Analysis: Reinventing the Chase format was the right move

(left to right) Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick were the only drivers championship-eligible entering the 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images

As expected, Thursday’s announcement that NASCAR is changing the Sprint Cup championship structure for the fourth time in 11 years sent off a torrent of emotions and opinions among race fans and pundits alike.

Some rejoiced, some screamed, many whined and there was much debate about whether or not the new winner-take-all format is the right way to go. I expect the discussion will continue for some time.

Faced with rancor and contentious disagreement about the validity of the new, four-round Chase for the Sprint Cup, I did what I frequently do when emotions threaten to get the best of facts: look at the numbers.

If you go all the back to 2004, the whole reason for the creation of the Chase in the first place was to create drama at the end of the season, what NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France likes to describe as "game-seven moments."

NASCAR announces overhaul to Chase format

And the simple, cold, hard truth is this: Over the first decade, the Chase failed to produce enough drama. It simply didn’t work as intended.

Here are some eye-opening numbers through 10 years and 100 Chase races:

— Just 12 different drivers have led the points during the history of the Chase, an average of 1.2 drivers per year.

— Six times in 10 years, the points leader after the third race of the Chase went on to become the Sprint Cup champion that year.

— Only twice in 10 years has the championship changed hands in the final race of the season.

— Jimmie Johnson has led the points after 39 of 100 Chase races. The only other driver to lead the points after more than 10 Chase races is Tony Stewart, with 11.

— Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Martin Truex Jr. are among the top drivers who have never led the points during the Chase.

— On average, the points leader after the ninth Chase race led by 17.12 points, meaning on average, the leader needed to finish only 14th or better in the final race to clinch.

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Put bluntly, by any objective measure, the old Chase was a dud, at least in terms of producing the gripping, end-of-season drama NASCAR wanted. It just didn’t create enough game-seven moments.

Think about it: In 10 years, the Chase was must-see TV three times: The first year in 2004, when Kurt Busch lost a wheel and still hung on to edge Johnson and Jeff Gordon; 2010, when Johnson rallied to beat Denny Hamlin in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway; and 2011, when Stewart won five of 10 races, including Homestead, to win over Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker.

The other seven years? Honestly, not very good. Certainly not good enough, anyway.

So, France and the other NASCAR top officials felt like they had to do something big to inject excitement back into the series. And that’s exactly what they did.

Now, 16 drivers will start the Chase, with the field gradually whittled down to four drivers who go into Homestead tied in points.  

Is it the right move?

Only time will tell, but I’m certainly willing to give it a chance.

There is now a huge premium on winning races in the regular season, which is a big improvement, and we know the championship will come down to the last race of the season. The new qualifying format and the elimination of minimum ride heights should add some excitement, too.

All told, this could be the most interesting NASCAR season in a long time.

Next year, I’m hoping NASCAR takes the logical next step and shuffles the tracks around in the Chase, something that’s also sorely needed to liven things up.

But for now, let’s drop the flag and go racing. It’s time to settle the debate — and determine the next champion — on the track.