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 probably would have 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 2000 through 2003.
The Lead-Up: Fresh off a Chase title, but still looking for his first traditional Cup Series championship, Bobby Labonte was the points leader with 10 races to go, holding a 111-point advantage over Dale Jarrett. Another Dale, Earnhardt, was in third, but over 200 points behind Labonte. Labonte would give up that edge for the Chase, though, starting the Chase 10 points back of Rusty Wallace. Another rookie made his debut this year as Matt Kenseth sneaked into the Chase in 11th.
What Actually Happened: Labonte avoided trouble as the rest of the contenders fell by the wayside. His lead continued to grow and he ended the year with a big advantage on second-place Earnhardt, 265 points. It was the first title for Joe Gibbs Racing.
What Would've Happened: If the Chase was unkind to brother Terry, it definitely favored Bobby. Labonte would've won his second straight title, an achievement few have reached. The story of this Chase was missed opportunities. Jeff Burton won twice in the Chase, but a 29th at Talladega and 36th at Dover cost him. Dale Earnhardt was outside the top 10 in five races. Ricky Rudd came out of nowhere to contend, but was 37th at Phoenix with three to go, and 24th at Atlanta in the finale. Tony Stewart won three Chase races, but was 23rd or worse in three others.
The Lead-Up: Jeff Gordon was fully in control when this one went to the Chase. Gordon led the points by 222 over Ricky Rudd, with third-place Dale Jarrett nearly 400 out of the lead. Gordon would start the Chase with the lead, but it was trimmed to a mere 10 over Jarrett. The season had a somber tone after the death of Dale Earnhardt, ending his record run of 22 consecutive Chases. Two drivers made their Chase debuts, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick. The Race to the Chase was tight. Steve Park's injury at Darlington knocked him out for the season, and in the cutoff race at Darlington, he fell out of the top 12, allowing Jeff Burton, who finished ninth at Richmond, to get in.
What Actually Happened: Gordon rolled to his fourth championship, finishing the season with a 349-point cushion. The race for second was the one to watch. Tony Stewart edged Sterling Marlin by 22 for that spot, with Ricky Rudd not far behind in fourth.
What Would've Happened: Ready for another upset? Gordon, with a comfortable lead in the traditional points, probably left a lot on the table this year, but that's why we're playing that "what if" game. Anyway, in his eighth Chase and 25th Cup Series season, it's the veteran Sterling Marlin taking home his first and only championship. The race would've been tight, Marlin prevailing by 12 over Stewart and 24 over Burton. Remember, Burton just sneaked into the Chase because of Park's injury. Marlin's back-to-back second-place finishes to end the season would've been the championship margin. The Chase continues to be unkind to Gordon, costing him two of his four Cup titles so far.
The Lead-Up: Fresh off his Chase title season, it was Sterling Marlin again on top of the points, but just by nine over Mark Martin with 10 races to go. Both drivers would tumble in points with the bonus points distributed. It would be Matt Kenseth starting on top, on account of his four wins. Tony Stewart won three times to start in second. Marlin would start 20 back, along with Jeff Gordon and rookie Jimmie Johnson. Only two winless drivers made the field, those being Rusty Wallace and another rookie, his teammate Ryan Newman.
What Actually Happened: Marlin's injury at Kansas with seven races to go ended any chance for a championship drive. Tony Stewart, who was fifth in points with 10 races to go, took advantage, finishing no worse than 18th in the last 10 races, and that came in the final race at Homestead. Stewart didn't win during the remainder of the season, but his consistency was enough to edge Martin, who again finished second, by just 38 points.
What Would've Happened: If two titles make a legend, put another driver on the legend list. Kurt Busch, who two years later would win the first actual Chase, won this one, as well. What makes it more remarkable was that Busch was the 12th and final driver to make the Chase, so don't count any driver out. Busch finished strong, winning three of the final five Chase races, including a victory at the finale at Homestead to seal the deal over Stewart, who was outside the top 10 in three of the last five races.
The Lead-Up: This is the season that led to the Chase, since Matt Kenseth had opened up such a big lead prior to the final 10 races. Despite having just one win, Kenseth's consistency allowed him to open up a whopping 418-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the series came into the final 10 races. The cutoff race at Richmond provided some drama, once again, with Jeff Burton taking advantage. Robby Gordon finished 29th, three laps down, at Richmond, falling back to 13th. Burton, in his last full season with Roush Fenway Racing, was fourth. Ryan Newman, sixth in points at the time, used his six wins to take the top Chase seed. Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip came back to make his first chase in eight seasons.
What Actually Happened: Kenseth coasted to his first championship, but the lack of a threat down the stretch trimmed his final margin to 90 points. But it wasn't even that close, as Kenseth retired early in the race with engine problems, finishing dead-last in 43rd. Jimmie Johnson was third in the finale, allowing him to close within 100.
What Would've Happened: Kenseth faded to eighth after three finishes of 33rd or worse in the Chase, although he likely would've had different results if there were a Chase-induced sense of urgency. Who took advantage of Kenseth's slacking down the stretch? A driver we now know as one of the best in the Chase, Johnson. Johnson ended the season with six straight top-three finishes (not winning any of those). Tony Stewart would've been right in the mix, but a 20th at Loudon to start the Chase while Johnson was in Victory Lane was all the cushion Johnson needed. Several drivers were in it down the stretch, but Johnson lowered the hammer for his first career Chase title.
Putting the current Chase rules (12 drivers, 10 bonus points per win) into effect for the first three Chases provides a couple of interesting notes (though not a different champion), including a career year for one driver.
2004: Jamie McMurray, who missed the Chase by just 15 points, would've been in along with Kasey Kahne. McMurray had a good run in the Chase and would've ended the year fourth. Meanwhile, Kahne beat Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler and Jeremy Mayfield to finish ninth.
2005: Jeff Gordon got a lot of press for missing the Chase in 2005, but would've been the 12th and final driver in. Elliott Sadler would've gotten the other spot. Neither would factor into the Chase as Gordon would finish eighth, Sadler 10th.
2006: Another big-name driver, Tony Stewart, missed the Chase in 2006. But Stewart would've been the main challenger to Jimmie Johnson in his first championship season. Stewart would've rallied from 11th to finish second, just 26 points out of the lead. Greg Biffle also would've made the Chase, and would've ended the season 11th.
Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.