Originally created 11/22/05

NASCAR's championship format was a winner



HOMESTEAD, Fla. - There was no last-lap drama in this Chase.

The second year of NASCAR's playoff-style title format was far more serene - some might say boring - than the inaugural edition.

But then, last year was a tough act to follow.

In 2004, the 10-man, 10-race Chase for the championship went down the way NASCAR intended: to the final lap of the final race, with Kurt Busch holding off Jimmie Johnson by eight points and Jeff Gordon by 16, the closest two- and three-way finishes in series history.

This time, Tony Stewart appeared to be cruising. He went into Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 knowing that no matter what his pursuers did, the Nextel Cup was his with a finish of ninth or better.

No sweat, right?

Well, maybe a little more than met the eye.

Stewart, who had finished ninth or better in 19 of the previous 21 races, got off to a scary start Friday when he spun during the opening practice on the 1.5-mile Homestead oval.

He kept the car off the wall, but Stewart said the incident "broke my confidence, not knowing why I spun."

It also left a huge question mark on the engine in the No. 20 Chevrolet. Did Stewart overrev it? Was it damaged in any way? Should the team change it before qualifying?

Changing engines during the weekend is a no-no; even if it's done out of necessity, the penalty is getting bumped to the back of the field. But it could be a lot worse if a team changes engines to gain an advantage.

"It was a gut-wrenching decision," NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said Monday. "The team couldn't find any damage and neither could NASCAR, but the team asked us what the options were.

"If they didn't change the engine and something was damaged, that could have cost Stewart the championship. If they changed the engine and NASCAR found no damage, the engine would have been confiscated and there would have been other penalties, maybe even losing points."

The decision was to keep the engine in the car and, on Saturday, Stewart qualified a very pedestrian 20th. He entered Sunday with 52 points in hand over Johnson, 87 over Carl Edwards and 102 over Greg Biffle.

"We didn't know that the changes we made on Friday were going to be good enough for (Sunday)," he said. "In all reality, it wasn't a stellar weekend for the No. 20 team."

What's more, at one point, Edwards was in the lead and dominating - and Stewart was within seconds of going a lap down. Had that happened, there's no telling how this Chase might have shaken out.

But Stewart caught a break: A caution flag, brought out for debris on the track, kept him with the leaders and he eventually soldiered on to a 15th-place finish.

Johnson crashed out early with a blown tire, and that was good enough to take the title by 35 points over both race-winner Biffle and fourth-place finisher Edwards.

Not exactly a thrilling finish, but good enough for Stewart.

"To do the things we had to do with the pressure we had on us, all in all, after what I did to us on Friday, it turned out to be a pretty good weekend."

Biffle was left wondering what might have been.

Two weeks ago at Texas, a tire changer failed to tighten down one lugnut during a pit stop and Biffle had to come back in under the green flag, losing a lap he never made up. He finished 20th, left Fort Worth in fourth place, 122 points behind Stewart, and never caught up.

"It's something I'm going to think about for a long, long time," Biffle said. "I lost the championship by 35 points and we lost over 50 (points) with the loose wheel."

That might have been the best chance to make this year's Chase into a thriller like last year.

Instead, the last two weeks were pretty much a coronation of Stewart, who finished fourth at Phoenix in the penultimate event and wound up with seven top-10 finishes in the 10-race Chase. It was his second title for Joe Gibbs Racing, the first coming in 2002.

As for Sunday's race, Stewart's crew chief Greg Zipadelli said the team had little choice but to play it safe. There was no need to race for a win with the championship in sight.

"The bottom line is that we're here because we did what we needed to do," Zipadelli said.

There was no disappointment in NASCAR about the second year of the Chase.

"Overall, it was excellent," Hunter said. "It did what we wanted it to do; put some suspense and drama into the end of the season. At one point in the race, Stewart's lead was down to about 10 or 15 points when he was having trouble and Edwards was leading, and Biffle came on at the end like crazy."

NASCAR chairman Brian France said Saturday that NASCAR will, as always, assess all aspects of its competition now that the season is over and that a "small adjustment" could be made to the Chase format.

But Hunter said, "I think after two years, we'll probably leave it in place for a third year. It's working very well."