Way back in 1975, NASCAR decided to change its points system, using an idea jotted down on a cocktail napkin at the Boot Hill Saloon in Daytona Beach, Fla. Pretty humble beginnings, no?
But what if these innovators had used a slightly bigger napkin -- maybe if they were eating ribs or something -- and had come up with the idea of the Chase three decades ago? How would the history of NASCAR have changed?
Now, a little disclaimer here. I know drivers would've probably driven differently, leading to changed results and altered points championships. But let's just have a little fun here and play the "what if" game. It's a pretty fun game, kind of like Hungry, Hungry Hippos.
Here's a look at Chases from 1975 through 1979, using the current Chase format.
The Chase erased a 573-point lead for Petty over Dave Marcis entering the race, but Petty got the benefit of 90 bonus points, after winning nine of the 20 pre-Chase races. Only seven drivers drove all of the first 20 races; all made the Chase.
What Actually Happened: Well, it should be pretty obvious. It's hard for any driver to make up a 573-point lead, especially over The King. Petty cruised to his sixth championship, besting second-place Marcis by over 700 points.
What Would've Happened: Petty won three of the first five Chase races, and nothing was keeping him from winning the first Chase in NASCAR history. It's the man in second who might surprise you: Richard Childress. The current team owner would've finished more than 200 points behind Petty, but 20 in front of a third-place tie between Benny Parsons and Marcis.
The Lead-Up: Things were a little tighter this time around. When the season reached the 10-to-go mark, three drivers, Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons and two-time defending series champ Richard Petty, were all within 100 points of each other atop the standings. However, it'd be a name from off the board, David Pearson, who would take the most bonus points and a 40-point lead into the Chase. Pearson won eight regular-season races, but raced in only 15 of the 20 races, not running a full schedule.
What Actually Happened: Yarborough opened up his lead and won his first Cup Series championship by nearly 200 points over Petty. Two drivers who missed the Chase, Darrell Waltrip and Dick Brooks, ended the season in the top 10 in points. Waltrip would've been eighth, Brooks 10th.
What Would've Happened: When a driver starts the Chase by winning five of the first six races, let's just say I like his chances. That's exactly what Yarborough did. Petty did a good job keeping pace, finishing no worse than fourth in any of the races Yarborough won, and even won at Rockingham. But Yarborough was just too much. Pearson continued to run part-time, sitting out three Chase races, including the opener at Bristol.
The Lead-Up: There was drama on both sides of the Chase leading into the final 10 races. In a season that somewhat mirrors 2008, only five Chase drivers had won races heading in, including an all-star quartet of drivers who had won multiple times and occupied the top four spots in points: defending champion Cale Yarborough, six-time champion Richard Petty, Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip, who won the race leading into the Chase. Also in the Chase cutoff race at Michigan, a 20th-place finish by J.D. McDuffie was enough to knock him from 11th to 13th, as he was passed by Skip Manning (finished 12th) and David Pearson (finished second).
What Actually Happened: Again, it was Yarborough opening up his lead as the season went on. Yarborough won his second consecutive championship by nearly 400 points over Petty. The top three drivers remained the same as last season: Yarborough first, Petty second and Parsons third.
What Would've Happened: If Yarborough opened up that kind of lead when leading by only 50 going into the last 10 races of the season, he would have owned the 1977 Chase, getting a top-5 finish in each race. Oddly enough, he finished in each top-5 position twice. Got to love the variety. Yarborough would've won by 179 over Parsons. Good just wasn't cutting it in 1977; Parsons and Waltrip each won twice, but couldn't keep up with Cale.
What Actually Happened: Yarborough extended his lead over his two closest competitors, Marcis and Benny Parsons, cruising to his third consecutive championship, the first -- and still only -- driver ever to reach that mark. Marcis and Parsons would slip to fourth and fifth, being passed by Bobby Allison and Waltrip, who also would've been helped by the Chase format.
What Would've Happened: This is the first year a Chase would've cut the championship margin under 100 points. However, Yarborough still would've held on in a three-man breakaway featuring Yarborough, Waltrip and Allison. Those three combined to win nine of the 10 Chase races, failing to win only the Atlanta race, which was won by Donnie Allison. However, five of those wins came from Yarborough, who finished 22nd at Charlotte, which put Waltrip right back in the picture. But Waltrip finished 28th at Atlanta, while Yarborough came home a respectable eighth, leading to the three-peat. First-time Chaser D.K. Ulrich would have seen his season end just two races into the final 10. Ulrich's car was found with nitrous oxide in the car after a crash at Darlington, leading to a suspension for the rest of the season.
What Actually Happened: In an oh-so-tight points race, it was Richard Petty closing the gap and passing Darrell Waltrip, winning his seventh and final championship by only 11 over DW. The King trailed by two points heading to the season's final race in Ontario, Calif., but led a lap early while Waltrip spun and went a lap down. Petty held on to finish fifth to lock it up, while Waltrip was a solid, but not-good-enough eighth.
What Would've Happened: The non-Chase was good, and so was the Chase. Again, it'd be Petty winning the title, by a still-slim margin of 13 points. Except the second-place driver would've changed, with the title hunt coming down to Petty and Allison. Petty never finished worse than ninth during the Chase, with the key race coming at Rockingham. Petty took the win by less than two-tenths of a second. Allison would crash and finish 19th, 70 laps down. Cale Yarborough's streak of three straight titles would have ended when he finished the playoffs third.
Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.