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 1995 through 1999:
The Lead-Up: A new face emerged at the top of the points standings. Jeff Gordon, who had made the Chase in each of his first two full seasons but wasn't in championship contention, held a 167-point lead over Sterling Marlin with 10 races to go. He also got the top spot in the Chase after winning five races in the first half. Three drivers each won a trio of races to start in a tie for second, coming from all over in the points. They were Marlin (second), Dale Earnhardt (fourth) and Bobby Labonte (ninth).
What Actually Happened: Despite Earnhardt winning the season finale at Atlanta, Gordon won his first career championship even though he finished 32nd, 14 laps down. It was a two-man show by the end of the season, as Gordon and Earnhardt pulled away from the field by more than 200 points.
What Would've Happened: For all those Earnhardt fans who've noticed that Dale lost a couple championships because of the Chase, this one's for you. Earnhardt never finished worse than ninth in any of the Chase races, winning at Martinsville and Atlanta. Gordon won a couple Chase races, too, at Darlington and Dover, but ended the year with three finishes of 20th or worse. Perhaps the finishes would've been different without a Chase, or perhaps Gordon's luck would've run out, as he finished fourth in the Chase.
The Lead-Up: This one was tight with 10 races to go, no matter what points system you're using. Terry Labonte was on top, but three drivers were within 37 points of the lead: Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett. Gordon, tied for second with Earnhardt, started the Chase with 60 bonus points, 20 more than second-place Jarrett. Labonte's points lead was for naught: He only won once, and started in a tie for sixth. By the way, let's welcome Jeff Burton to his first Chase.
What Actually Happened: Labonte's consistency paid off, to the tune of eight top-5 finishes in the 10 Chase races. He held a 34-point lead on Gordon with 10 races to go and ended up winning the championship by 37 points over Gordon. It would be the Iceman's second career championship, as he also won in 1984.
What Would've Happened: Bonus points do matter, at least in 1996. Although Labonte outpointed Gordon by three in the 10 Chase races, Labonte started the Chase with a 50-point deficit, and things were so tight in the Chase that Labonte ended up fourth, meaning he would've lost both his championships had there been a Chase at the time. The beneficiary was his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon, who would've lost his championship the previous year. Gordon started the Chase on a tear, winning four of the first six races, and finishing second in the two others. Jarrett lost ground early in the Chase and couldn't make it up late, finishing second.
The Lead-Up: Mark Martin, again trying for his first championship, was looking pretty good with 10 races left to go in the season. His lead was slim, just 13 over Jeff Gordon, but it was a lead. However, the bonus points would swing things around: Gordon's eight wins gave him a 40-point lead over Dale Jarrett and 50 over Martin going into the Chase. Only five Chase drivers won in the first part of the season; Jeff Burton and Ricky Rudd were the other race winners.
What Actually Happened: In another points race that came down to the finale at Atlanta, Gordon's 17th-place run was good enough to lock up his second title. Jarrett ended up second, just 14 points behind and Martin came up short again, a mere 29 points back. The three were the class of the field in 1997, finishing far ahead of fourth-place Burton.
What Would've Happened: Gordon started the Chase in style, winning two of the first three races, but Jarrett ended it even better. In the last five races, Jarrett won twice, at Charlotte and Phoenix, and finished second twice more. Gordon's back-to-back 17th-place finishes at Phoenix and Atlanta to end the season were enough to help Jarrett easily wrap up his first career championship.
The Lead-Up: In what is Jeff Gordon's best season to date, he won nine of the season's first 23 races leading into the Chase, giving him a 40-point lead going into the Chase. However, Gordon wasn't able to open the enormous lead you'd expect in the points standings. He was only 67 up on Mark Martin, who was also having one of his finest seasons. Dale Jarrett was third, but not within sniffing distance of the lead.
What Actually Happened: If Gordon was running at a 10 out of 10 during the first part of the season, he turned it up to 11 for the final 10 races. Gordon won three of the final four races of the season, and finished the season 364 points ahead of second-place Martin. Just to give it some perspective, only four drivers finished the season within 1,000 points of Gordon!
What Would've Happened: With a Chase that included four wins and four second-place finishes, nobody could touch Gordon. The real battle was for second, as Jeff Burton edged then-teammate Martin by eight points for the runner-up spot. A shout-out has to be given to Bobby Hamilton, who finished fourth in his one and only Chase appearance, finishing one point ahead of Rusty Wallace.
The Lead-Up: Dale Jarrett, who had never won a traditional championship to this point (although he won a Chase title in 1997), held the points lead at the 10-to-go mark by a comfortable margin of 168 points. Although Jarrett won four times in the regular season, he'd start the Chase in a tie for third with Bobby Labonte, as Jeff Burton and defending champ Jeff Gordon each won five times. A big-name rookie made his Chase debut: Tony Stewart was fifth in points with 10 to go, but no wins meant he started the Chase in ninth.
What Actually Happened: Jarrett wouldn't surrender his lead, ending the season with six straight finishes of seventh or better. Labonte, who was seventh and sixth in points the previous two seasons, was the hottest driver in the series at the end of the year, and ended up what was then a career-best second in points. Stewart would finish fourth in his rookie year.
What Would've Happened: Jarrett was hot, but Labonte was hotter. Labonte had eight top-5 finishes in the Chase, and never finished worse than eighth on his way to his first Chase title. Labonte would also effectively slam the door shut by finishing the season third at Rockingham, third at Phoenix, second at Homestead and first at Atlanta. Jarrett was more than 100 points back in second, and Burton well over 200 out in third.
Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.