What if the Chase had become 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 1985 through 1989.
The Lead-Up: In a season that lasted just 28 races, there were only 18 races before the Chase. Bill Elliott won nine of them, and he sacrificed a 143-point lead over Darrell Waltrip going into the Chase. Still, Elliott started the Chase with an impressive 70-point cushion over the two drivers to win two races to that point: third-place Neil Bonnett and the last driver into the Chase, 12th-place Dale Earnhardt. Richard Petty was 19th at the time of the Chase, missing it for the first time.
What Actually Happened:
Elliott continued to win, adding two more in the final 10 races, at Darlington and Atlanta. But Elliott faltered more often down the stretch, including four straight finishes outside the top 10 at one point. Waltrip was able to take advantage, jumping Elliott and winning his third career title by 101 points.
What Would've Happened:
Elliott started the Chase with a big lead, coupled with a fifth at Bristol and a win at Darlington. Then four straight finishes outside the top 10 ended his chances, despite his getting another three top-5 finishes in a row, culminating with a win at Atlanta. Elliott finished fifth, waiting again for his first championship. Waltrip also would've won twice in the Chase, but finished outside the top 10 only twice and never worse than 17th. It was his fourth Chase win, tying him with Cale Yarborough for most Chase titles. Earnhardt, who was the last man into the Chase, ended up as the runner-up, 62 points back.
The Lead-Up: Dale Earnhardt -- whom the Chase had cost a title in 1980 and who had made every Chase since his rookie season of 1979 -- was looking strong heading into the Chase. He had won twice and had a slew of top-5 finishes, building up a lead of 141 points over Darrell Waltrip. But the driver who had earned the most bonus points was third-place Tim Richmond. Richmond won four of the seven races leading into the Chase.
What Actually Happened: Earnhardt didn't let up off the accelerator, widening his gap over the field and winning the championship by nearly 300 points over Waltrip. It was Earnhardt's second career Cup series title but his first while driving for Richard Childress. The tight battle was for second, where Waltrip held off Richmond by six points despite Richmond's season-ending win at Riverside.
What Would've Happened: Earnhardt would've come through for his first Chase title, ending the season with a win at Charlotte, a sixth at Rockingham, a win at Atlanta and a second at Riverside. The final margin was 129 points over Richmond, who, despite winning three Chase races, slipped in the middle of the Chase, finishing no better than 10th in five straight races. Rusty Wallace, in his Chase debut, finished sixth.
The Lead-Up: In what was Dale Earnhardt's finest season, he was nothing short of dominating in the first part of the season. He finished outside the top 10 only twice and never outside the top 20. He also won eight races and had a 498-point lead when the Chase races rolled around. That lead would be trimmed to 50 over Bill Elliott for the start of the Chase.
What Actually Happened: You think Earnhardt would blow a nearly 500-point lead? Although a couple of bad late-season finishes (perhaps Earnhardt's crew didn't feel the pressure to get him back out there) made for a slimmed-down final margin of 489. Elliott was second and Terry Labonte third. Labonte finished 689 points back.
What Would've Happened: Those two poor finishes -- 31st at Dover and 30th at Riverside -- didn't mean much because Earnhardt won the first three Chase races, at Bristol, Darlington and Richmond. He also finished second in four other Chase races. Elliott closed the gap near the end of the season by winning three of the last four races, but a chance to make up points at Riverside went down the tubes when he was involved in a pit-road crash. Neil Bonnett missed the last three races of the season after he was hurt in a crash at Charlotte.
The Lead-Up: After that 1985 season that saw him win nine pre-Chase races, 11 for the season, but still not win a championship, Bill Elliott was ready to break through. This time, however, Elliott won only twice going into the Chase and was 20 points back of Rusty Wallace, who also led by 21 points in the traditional standings with 10 races to go. A little drama unfolded in the cutoff race. Before there was Jeremy Mayfield, there was Davey Allison. Allison won at Michigan, moving from 14th to 12th in points, bumping out Mark Martin, who was attempting to make his first Chase.
What Actually Happened: Elliott didn't trail off as he did in 1985 -- if anything, he got better at the end of the season. Elliott pulled away from Wallace and the rest of the field, opening a 79-point lead going into the season finale at Atlanta. Wallace won, but Elliott's 11th was good enough to seal the deal on his first and only Cup series championship.
What Would've Happened: A 20-point deficit was nothing, as Elliott quickly erased that by starting the Chase by finishing second at Bristol and winning at Darlington. Wallace blinked only once, wrecking early at Richmond and finishing 35th in a 36-car field. Elliott put together a consistent run of finishes no worse than seventh in the first nine Chase races, which was enough to hold off Wallace's late-season tear of four wins in the last five races.
The Lead-Up: Dale Earnhardt, going for his third championship in four seasons (in both systems) led the points by 82 going into the final 10 races. But, because he had won only twice, he started the Chase in a tie for third, behind Rusty Wallace (five wins) and Darrell Waltrip (four). For the second straight season, we got some drama in the cutoff race, again at Michigan. Morgan Shepherd finished second, tying his best of the season, and jumped from 14th to 12th. The man left out this time around was Rick Wilson, who blew an engine at Michigan and dropped to 14th.
What Actually Happened: Wallace was able to take advantage of some late-season falters by Earnhardt at Charlotte and Rockingham. And as Earnhardt won the season finale at Atlanta, Rusty Wallace finished 15th. That was enough for Wallace to win the championship by 12 points, the fourth-closest margin in history. Mark Martin also entered the final race with a shot at the title but blew an engine.
What Would've Happened: That late-season strength that allowed Wallace to erase Earnhardt's lead would've been more than good enough, given that he started the Chase with a 10-point edge over Earnhardt. A couple of notable Chase occurrences: Waltrip finished the season second, in his 13th consecutive Chase, but would miss the Chase next season, and Martin ended the year fourth in his first of 14 straight Chase appearances.
Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.