JG Online


'The Gold Standard'
Fall 2004

As exciting as stock car racing can be, the annual championship chase is often melodramatic. The points leader going into the final race of the season has gone on to win the series championship in every season since 1993. It's become almost a common occurrence for the champion to clinch the title before the final race. With television ratings sagging in the fall months, NASCAR needed to compete with pro football and the baseball playoffs in the final months of the racing season. After all, NBC paid NASCAR some mucho dinero (and some American money too), to televise the final 20 races of the season. No matter how hard they tried to create "drama," it often fell flat.

Champions used to be crowned by their consistency over the course of the season. However, with NASCAR trying to generate interest in the closing months, season-long consistency went out the window. What matters now is the final ten races. No matter the point spread, the top-ten is separated by less than 50 points with ten races remaining. The goal is obvious: create drama-- even if it's manufactured and disingenuous. NASCAR's real goal is to re-create 1992. Unfortunately, a conclusion like that comes along once every blue moon. And it happens on its own-- without a top-ten reset. Sure, the potential exists that more than two drivers will have a legitimate shot at the championship in the final race this season. Even under the current system, after 26 races, points leader Jeff Gordon had less than a 200 point lead over the fourth place driver. But, let's face it, it took the "chase for the championship" reset to really make it interesting.

In recent memory, the most drama in a Nextel Cup title chase occurred in 1997. And that was only because of Gordon's bonehead move during a practice session in which he wrecked his primary car while warming up his tires on pit road and started toward the rear of the field in the final race. He finished a careful 17th to win the title by a mere 14 points.

The closest title race occurred in 1992. Going into the final race of the season, six drivers had a mathematical chance to claim the series championship. Davey Allison, who had assumed the points lead just one week earlier, led Alan Kulwicki by 30 points. Kulwicki staged a minor miracle of his own by coming from 278 points down with six races remaining to close the gap. Behind Kulwicki was Bill Elliott who trailed Allison by 40 points. Harry Gant and Kyle Petty were 97 and 98 points behind, respectively. Mark Martin was the longshot as he trailed by 113 points.

This was a time before field resets after the 26th race, a time before the final races were televised on national television, and a time before NASCAR exploded on the national scene. Nowadays, Speed Channel broadcasts practice sessions and qualifying. Back in 1992, that was unheard of. In 1992, every race wasn't even televised live.

Allison needed to finish sixth or better to clinch the title, while Elliott and Kulwicki could only run their cars to the limit, hoping it would be enough. With just 75 laps remaining in the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Allison's fate would be sealed. He was running sixth- good enough to clinch the title- when disaster struck. Ernie Irvan cut a tire coming off turn four and swerved back into traffic. Allison's car made solid contact with the right side of Irvan's Chevrolet. Suddenly, the points leader was eliminated. Elliott and Kulwicki ran 1-2 the entire second half of the race, swapping the lead on several occasions. It became evident that the driver who led the most laps and received the five extra bonus points would win the championship. It would come down to one lap. On lap 310, Kulwicki pitted while leading, knowing he had clinched the bonus by leading 103 of the 328 laps. After the fuel-only pit stops, Elliott gained the lead and drove to his fifth victory of the season. Elliott had led 102 laps. If Elliott had led one lap that Kulwicki did not, then Elliott would have received the five bonus points instead of Kulwicki, which would have left the two in a tie in season's points. In that instance, Elliott would have won the title by virtue of more wins. As it was, Elliott won the Hooters 500, but Kulwicki finished second to win the 1992 NASCAR championship by a mere 10 points, the narrowest margin in the sport's history.

Most race fans only know of the 1992 finale as something for the history books. After all, since more than half of NASCAR fans only became fans in the past ten years, the 1992 conclusion is simply fodder for ESPN Classic. Ancient history considering how much the sport has grown since then. But it is likely NASCAR's day for its championship. The field reset that occurred after the 26th race in 2004 all but guaranteed and dramatic finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Who knows, maybe six or seven drivers will have a mathematical shot at the title that day. But, I can't escape the feeling that the championship race is adulterated. It's forced drama, akin to the faster horse slowing up at the beginning of the stretch run to allow the field a chance to catch up.

That being said, I’m not going to pass judgment on the new “chase for the championship” system until it plays itself out. In the end, it will likely create additional interest from fans and TV ratings should increase. Since that was the impetus for the move, it will probably be a business success. But the jury is still out on whether it will be a competitive success.

One thing is for sure-- people will be watching. NASCAR has gotten what it wants. Drama is still drama and a title race is still a title race. NASCAR has all but assured itself of an exciting finish as a result of the top-ten reset. The result of which means that the 1992 season finale will forever be the gold standard of championship conclusions—the last of the pure, unadulterated championship battles. As good as it will ever be.

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