Climatic finish to the Chase
November 20, 2004
Gentlemen, start your calculators. Actually, Motorsports scribes have already burned out dozens of those devices while figuring out all the combinations and permutations possible in today’s final episode of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Race for the Chase.
I’m not even going to go into all the scenarios here but there is one potential outcome that I find fascinating. If Mark Martin wins today’s Ford 400 at Homestead but doesn’t lead the most laps, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishes second and leads a lap or finishes third and leads the most laps, and Jeff Gordon finishes 13th, Jimmy Johnson finishes 14th and Kurt Busch finishes 20th (all without leading a lap), it would result in a five-way tie for the Championship at 6449 points for each driver. Jimmy Johnson would then become the Champion, with the highest number of wins (8) on the season. It probably won’t happen that way, but it could!
The 82 point separation from first to fifth is a record closest margin in NASCAR history with one race remaining, although the spread was somewhat artificially induced by the Chase format. If the points were being calculated according to the old system, Busch would be mathematically eliminated, 242 points behind Jeff Gordon, instead of leading the points race. Historically speaking, the 1992 Winston Cup championship race was the closest-ever, with the late Alan Kulwicki beating Bill Elliott by a mere 10 points, making up 30 points on in the final race.
The pressure in today’s race is as much on the pit crews as on the drivers. As we saw at Darlington when an errant air hose cost Jeff Gordon three positions and 15 points, a pit crew miscue can win or lose the Championship today.
With the 2004 season just about wrapped up, NASCAR announced more procedural changes for 2005 on Monday. This is in addition to the “gear” rule already announced, which is intended to limit engine RPM and lessen the possibility of engine failures. The biggest change in the Monday announcement is in weekend scheduling.
More than half the race weekend schedules will be cut by one day, eliminating Friday’s activities. All the races at tracks run by International Speedway Corporation (ISC), NASCAR’s track operations arm, will go to the new scheduling format, with the exception of Daytona. The Daytona 500 has always had its own unique format, with the Twin 125 qualifying races, and that will continue. NASCAR is negotiating with other track owners to implement the new format, but encountering some resistance due to the fact that shortening a race weekend by a day will tend to reduce ticket revenues.
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The key feature of the new system is impounding the cars after qualifying, much as Formula 1 began doing in the last couple of years. This will have the effect of eliminating special qualifying setups, because the teams will not be able to work on the cars between qualifying and the start of the race except in special cases approved by NASCAR. With the cars in impound, the Saturday final practice session will also be eliminated. The new rules will reduce cost and workload on the teams, since they won’t have to have special parts for a qualifying setup, nor will they have to work converting the car to race setup after qualifying.
Other policies are under discussion, but were not officially announced on Monday. One change under consideration is to guarantee grid positions to the top 35 cars in owner points. This will have the effect of further reducing the number of provisional spots, and could theoretically eliminate cars with faster qualifying times if they are outside the top 35.
There has been another twist in the ongoing soap opera that is open-wheel racing in America these days. As expected, Cosworth Engineering has been purchased from Ford by the Champ Car series. Champ Car is now a “spec” formula, with Lola chassis, Firestone tires, and Ford Cosworth engines. The benefit of this is to put an emphasis on driver skill, because the series can control the engine management system software. And as the pendulum swings back, it’s rumored that some recent defectors to the rival Indy Racing League are thinking seriously about returning to the Champ Car fold.
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.