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Change the Chase? Some drivers wouldn't seem to mind

More points for a win. A separate race for the 10 qualifiers. Those ideas are part of a debate about how to crown a Nextel champ.

By BRANT JAMES
Published September 23, 2006


With NASCAR again releasing trial balloons about how to rejuvenate its points system and, therefore, the Chase for the Championship in 2007, most drivers, especially those who win races, have advocated awarding more points for a victory.

Tony Stewart, who proved Bill Maher-esque before the Daytona 500 with his ability to conjure new rules, might have hit on a new wrinkle Sunday at Loudon, N.H. The 2005 series champion felt uncomfortable racing gingerly around the 10 Chase qualifiers but thought they deserved a wider berth as they sorted out who would dethrone him. So why not give them their own race?

"If I had my way and I could change NASCAR for a day, I would have had the guys that didn't make the Chase from 11th on back run our own 200-mile race, no holds barred on that," said Stewart, who is 11th in points. "Then the top 10 guys in points could have run their own 200-mile race after that. At least that way, they are racing each other for their points."

The idea, put forth mischievously, is likely a bit outlandish (though his call for rules against aggressive driving was answered quickly before the Daytona 500), but his is another facet of a growing debate about the process of crowning a champion. In the system now, in essence, playoff teams still battle also-rans as in the first 26 races and are subject to any of the mistakes or failures that made them also-rans.

Unlike in other team sports, racing is not a face-to-face contest among only the best. In the NFL, for instance, the Houston Texans are not getting on the field at the Super Bowl.

Stewart knows the effect an impact with a non-Chase driver can have, especially an early one. He and Jeremy Mayfield were caught in a wreck at New Hampshire in 2004 when Robby Gordon made good on a radioed pledge to his team to take out Greg Biffle, who had caused him to spin earlier. Mayfield finished 35th, Stewart 39th. Stewart could not recover and finished sixth in points.

Last year at Loudon, again in the first race of the Chase, Scott Riggs' loose Chevrolet nudged defending series champion Kurt Busch into the wall, sending him to a 35th-place finish and effectively ending his title defense after three laps.

Now qualifiers have their points adjusted before the playoffs begin to assure that the 11th-place driver cannot catch them, but they are awarded points from each race just as in the regular season. A win could be worth as much as 190 points if a driver wins and leads the most laps, as Kevin Harvick did Sunday. A crash or trouble could be worth only 46, which Jimmie Johnson earned after finishing 39th. That led several drivers over the three years of the Chase format to advocate a micropoints system for the top 10.

"You do hate that the last 10 races have the same basic point structure (as the first 26) where it pays consistency," said Jeff Gordon, fourth in points. "You've got a 10-race shootout, yet you have a point system that's all about consistency. You have one bad day and that can pretty much take you out of it. Where I think if they had a structured points (system) for just the top 10 where if you're the last guy out of the 10, you'd take a hit but not such a hit that you couldn't make it back."

Non-Chase drivers have fretted that they lose valuable media - specifically television - attention during the last 10 races, which is a concern with keeping sponsors content. Stewart said he worries, but not because of exposure. He doesn't want to do anything, he said, to affect a Chase he cannot win.

"I think that if you have 10 guys racing each other, they should have their own deal," Stewart said. "Just like me getting in between Kevin (Harvick) and Jeff (Gordon), Jeff was the second Chase guy. He should have gotten a different second-place standings, I believe. That is the frustrating part. ... You race these guys all year and you work with each other and you are friends with a lot of these guys, you know if you get in between them, you cost them five points. It shouldn't be that way. The 33 guys that didn't make the Chase shouldn't have to feel that way if they have a good day and are able to pass guys."

Johnson and Kyle Busch certainly would like to have new rules retroactively imposed after finishing 39th and 38th, respectively, Sunday.

Johnson, who had engine problems before being wrecked by Sterling Marlin on Lap 88, fell from second in points to ninth, 139 behind new leader Harvick. Busch, run into the wall by Jeff Green on Lap 2 and woeful the rest of the afternoon, fell six spots to 10th, 146 back.

"It would still have hurt Jimmie (Johnson), but it wouldn't have hurt him as bad," Stewart said "especially, at least from what I understood, when it was somebody else that caused him to have a bad day."

Of course, perspective is key. Harvick said a 43rd-place finish deserved 43rd-place points.

Johnson, who has finished second under two points systems, chooses to stay focused on the format he has to deal with now.

"All I know is down by 139," he said. "We've got to make it up."

Gordon isn't so sure about Stewart's 10-car rally, either. Sounds like a recipe for mayhem.

"I don't know," he laughed. "Just 10 of us out there, that could get pretty fun."

That's exactly the idea, Stewart said. If he has to watch the Chase from the outside anyway, it would be a lot more entertaining in a pair of shorts and sunglasses.

"Well, I look at it this way," he said. "I could have drank some beer on top of the trailer and watched you guys race."