Chase format confusing to figure out

Kevin Harvick currently leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings with 3,521 points.

After two more races, he will have at least 5,030 points.

How is that possible when a race pays a maximum of only 195 points?

In the wacky world of NASCAR, it’s not only possible; it’s reality.

Harvick currently holds a 279-point lead over Jeff Gordon with 14 races remaining, yet he is not the favorite to win the championship.

That would be four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who is a mere ninth in points, 444 behind Harvick.

In fact, in two weeks, Johnson and Denny Hamlin – who is fifth in points, 413 behind Harvick – will vault right to the top of the standings.

When the infamous Chase for the Sprint Cup begins at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 19, Harvick likely will trail Johnson and Hamlin by 20 points. He likely will be tied for third with Kyle Busch, who is currently third in the standings.

Kurt Busch is currently 10th, 448 points behind Harvick. In two weeks, he likely will leap all the way to fourth, just 10 points behind Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Of course, with two races remaining before the Chase, all of this could change.

Confused yet?

Sure you are.

Figuring out NASCAR’s bizarre points system and championship format is one of the most confusing things in sports, right up there with calculating the Yankees’ “magic number” to clinch the AL East or deciphering the tiebreakers that determine which 9-7 NFL teams make the playoffs.

That’s why many fans still prefer NASCAR’s old points system: The new one is just too darn confusing.

For 30 years, NASCAR had a simple, easy-to-follow points system that awarded the championship to the driver who scored the most points over the full season.

It didn’t matter who won the most races – and still doesn’t today – the championship always went to the driver that was most consistent over the course of a full season, regardless of whether that consistency included 13 wins or one.

NASCAR fans watched the sport’s biggest stars – Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon – master the system put in place in 1975.

Then, in 2004, everything changed. In an attempt to spice things up and make the race for the Cup title a bit more compelling, NASCAR implemented the 10-race championship run known as the Chase.

Fans have been scrambling ever since to figure it out and keep track of exactly how the system works and how a driver wins the championship.

NASCAR has tweaked the format twice – expanding the field from 10 drivers to 12, adding bonus points for wins and changing the seeding process based on bonus points – confusing fans even more.

It’s still not perfect, and NASCAR officials have considered possibly tweaking it again after this season.

Harvick, for one, wishes NASCAR officials would just leave it alone.

"I’m not a big fan of change,” Harvick said. “I don’t like trying to figure out what the rules are, and as a sports fan in general, when you have playoff systems and things that you don’t really understand how they work, it’s not as much fun to watch.”

Understanding how drivers get into the Chase is fairly simple. The full, 43-car field races for points each week and the top 12 drivers in points after 26 races make the Chase.

Most of the top 12 lock up spots in the Chase before the 26th race, just like a driver in the old days could clinch the championship before the final race of the season (which, by the way, is what led NASCAR to change the whole system to begin with).

The last few Chase spots are typically filled during the 26th race of the season, making that race at Richmond International Raceway one of the most exciting of the year.

What makes things confusing is the way the points are reset at the start of the Chase.

No matter how many points the top 12 drivers accumulate in the first 26 races, their points are reset before the Chase, with each Chase driver starting with 5,000 points. Each driver then gets 10 bonus points for each race he has won.

That’s how Hamlin and Johnson will leap to the top of the standings in two weeks. They each have five wins this season and will be awarded 50 bonus points each after 26 races.

Unless they win one of the next two races, Hamlin and Johnson will both start the Chase with 5,050 points. Unless they win again, Harvick and Kyle Busch will start with 5,030.

The rest of the Chase drivers will fall in line with 5,000 points, plus any bonus points for wins. The fact that only six of the current top 12 have won races will make it a bit simpler this season.

The 12 drivers then race under the normal points system for 10 races to decide the championship.

Two things make the Chase unique and a bit odd:

• While there is a premium on wins in the first 26 races, there is not during the Chase, meaning a driver could win the championship without winning one of the final 10 races. Or, you could win four races during the Chase and still lose the championship, like Johnson did in 2004.

• And a driver can realistically start the Chase in 10th, 11th or 12th place and still win the championship. Kurt Busch won the inaugural Chase despite starting seventh.

In some circles, those scenarios don’t seem quite fair, which is why many fans don’t like the Chase.

Fair or not, it makes the playoff system compelling and, sometimes, dramatic.

“If you start ninth, 10th, 11th or somewhere in there, you could definitely win the championship,” said Carl Edwards, who is fourth in points.

“That’s the thing about our sport right now, it’s so competitive. This Chase, there’s no guarantee. Whoever is 13th or 14th right now could win the championship. They could dominate it. It changes so fast.”

Some believe this could be the year that a driver wins the Chase without winning a race. Three of the top six drivers in the current standings – Gordon, Edwards and Tony Stewart – have not won this year.

"I’ve always said that there’s no doubt that you can win it without winning races,” said Gordon, a four-time champion. "Consistency is still key, but I’m almost wondering right now if it’s more important to win during the regular season than it is in the Chase. Get the bonus points to get yourself seeded where you really need to, to get that advantage going into the Chase and then knock out your top five’s throughout the Chase and win it that way.

“… I don’t think you need to win.”

NASCAR implemented the Chase, in part, because of the 2003 season, which saw Matt Kenseth win the championship with just one victory and carry a big lead into the final few races of the season.

Many fans still don’t like it, however, leading to a yearly debate about the old points system vs. the Chase.

“As far as the fans not liking it, I think you could look at that 50-50. I think that some do, some don’t,” Harvick said.