What if the Chase became a part of NASCAR back in 1975, when new ideas were being jotted down on a napkin at Boot Hill Saloon in Daytona Beach, Fla.? That's the year the ruling body changed its points system, but how would history have changed with a Chase back then?
Drivers would have probably driven differently, leading to changed results and altered points championships over the years covered here. But let's play the "what if" game and take the historical results and translate them into the current Chase system.
Here's a look at Chases from 1990 through 1994 .
What Actually Happened: In the classic "one that got away," Martin came up 26 points short in one of his four runner-up finishes in the points. Martin was penalized earlier in the season for a rules violation that could have very well prevented him from clinching the championship. Martin still doesn't have one, but stay tuned for 2009 with Hendrick Motorsports.
What Would've Happened: For the second straight season, with 10 races to go the driver in second place moved up to first to start the Chase on account of his bonus points, and used a strong Chase run to win the championship. This time it was Earnhardt, who won three Chase races, finished second in two others and added a couple of thirds for good measure. Earnhardt easily cruised to victory over Martin and Bill Elliott.
What Actually Happened: Earnhardt stretched his points lead by being good, but not great, in the last 10 races of the year. Second-place Ricky Rudd wasn't able to mount a comeback, ending the season with five straight finishes outside the top 10, ending the year nearly 200 points behind Earnhardt for the title.
What Would've Happened: Mr. September strikes again. That's right, Harry Gant made his first Chase since 1986 and used a four-race win streak from Darlington to Martinsville to pull away in the title hunt. Gant won only once in the regular season, but with those four wins in the Chase, paired with four other top-five finishes, became a two-time Chase champion.
What Actually Happened: NASCAR history, that's what happened. In a championship battle that came down to the final laps, Kulwicki led one more lap than Elliott, so despite Elliott's win, Kulwicki's extra bonus points were enough, giving him a razor-thin 10-point edge over Elliott. Allison, Gant and Kyle Petty, all championship contenders themselves, were outside the top 15 at the season finale at Atlanta.
What Would've Happened: NASCAR history, that's what would've happened. You thought Gant in 1991 was an upset? How about Petty coming out on top, giving the Petty family its 11th NASCAR Cup Series championship from three generations of drivers. Nobody was spectacular in the Chase, so the title was out there to be won. Elliott and Kulwicki each had only five top-10 finishes in the Chase, while Gant didn't finish better than sixth. So it was Petty, who won at Rockingham with three races remaining, who snatched the crown.
What Actually Happened: Earnhardt wasn't going to blow that big of a points lead. Although he didn't win again that season, Earnhardt finished second, third or fourth another seven times down the stretch. Wallace made Earnhardt sweat a little with his hot finish, but Earnhardt won the title by a cozy 80 points. Those two ended the season far ahead of third-place Mark Martin.
What Would've Happened: Another championship that Earnhardt would've lost, but nobody could question Wallace had the best team at the end of the year. Wallace won half of the Chase races, and finished second in two others. His worst Chase finish was 19th, his second-worst fourth! In one of the most dominating Chase performances ever, Wallace would have won the title by well over 200 points.
What Actually Happened: With Irvan missing the rest of the season, Earnhardt held more than a 200-point lead on third-place Mark Martin with 10 races to go and would still pull away for the rest of the season. Earnhardt's championship was his seventh, tying him with Richard Petty for the most all time.
What Would've Happened: Earnhardt wouldn't let this one slip away. He began the Chase with five straight top-three finishes, then an awful seventh at North Wilkesboro. His win at Rockingham would all but seal the deal, even after a 40th-place finish in the next-to-last race at Phoenix. Wallace won three of the first five Chase races, but ended the season 37th, 35th, 17th and 32nd. He finished third in the standings. Terry Labonte was second.
Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.