new system kicked off in 2004, Johnson has won an astounding 19 of them. That's more than the second-best and third-best chase drivers combined.

   And in Sunday's Chicago 400 Johnson could win again.
   When it comes to the playoffs, nobody's done it better.
   And if most of his rivals once again self-destruct over these next few weeks, as they've tended to do for so many seasons now, Johnson could very easily take his record-smashing sixth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
   We're going to hear about the chase ad nauseum till Thanksgiving…until something or two happens dramatically to help us all refocus on the guys actually winning these races.
   But, reality check, please.
   Not everyone was a fan of the chase format when it first appeared -- part of a bid to make NASCAR racing more relevant in the fall, when rival sports are also in high gear and stealing TV viewers.
    Many felt this sport's champion should be determined over all 36 tour events, not just the final 10.
    Certainly Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have got this chase thing down to a science. They use the first 26 races of the season to prepare for the final 10….because to be bluntly honest there are only about 10 championship-caliber stock car teams in this sport (and that's in a good year for all), and NASCAR puts 12 men in the playoffs. So making the cut really isn't any big issue for the sport's best, like Johnson and Knaus.


     Kevin Harvick: under the long-standing pre-chase points system he would have won the 2010 NASCAR championship, not Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


   But to be fair, Johnson and Knaus could very easily have also won pre-chase titles in 2002 (they finished fifth overall, but were second in points with just four to go) and 2003 (they finished second, by just 90 points to Matt Kenseth). Those were their first two seasons on the tour, remember, and they could have won both championships.
    They are that good.

   However, let's consider how things overall have played out since 2004, the playoff system versus the traditional non-chase system:
   If we've got all our numbers right…..this is what we see: that in the seven chase playoff series so far, only three times has the sport's best overall driver, through all 36 tour events, gone on to win the championship.
    The men so denied – Jeff Gordon twice, Carl Edwards, and Kevin Harvick.
   -- What actually happened in 2004 is that Kurt Busch won the title by eight points over Jimmie Johnson and by 16 points over Jeff Gordon.
       Under the non-chase system, covering the full season, not just the last 10 races, Gordon would have won the title, by 47 points over Johnson, and Busch would have finished far behind (247 points).

   -- What actually happened in 2005 is that Tony Stewart won the title by 35 points over Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
       Under the non-chase system, Stewart would still have won the title, but by 215 points over Biffle, with Edwards far, far behind (602 points).

   -- What actually happened in 2006 is Jimmie Johnson won the title by 56 points over Matt Kenseth, 68 over Denny Hamlin, and 78 over Kevin Harvick.
      Under the non-chase system, Jimmie would still have won the title, but by only four points over Kenseth; Harvick and Hamlin would have been long out of it, 320 points down, and 433 points down, respectively.

  -- What actually happened in 2007 is Jimmie Johnson won the title by 77 points over Jeff Gordon.
     Under the non-chase system, Jeff Gordon instead would have won the title, by a whopping 353 points over Johnson.

  -- What actually happened in 2008 is Jimmie Johnson won the title by 69 points over Carl Edwards.
      Under the non-chase system, Edwards instead would have won the title, by 16 points over Johnson.

  -- What actually happened in 2009 is Jimmie Johnson won the title by 141 points over Mark Martin, 179 over Jeff Gordon.
     Under the non-chase system, Johnson would still have won the title, but by 66 points over Gordon, 71 over Tony Stewart; Martin would have been far behind (394).

   -- And what actually happened in 2010 is Jimmie Johnson won the title by 39 over Denny Hamlin and 41 over Kevin Harvick.
      Under the non-chase system, Harvick instead would have won the title, by a solid 285 points over Johnson, 409 over Hamlin.


     Kurt Busch: Under the old non-chase points system, he would have lost the 2004 NASCAR championship to Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


     What, if anything, does this tell us?
     That in 2004 and 2007 Jeff Gordon would have won the Sprint Cup championship, making him now a six-time champion going for number seven – which would have tied him with legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
     That in 2008 Carl Edwards would have won the championship.
     That in 2010 Kevin Harvick would have won the championship.
     That Jimmie Johnson would have won only two championships by now, not five straight.
     And that says that the sport's '36-race, full-season champion' was beaten by the chase format in four of the seven playoff tournaments.
     But woulda, coulda, shoulda.
     What we've got now is Johnson going for a record-smashing sixth consecutive NASCAR title.


     Crew chief Steve Letarte (L) helped get Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the playoffs. Now what can they do these next 10 chase races? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


     Let's briefly look at another aspect of the chase:
     How many times in these last seven years has the 'regular season' champion gone on to win the chase title?
     Exactly once.
     Tony Stewart in 2005. (He finished the first 26 tour races 185 points ahead of second-best Greg Biffle.)
     In 2004 Jeff Gordon beat Jimmie Johnson over the first 26 by 60 points. (Kurt Busch wound up with the title).
     In 2006 Matt Kenseth finished the regular season 57 points ahead of second-best Jimmie Johnson.
     In 2007 Jeff Gordon finished the regular season 312 points ahead of Tony Stewart.
     In 2008 Kyle Busch finished the regular season 207 points ahead of Carl Edwards.
     In 2009 Tony Stewart finished the regular season 179 points ahead of Jeff Gordon.
     In 2010 Kevin Harvick finished the regular season 228 points ahead of Kyle Busch.
    And this season, under the new point system, Kyle Busch won the regular season, by three points over Jimmie Johnson.


    Crew chief Chad Knaus: with a break or two, here and there, Knaus and Jimmie Johnson could very easily be gunning for their 10th straight NASCAR Cup championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 

    Now some might argue that without the chase game teams might play the whole season differently. Maybe so, maybe not.
    But as the NASCAR chase kicks off here, with all the hype and hoopla, at least we've got some facts and figures to lay out on the table for consideration.
    And maybe promoter Bruton Smith is right – the chase doesn't help him sell any tickets, he says, and his fellow promoters tend to agree.
    Smith says it may simply be time just to drop the chase completely, and try something else.


      Matt Kenseth (L): likes to fly under the radar. What can the 'Stealth Bomber' do in the chase? Well, he's starting from the pole in Sunday's Chicago 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


   Well, does the chase help NASCAR's TV ratings?
    Apparently not much lately.
    And remember NASCAR officials are trying to position this sport for the next round of TV contract negotiations.
    Last season ABC/ESPN moved most of the playoff events from ABC-network to ESPN-cable. Demographically that may be a good move.
    However the NASCAR chase ratings for 2010 were rather dismal.
    The first four playoff races – at Loudon, N.H. (the Boston market); Dover, Del. (the Philadelphia/Washington/Baltimore market); Kansas City; and California (the Los Angeles market) – showed a huge ratings drop of nearly 30 percent, from 2009's already anemic 3.3 on ABC to 2.4s on ESPN. (That compares to the average NASCAR Sunday race rating for 2010 overall of 3.6.)
    Even with last November's red-hot championship finish, with Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick desperately chasing Denny Hamlin in the final weeks, the sport's title finale at Homestead-Miami drew a weak 3.3 rating, down from 2009's 3.6. (Still, that's a good five million viewers for the final race.)
    Will moving the playoff leadoff to Chicago from New Hampshire help?
    It is indeed a bold gamble by NASCAR execs, taking this sport right into the heart of Bears country, with the NFL just getting under way.
    Of course after last fall's general TV playoff collapse, the bar isn't too high right now.
    Last September's chase leadoff, at Loudon, pulled an almost shocking 2.3; that compares to ABC's 3.8 in 2008 and ABC's 3.2 in 2009. Those figures show a major loss of viewers, from some six million for the 2008 chase kickoff down to some 3.5 million for last September's kickoff.
    The summer Chicago races here have averaged about 4.5 million Saturday night viewers, which could be a benchmark for this 400.
    But on the downside for the chase, NASCAR this season has dropped the Los Angeles market completely from the playoffs, a highly questioned move. Despite weak crowds at that track (perhaps someone in Daytona should eventually consider the follow-the-leader quality of the action on that 14-degree track), playing in LA is traditionally a TV ratings boost.
    Some other TV numbers to consider here:
    Dover and Kansas City, the following playoff stops after next weekend's New Hampshire 300, also showed precipitous TV ratings drops last fall (a 2.4 for the Dover 400, a 2.3 for the Kansas 400), with a loss of some two million TV viewers for each of those races.
   Think the guys in the ESPN booth, and up there in Connecticut headquarters, are sweating things out?
   On the plus side, it does look like the ESPN announcing crew will be a bit more eager than usual to dig into some of the sport's controversial stories, like the Richard Childress-Rick Hendrick battle over what really might have happened in those closing laps last weekend at Richmond….
   Might be a good week or two to turn up the volume and listen to what these guys have to say.


  Wonder if Jeff Gordon (R) will be looking over his shoulder out on the track, after raising questions about that Richmond win by Kevin Harvick (L) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




Football season is tough on

Football season is tough on us NASCAR fans. My two favorite sports share the same starting time most weeks. It gives my remote a workout. Last year my favorite driver didn't make the Chase so football won my time. Back in the old days even if my favorite was in 20th, he still had a chance. Now outside the top 12 means on to next year. That excludes a lot of fans.

All I can say is that I think

All I can say is that I think our sport would be a lot better off with Carl and Kevin being past champions than Kurt. And with Gordon a more respected 6-Time Champion and Jimmie just a 2-Time champion. I know each year I would have been as happy or happier with how the old points would have played out than the new. Kurt won a cheap championship and Jimmie/Chad have played the Chase Format like a fiddle. I don't see the upside to the chase, it's just one more distraction than the great racing.

The big UPSIDE to the chase is the disappearance of what had gotten under my skin BEFORE the chase though. Before the chase people would pull over and let the points leader pass them to "not interfere with the points". When Matt one his championship from August on i watched week after week him run 10th to 15th all day only after the last pit stop him passing people who wouldn't just pull over and let him go. And this happened in proceeding years with Dale Jarret and Bobby Labonte. A nice guy that didn't ruffle feathers with a points lead seemed like a lock to keep that lead. The second place runner had to scratch and claw for every position just to keep up. But it's been a while...so maybe i'm remembering it through the fog of time. But with so many people in the chase...they're "Just Another Car" until we get to homestead. And that in and of itself is the single redeeming quality to the chase.

The Race to the Chase was a much more interesting race than the chase itself will likely be, fingers crossed we come out of Atlanta with a surprise or two...but more than likely the new emphasis on not having of bad day of the dumbed down point system will further encourage points racing by the Chasee's. Oh Well...here's hoping it's still a good race...

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