The Chase for the Championship has been around for seven years – long enough for race teams to learn how to play the numbers game. While the format has changed several times, including this season, the basics remain the same.
In the years before NASCAR adopted the playoffs in 2004, consistency was paramount in winning a championship. Although the points were reset before Sunday’s Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway to start this year’s Chase, consistency still is key.
Twelve drivers – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman – are in the Chase.
The difference from top to bottom in the new standings is just 12 points. Under the new format, that translates to just 12 finishing positions.
So to win, a driver and his team must:
• Be consistent. Stewart proved in 2005 you don’t have to win during the Chase to win the championship. He went into the playoffs as the points leader and he maintained his lead after nine of 10 races. He won it with five top-fives and seven top-10s.
Nobody plays the consistency game better than Johnson. That’s why he’s won the past five championships. In the past five playoffs, Johnson has 19 wins and 31 top-five finishes. He only has four finishes of 24th or worse.
All of the champions share one thing – an average finish of 8.9 or less during the Chase, led by Johnson’s playoff best average of 5.0 in 2007.
• Beat Jimmie. In each of the past five years, everyone has gone into the Chase believing they have the magic formula to stop Johnson.
Nobody’s been close to matching the No. 48 team’s ability to take their success to a higher level during the playoffs. Crew chief Chad Knaus starts preparing cars for the Chase months in advance. By the time the regular season is over, everyone at Hendrick Motorsports knows exactly what to do in the next 10 weeks.
It’s a standard that’s been difficult for everyone else to live up to.
“We all sit there and we watch Jimmie, Jimmie, Jimmie and we’re all like, ‘C’mon, man. How much more does this guy need?’ But, it’s good,” Kyle Busch said. “When you win the championship, that’s the recognition you want. The only problem that it’s too much with Jimmie is that he’s won it five times in a row, so he deserves it.”
• Avoid disasters. While Johnson has been a master at winning championships, most of his contenders have gotten good at losing them. That’s why it’s important to avoid the crash or engine failure that can knock you out of the hunt.
Johnson started the 2006 playoffs with a 39th-place finish at New Hampshire. But he came back five consecutive finishes in the top two to pull ahead. But what made that championship possible was a collapse by Jeff Burton and the lack of consistent top-10 finishes by Kenseth.
Burton led the Chase after five races in 2006, while Johnson was seventh. But finishes of 27th at Talladega, 42nd at Martinsville and 38th at Texas sealed Burton’s fate. Kenseth was 10th or worse in seven of 10 races.
A year ago Denny Hamlin led the Chase going into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but he had a spin along the backstretch to finish 14th – and lose the championship to Johnson by 39 points.
• Mind your manners. All the preparation in the world won’t help if somebody takes out revenge and knocks you into the wall.
A year ago Kyle Busch essentially was knocked out of the championship race when David Reutimann retaliated for an earlier bump at Kansas. That made everyone realize the playoffs won’t change paybacks.
Kurt Busch and Johnson continued their longstanding problems a week ago at Richmond, Va., with a couple bumps. Even with the playoffs starting this week, neither is willing to back down.
“So we’ll see what happens,” Johnson said. “Competition is competition, and there’s been plenty of rivalries. If he can stop running into my Lowe’s Chevrolet everything would be just fine.”
“He’s got to learn how to race,” Busch said. “He’s been able to beat the guys the last five years by out-driving them with what he has for equipment.”
Others with troubled pasts include: Kyle Busch and Harvick; Kyle Busch and Keselowski; Keselowski and Edwards; and Harvick and Hamlin.
• Handle the pressure. The Chase has created a new level of pressure because so many teams are in contention for the stretch drive. The driver and team that can handle the pressure best usually is the one that doesn’t make an unforced error when it counts most.
In 2005, Greg Biffle lost the championship because his team missed a lug nut on the final pit stop at Texas Motor Speedway. Hamlin’s solo spin last year at Homestead was costly.
Edwards knocked himself and Biffle out of contention in 2008 when he crashed his teammate into the wall at Talladega.
And Kurt Busch started defense of his 2004 championship by crashing and finishing 35th in the first race of the Chase in 2005.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.