The Chase: The final three

by Gordon Kirby on 1st November 2016

Gordon Kirby looks ahead to the final three races of NASCAR's chase

Three races remain in NASCAR’s marathon 36-round Sprint Cup and thanks to the organisation’s fiendishly complex ‘Chase for the Cup’ rules it’s impossible to predict who will win this year’s championship. There are no real favourites and at this stage no fewer than eight drivers still have a chance to win the title. That number will be cut in half for the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20.

NASCAR turned its back on a traditional season-long championship back in 2004 when it instituted the ‘Chase for the Cup’ playoff system for the year’s final 10 races. Through 2013 the top man in points over those 10 races was the champion, but after Jimmie Johnson took his sixth title NASCAR decided to add some byzantine twists to the plot. 

Over the last three years, the bottom four drivers after each group of three races have been cut from the 16 ‘Chase’ qualifiers. That leaves four finalists in the season closer. Any driver can advance to the next round simply by winning a race and the champion is the best finisher among the final four at Homestead.

In recent years NASCAR’s TV ratings and crowds at many races have settled into a long downhill slide and NASCAR hoped and believed that the unpredictable, almost random nature of the latest version of the ‘Chase’ would create more interest among fans, TV viewers and the media in general. The evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

“If this is good for the sport, I’m a supporter,” Johnson recently said. “I want our sport to succeed. But then again, I won six championships with a different format so I’d much rather see it go back to that.”

Nevertheless, Johnson showed his class by winning at Martinsville last Sunday to become the first driver to guarantee himself a place among the final four at Homestead. It was Johnson’s 79th Sprint Cup win and put him in position to have a real chance of winning his seventh championship, which would tie him with NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

“I’ve been trying to ignore the conversation about seven championships,” Johnson said. “It’s crazy that we have a shot at seven. Fortunately, we’re locked in for the final round so I don’t have to think about it for two more weeks. Obviously, we want to keep winning races. If I can win at Texas next weekend that will put us in an even stronger position. But it’s down to one race at Homestead, winner takes all, and we’ve got to show up there with our best stuff.”  

Kyle Busch won his first Sprint Cup championship last year and more often than not Busch and his fellow Joe Gibbs Racing/Toyota drivers have been the men to beat this year. In fact, at this stage all four Gibbs drivers – Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards – are in the ‘Chase’. Between them they’ve won 10 races this year and led more than 3,500 laps. Until Johnson’s late-season surge it seemed almost inevitable that one of them would win Gibbs and Toyota's second championship in a row. 

The fifth Toyota, run by Barney Visser’s Furniture Row team for Martin Truex, was eliminated from the ‘Chase’ after Truex blew an engine at Talladega the weekend before last. But Truex was the man of the year, winning four races and leading more laps than anyone else, Busch included.

The remaining three championship contenders at this point are Kurt Busch and 2014 champion Kevin Harvick in Stewart/Haas Chevies and Joey Logano aboard one of Team Penske’s Fords. Logano’s team-mate, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski, was eliminated from the ‘Chase’ by a blown engine at Talladega. 

Both Harvick and Logano loom as serious threats to win this year’s title if they can make it to the final four at Homestead. Using a traditional, season-long point system Harvick would be leading the championship right now chased by Keselowski and Logano. And anyone would be a fool to discount Kyle’s older brother Kurt, also a champion. Kyle and Kurt would be close behind in fourth and fifth under a conventional point system.

Whatever you may think of NASCAR’s novel method of determining its champion it’s impossible to deny that NASCAR enjoys motor racing’s most deeply competitive field. In that way, any other sanctioning body would do well to emulate them.

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