If only Jimmie Johnson would stop winning already. That's a popular sentiment among fans critical of the Cup Series' dominant driver and the Chase format that has helped make him so. And their conclusion is that the Chase -- which always seems to be under the NASCAR microscope, anyway -- needs fixing. We're prone to the "if it ain't broke" theory, and frankly we don't think it is. Maybe JJ is just that good.
The Cup postseason was introduced to engineer year-end excitement, like the 1992 battle royale in Atlanta, in which the title was up for grabs among three contenders until Alan Kulwicki pulled off the upset.
Other sports reward clutch playoff performances. No reason NASCAR shouldn't too.
And at first the plan did its job. Kurt Busch took the inaugural Chase in 2004 with Days of Thunder-type drama: After his Ford lost a front tire in the Homestead finale, he rallied and took the top spot by eight points. But since then the final margin of victory has swollen steadily each year, reaching 141 points in 2009. If the old system -- with point totals accumulating through all 36 races -- were still in place, the standings would have been much closer in three of the past four seasons (66 points would have separated first and second in 2009; 16 in '08; four in '06). Plus, fans are quick to note, JJ would be the proud holder of just two titles, not four.
Yet, even drivers who have watched their massive leads erased by the points recalibration that occurs at the start of the Chase, like Jeff Gordon in 2007 or Tony Stewart last season, don't pine for the old days. They know everyone heads into each season under the same conditions and develops strategies with the format in mind. "The Chase works fairly well the way it is," says 2003 champ Matt Kenseth, the last guy to win the old-fashioned way. "We all start with the same rules, the same opportunities. The 48 just takes better advantage than anyone else."
And taking advantage is a full-year job. According to Chase-busting crew chief Chad Knaus, who has been with Johnson since JJ was a rookie in 2002, the Chase system demands turning lemons into lemonade. "If we had to build a title on all 36 races," Knaus says, "we'd be a lot more consistent in the regular season than we are. Now, we use the first two-thirds of the season to learn more about what we're going to do in the last 10 races. We'll try a different setup outside our comfort zone just to get some information."
Problem is, fans aren't concerned with how hard it is to be so good. They just want down-to-the-wire racing. And as long as fans talk, NASCAR will listen. (We direct skeptics to two recent fan-endorsed changes: double-file restarts and "have at it" racing.) With another announcement expected in the off-season, drivers are preparing for more change. "Once a year there's a conversation about the Chase,"
says veteran driver Jeff Burton. "Does it work? Could it be better?
NASCAR is certainly looking at the future."
One person who isn't worried about a shake-up is Knaus. "Whatever they decide to do is fine," he says. "We will adapt and do the best we can." That ability to adapt and conquer will continue to scare the pants off the competition.
In other words, race fans, be careful what you wish for.