Watching the Chase for the Sprint Cup, you're often left wondering, particularly after a poor finish by a driver: Is he still in the hunt? Does he still have a chance at this year's title?
I wanted a formula just to satisfy my own curiosity on when a driver was in trouble. So for last year's Chase, I established the Rule of 72.
I took the seven previous Chase champions (2004-10) and eliminated the highest and the lowest figures, then determined the average of the remaining five. And that's how I came up with a figure of 7.3 and the Rule of 72.
Here's how it works: We add up the drivers' finishes week to week. And if a driver's total finishes exceeds 72, that driver is eliminated.
Let's go back to last year for an example. Here are Matt Kenseth's finishes through seven races in the 2011 Chase: 21st at Chicago, sixth at New Hampshire, fifth at Dover, fourth at Kansas, first at Charlotte, 18th at Talladega and 31st at Martinsville. Those finishes, when added together, give us a total of 86.
Kenseth finished fourth in the Chase. But we eliminated his championship chances after seven races. Even though he had won a race in the Chase and there were three races left, he had exceeded the number 72 when his total race finishes were added together.
The same was true for Kevin Harvick, who finished third in the Chase. With two races remaining, we eliminated his chances, as his average finish wasn't historically worthy of a championship. And in the end it came down to Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, two drivers who were comfortably under 72 going into the last race. So the Rule of 72 did its job.
This year, I modified the formula a little, because Stewart, with a 6.3 average last year, actually lowered the number a bit. Using the same formula, the average finish needed to stay in contention dropped to 7.1. So this year, when a driver's total finishes hits 72, his chances of winning the championship have been eliminated.
There's another factor to consider: We have to acknowledge that the bonus points NASCAR awards for wins will come into play. Take Denny Hamlin, for example. He's entering the Chase with 12 bonus points. That's essentially the same as gaining 12 track positions. And we also have to account for drivers like Kevin Harvick who are entering the Chase with no bonus points.
All drivers will start the Chase at zero in the Rule of 72. But as we account for bonus points for wins, those drivers with bonus points will actually start with a negative balance.
I like giving attention where attention's deserved, and this formula helps me do just that. I can establish by the fourth or fifth race of the Chase that this driver, this team or this group of drivers is out of the running -- and we're going to give attention to these four or five other drivers because mathematically, they're still in the game. As early as the third week of the Chase, we might be eliminating drivers, and it's not unreasonable that a driver could be eliminated after just two races.
While the formula is meant to show which drivers are eliminated, it does illustrate that winning the Chase is about assembling 10 outstanding races. Can you survive one bad race? Sure, if you offset that with top-5 finishes. Can you survive two bad races? Perhaps -- if you offset that with several wins, the way Tony Stewart did last year.
When I look at the Chase it's very clear that the champion is no longer rewarded for having the best season on average. The champion is determined by the ability to put together 10 outstanding races.
Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are great examples of this. They had only one win between them coming into last year's Chase -- and yet, they settled the championship between them in the last race at Homestead.
Of the eight Chases we've had, seven of those have been won by two drivers: Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. It speaks to the talent level of both these drivers and how difficult it is to perform on a half-mile track one week, a 2.66-mile superspeedway the next, then a 1-mile concrete oval, and then a 1½-mile track. The diversity of the Chase favors the most talented drivers. There's no doubt in my mind that the cream rises to the top in this format.
Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.