by Frank Santoroski                   @seveng1967

JeffMartinsville2015As NASCAR prepares for their penultimate race of the season, to be held at Phoenix this coming weekend, there is talk of whether or not the current Chase format will crown a ‘true’ champion. At issue here is the fact that many people seem to have a differing opinion of what a champion is.

If a driver with a one-win season, like Jeff Gordon or Martin Truex, were to win the Cup, while five-time winners Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are shut out of a shot at glory, do we have a true champion?

If Joey Logano fails to win at Phoenix his Championship dreams will come to an abrupt end, despite the fact that he leads all others with six wins on the 2015 season.

At the same time, Kyle Busch, who missed eleven weeks of the pre-chase season, has a better chance than Logano of advancing to the Championship round on points.

Busch finished the regular season 25th in points, but was vaulted up to an even point total with the rest of the Chase grid following Richmond.

KentuckyKyleDoes that seem unfair to the drivers who have competed in every round?

Or, is it a just reward for a driver who came back from devastating injuries to win four races over the course of five weekends this past Summer? .

Would Kyle Busch be considered a true champion if things go his way over the next two race weekends?

These are interesting points to ponder.

In 2003, it was Matt Kenseth who accumulated an enormous points lead and was able to clinch the Championship before season’s end. Kenseth’s domination in the points standings was due to a season-long string of consistent finishes while only visiting the winner’s circle once. By contrast, Ryan Newman won eight times in 2003, and finished a mediocre sixth in the standings.

MattyK2003Kenseth won the Winston Cup, fair and square, under a points system that had served NASCAR well since 1975. With five point increments between finishing positions, and ten bonus points available, the old Winston Cup system rewarded consistency.

There wasn’t a premium on winning at all. As a matter of fact, prior to 2004, the second place finisher could walk away with the same amount of points as the race winner by leading the most laps at an event.

Traditionally, all forms of motorsport have crowned a champion by awarding a title to the driver that had amassed the highest point total by the end of the season. Certainly, a driver could gain the highest points total by winning the most races. Conversely, a driver could also win by finishing in the top half of the field each and every week.

Sometimes the most prolific winners were crowned Champion, and sometimes they weren’t. Nobody seemed to make much of a fuss over it until Matt Kenseth won that 2003 Winston Cup.

NASCAR chose to alter their format, creating the first version of the Chase in 2004. The operative goal here was not necessarily to put a premium on winning races, but to ensure that the Championship went down to the season finale. While Kenseth didn’t actually clinch until the penultimate round of the season, the unassailable lead he held made his eventual Cup Championship a foregone conclusion weeks earlier.

So, what exactly defines a champion?

That’s actually a good question. Several dictionary sources don’t even agree. Let’s examine a few and see if we can find one that applies to the current NASCAR Chase format.

UKChampion (noun): A person, or team, that has defeated all opponents in a competition, or series of competitions, so as to hold first place. 

This particular definition doesn’t seem to apply to NASCAR, or for that matter, any form of sports that has a playoff system. In many sports, one needs to defeat a particular opponent in a particular event at the right time.

The notion of ‘defeating all opponents’ actually holds true to a single elimination tournament, such as the NCAA Basketball Tournament that generates a great deal of buzz every March. An archery contest, a wrestling tournament, a science fair, or even a singing competition probably falls under this definition better than auto racing.

Champion (noun): A person accepted as better than all others in a sport or in a game of skill

I like this definition, but it certainly doesn’t apply to NASCAR or any other competitive sport. The egos involved will never allow an individual or team to accept a competitor as ‘better than all others.’ Let’s just move on without further comment.

EliSB42Champion (noun): A person or team that has won first place, or first prize , in a competition. e.g. The winner of the Championship game.

This is a good definition that applies to sports. The winner of the Championship game may not necessarily have been the team that had the best season. They may not have defeated all of their opponents. They may not even be accepted as better than all others. However, on the day that mattered the most, this particular individual or team won the Championship.

One only has to reference the 2007 NFL season where the 18-0 New England Patriots were defeated by the 13-6 New York Giants in the Super Bowl to rubber-stamp an approval on this definition.

With the elimination rounds of the NASCAR Chase leading up to the ‘championship game’ at Homestead, we find a close parallel to the system used to crown a Champion in American Football.

2014HarvickBut, here’s the funny thing. In the NFL, you actually have to WIN the Super Bowl to be called Champion. And, you won’t find the other 30 teams in the league out there on the field trying to thwart your effort.

In NASCAR, you just need to finish ahead of the other three drivers that are still alive for the title. Sure, Kevin Harvick won the finale at Homestead in 2014 to claim the Sprint Cup, thereby validating the Chase Format, and capping off a wonderful season for the veteran driver.

However, the possibility exists that we could see something very different this year, or in years to come. Let’s just suppose, for a moment, that the four championship-eligible drivers are eliminated in a first lap crash. That leaves us with the scenario, however unlikely it is to actually happen, that the Championship is awarded to the mangled car that grinds to a stop furthest up the track.

crashTruth be told, trying to take a stick-and-ball playoff format and apply it to racing simply doesn’t work in the spirit of a true playoff, unless the eliminated drivers and teams were truly eliminated, and forced to watch the remainder of the season from the shop in North Carolina.

Of course, no right-minded race fan would purchase a ticket to see a finale featuring only four cars circling around the race track for the better part of an afternoon.

I suppose NASCAR could actually eliminate the Chase drivers after each three-race round, and keep the field full with non-chasers. It’s a crazy thought, and, it would eliminate the nonsense that we saw at Martinsville where Matt Kenseth extracted his revenge on Joey Logano.

DaleJr0You and I know that won’t work either. Race fans work hard for their money, and when they shell out a few hundred dollars for a race weekend, they expect to see their favorite driver on the track. Ticket sales will plummet for those races, especially if a driver with a considerable fan-base, like Dale Earnhardt Jr, is taken off of the track.

The very nature of auto racing, that puts the entire field at the same event each week, simply will not allow for a true elimination playoff.

So, will we have a ‘true’ champion come Homestead?

That’s for you to decide.

Whether we like it or not, NASCAR will indeed crown a champion on November 22nd. That Champion will come from the team that plays the Chase game to perfection.

Champion (NASCAR) (noun): The driver that prevails in the Chase by dodging the most bullets to stay above the cut line, including, but not limited to: The entire team bringing their A-game to the chase races, winning when necessary to advance, being in the right place when the phantom cautions occur, occasionally having a blind eye turned in post-race inspection, staying clear of competitors you may have pissed off in prior races, and finishing ahead of your remaining rivals at the season finale.