Sunday, August 27, 2006

Fixing the Chase

NASCAR's Chase for the Cup is about to enter it's third year. The format is simple: the top ten in points, plus anyone within 400 points of the leader are in contention for the championship - everyone else is just racing (they reset the points with ten races to go to mathematically prevent anyone else from winning) for a paycheck. Well, in all three years we have some seeming injustices going into the Chase; it's obvious that the format needs tweaking to open it up a little, but how to keep it from being a free-for-all?

The Charlotte Observer's David Poole has been thinking about it, too, and today he wrote an interesting column about it. The basic conclusion: Stick with the top 10 after 26 races. But add anyone within 200 points of 10th place (making it likelier that folks can race their way in), and also allow anyone with 2 or more victories into the Chase. That would most likely expand the field to around 13-15 drivers most years at most, and make it less likely that a single bad day (a blown motor, or being caught up in someone else's wreck) would knock a driver out of contention. Right now, everyone from 4-11 in the standings is racing as conservatively as possible so as not to blow their chances of making the playoff - meanwhile beyond them only the drivers in 12th (Biffle) and 13th (Edwards) have even a dim chance of making it in. Under the changes Poole proposes (and I like), Kahne (11th, 90 points out) would be in right now, Biffle and Kurt Busch would be a win away from cliching a spot (each has one win), and Edwards and Biffle would both have a good chace to make it in on points (Biffle, in 12th, is 251 points out of 10th, Edwards only 10 points behind him). Only a minor tweak, for the most part.

I've only watched Cup racing for a few years, but I've noticed one thing. There are, according to the roster on Yahoo Sports, 69 drivers as of right now who have had at least one Cup start this season (there are 43 spots in each race - the top 35 cars in owner points make it in each week plus 8 cars out of the rest that can qualify on speed). 33 drivers have started every race - 4 more have started at least 20 of the 24 races to date (5 more are in double-digits - the rest are mainly scrubs, part-timers, or specialists in a particular course type). However, No driver farther back than 14th in the standings (Kurt Busch) has a win (Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Kasey Kahne have 4 wins each), and other than Kahne, Tony Stewart (in 8th right now) is the farthest back in the standings with multiple (2) wins. Two drivers currently in the Chase (Jeff Burton in 7th and Mark Martin in 10th) have no wins but have been consistent enough to stay near the top all season. In fact, other than Boris Said (44th in the standings, but he's only run 4 races so far, two of which are road races), no driver farther back than 21st (Elliott Sadler) even has a pole!

The point here is that the strong drivers don't go much farther back than 10 spots anyways, so changing the formula to potentially add a handful of drivers isn't likely to screw things up at all.

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