<
>

Is the Chase really the best way to crown a champion?

Four drivers have a chance to hoist the Sprint Cup trophy on Sunday. Without the Chase, it would already be all but won by Kevin Harvick. Sean Gardner/NASCAR/Getty Images

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- I don't know about you, but I'm ready to see a racing championship resolved the old-fashioned way.

I'm tired of the artificial elements that have been introduced to the sport in an effort to create or maintain excitement instead of letting things take their natural course.

Nothing happens organically anymore. So much effort is put into creating the ultimate finish -- whether it's for a race or a championship -- that things are rarely allowed to evolve naturally.

Take the overtime rule. Without it, last week's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix would have ended under yellow, and Matt Kenseth would have been the winner. It's a system that worked well for decades.

Same with season-long championships. How do you think William Byron feels right now? The talented 18-year-old rookie won seven Camping World Truck Series races this year, yet it was Johnny Sauter hoisting the championship trophy Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Make no mistake, Sauter put together a quality season with three wins, 12 top-5 and 19 top-10 finishes in 23 starts.

But Byron's numbers are arguably better. There are those seven wins, plus he nearly matched Sauter with 11 top-5s. Byron led 727 laps over the course of the year compared to Sauter's 130.

The title was decided in Sauter's favor because this is the first year NASCAR thrust a Chase format into the Truck Series championship. Sauter earned two of his three wins late in the season when only six drivers were eligible for the championship. Byron was eliminated from contention when his Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota blew an engine while he was leading with a handful of laps to go at Phoenix a week ago in the race that cut the Truck Chase field from six to four.

"I just feel so bad for William and the way this point situation worked out this year and not having an opportunity to come out here and race for the title," said team owner Busch, who successfully negotiated the Cup Series Chase eliminations to make the Final Four for the second year in a row.

"The bitter part is this kid is the champion, and he's not going to get the big trophy," added Rudy Fugle, crew chief of Byron's No. 9 KBM Toyota.

It could happen again today in the Xfinity Series. Erik Jones claimed nine poles, won four races, scored 15 top-5s and has led 624 laps to date this year. Yet thanks to an elimination-style Chase, also in its first year in Xfinity competition, Justin Allgaier (no wins, and just 28 laps led) could emerge as the champion.

Of course that's ignoring the fact that despite notching up nine poles and leading 2,052 laps on the way to 10 wins (in just 17 starts), Busch is flat-out ineligible for the Xfinity championship.

Ironically, NASCAR created the original Chase in 2004 for this very reason. Ryan Newman won eight Cup Series races in 2003, claimed 11 poles and led 1,173 laps, yet finished a distant sixth in the championship standings to Matt Kenseth, who never started from pole once, had six fewer top-5s and led just 354 laps.

That statistical imbalance, and the perception that Kenseth was somehow a less worthy champion than Newman, was what pushed NASCAR into action. Since then, the Chase has grown -- to 10, 12, 13, and finally 16 drivers, with the additional artificiality of a series of eliminations intended to mimic the format successfully used in stick-and-ball sports.

To NASCAR's credit, there has not been an unworthy champion during the Chase era. The Chase created the classic 2011 championship battle between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, which Stewart would not have been in if the traditional season-long format had been used.

But it's going to happen in the Cup Series one of these days. Newman nearly pulled it off in 2014 in the first year for the elimination Chase -- and wouldn't that have been the ultimate demonstration of poetic justice?

What it all comes down to is a philosophy of managed competition, and NASCAR has long been the industry leader in that regard.

You hear a lot of talk in America today about too much government, and that certainly applies in NASCAR's case.

From making small adjustments to cars to ensure that no manufacturer gains the slightest advantage, to instituting increasingly gimmicky ways to guarantee the season championship goes down to the wire, NASCAR has always had a heavy hand when it comes to artificially spicing up the show.

It's not worth going back to add up the points the old way to figure out who would have been any Chase year's moral champion -- though it can be fun -- because the advent of the various forms of the Chase fundamentally changed the way people raced throughout the season. It changed the entire dynamic of racing for a championship.

And that's what is so frustrating. These days, once a team locks itself into the Chase, the rest of the regular season becomes pretty much irrelevant. The focus shifts to preparing for the final 10 races of the year rather than putting in 100 percent effort trying to be competitive and build a points cushion throughout the summer.

One or two bad races used to be a bump in the road for a championship contender. But now, if it happens at the wrong time, it can ruin a whole year's worth of work.

"I look back at 2007, my final year at Hendrick [Motorsports], and we were running pretty good," Busch recalled. "I think we were third in the Chase at the time, and we were either leading or running third at Kansas, and I think Junior [Dale Earnhardt Jr.] came off of 2 and wrecked me. From there on, that killed the rest of our mojo, our momentum, the things that we had going for us in that season.

"Then in 2008, right the exact year after that, we got into the Chase as the top seed," Busch continued. "We won eight races, and then boom, right out of the gate in the Chase we tried to start doing things a different way. It messed us up, and we totally lost what we were doing and what our focus was. That killed us there."

I'm not saying that going back to a season-long championship slog is automatically going to make racing great again.

But it would at least do a better job of recognizing greatness over the course of a calendar year rather than through a smaller sampling of a few weeks.

This year's Cup Series Final Four is representative of the best the 2016 season had to offer because there was a fair amount of parity throughout the field and no driver won more than four races. But that won't always be the case, and even this year, some drivers could argue that the system has been unfair to them -- among them, four-time winners Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.

Busch and Joey Logano would still be in the top four in the standings using the classic point standings, but Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson would rank seventh and ninth respectively. Points leader Kevin Harvick would theoretically clinch the championship Sunday with a top 20 finish under the old system, but he's not title-eligible.

Time moves on, and sports gradually evolve, but you can be certain that NASCAR will never backtrack and revert to a classic, season-long championship format -- even though the advent of the Chase is the number one reason fans cite when asked about their declining interest in stock car racing.

The Chase is here to stay, and if the drivers don't necessarily like it, they still generally respect the results it produces.

"We've worked really hard to get here," said Logano. "I don't think it's ever easy, and everyone is here for a reason. These are the four best teams this year. It's been proven that they've either been consistent, or can win when they have to. If they had some troubles earlier in one of the rounds, everyone was able to get through. There's not many guys who are able to do it, and obviously it was so close.

"There's a lot of pressure that's been put on these race teams, and these are the race teams that were able to handle it," he added. "A lot of people can go a different way when there's pressure put on them, but these teams here seem to be the ones that are best this year, and one of them will prevail at the end."