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 .
The Lead-Up: It didn't take Mark Martin long to make an impact. After finishing fourth in his first Chase, Martin was out in front in points in 1990 with 10 races to go. He'd start the Chase in a three-way tie for second, though, behind Dale Earnhardt and his 60 bonus points. Two other drivers won a couple of races: defending champ Rusty Wallace and Geoffrey Bodine, joined in the Chase for the first time by his brother Brett Bodine.
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.
The Lead-Up: Dale Earnhardt, once again, took a moderate points lead with 10 races to go, but it was literally anybody's championship to be won at the start of the Chase. Nine drivers won races in the first part of the season, and six of them won multiple times. After missing the Chase in 1990, Darrell Waltrip was back, bringing along a first-time Chaser, brother Michael Waltrip.
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.
The Lead-Up: In just the start of what would be one of the greatest championship races, if not the best, in NASCAR history, Bill Elliott and Davey Allison were battling it out on top, having gotten a little breathing room over third-place Harry Gant, as the Chase came. Both Elliott and Allison had won four times apiece, and led the Chase going in, but they didn't get much separation. Ernie Irvan had won three times, and Gant and Alan Kulwicki twice apiece.
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.
The Lead-Up: If the shock of the last couple of seasons has worn off, we'll move on. The first part of the 1993 season belonged to Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt won a series-high six races and led Dale Jarrett in the points by 259 with just 10 races remaining. That lead was trimmed all the way to 10 over Rusty Wallace, a five-time winner in the first part of the season. New to the Chase this season was a fresh-faced rookie by the name of Jeff Gordon.
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.
The Lead-Up: Dale Earnhardt held the lead in the standings with 10 to go by 79 points over Ernie Irvan, but it quickly turned into an 11-man Chase. Irvan, who was only 27 points off the lead after finishing second at Watkins Glen, was injured in a crash in practice at Michigan, ending his season. Irvan would still qualify for the Chase, however, starting in a tie for second with Earnhardt. They were all looking up at Rusty Wallace at the start of the Chase.
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.