Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Sprint Cup [Print without images]

Saturday, October 8, 2011
Anything can still happen in Chase

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The Philadelphia Phillies, this season's super team with a pitching staff that was viewed as unbeatable, are out of the Major League Baseball playoffs.

So are the New York Yankees, the team that had the best record in the American League. The Yankees and the Phillies didn't even make it out of the first round.

Those are the breaks in playoff action. Sometimes the best teams in the regular season don't win it all, or in this case, don't even come close.

And the same thing could happen in the 2011 Chase. If so, that's OK. Better than having no playoff at all.

Yes, Chase haters, this is your chance to protest. I'm not in your corner.

The Chase works, and it's working better this year than it ever has.

Seriously folks, what's not to like? Nine drivers are within 19 points of each other for the top spot with seven races to go. Two drivers -- Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards -- are tied for the lead.

And for all you Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, there's still some hope. Without the Chase, that would have gone away long ago this season.

Somebody could steal this Cup crown away from the drivers most people expect to contend. I'd love to see it happen.

Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick knows he could put himself out of Chase contention easily in the coming weeks.

Kyle Busch earned the most points in the 26 regular-season races. Harvick tied him for the most regular-season victories with four. Jimmie Johnson still has a chance at a sixth consecutive title. But two of them will fall short, and maybe all three of them will.

And whoever ends up with the most total points earned race by race at the end of the year, not that it matters anymore as it did in the pre-Chase era, also could fall short of the championship because of the Chase points reset based on bonuses awarded for wins.

So what? You play it out for the final 10 races, and whoever gets it done down the stretch earns the title. That's how it should be.

And what was so fair about the previous system? It was an arbitrary points allocation between finishing spots, allowing the driver who totaled the most points to win the championship.

Why should a driver who just manages to stay out of trouble and finish in the top 10 almost every week, but not necessarily win races, deserve the season title over a driver who wins eight times but had six DNFs?

I'll take the winner, thank you. In the Chase format, the driver who wins the most races could lose the championship (the playoff still needs more emphasis on winning in the Chase), but at least it's rewarding the driver and the team that raced well when the pressure was on at the end.

"You can take yourself out of this thing pretty easy by making big mistakes or doing something that gets you a 30th-place finish," Harvick said Friday. "If you can avoid those things, you can keep yourself in it."

The pressure is building because the top nine drivers are only separated (points wise) by 20 positions on the track in one race. Any of those guys can win it all, and I wouldn't completely count out Earnhardt (34 back in 10th) or Ryan Newman (41 back in 11th) just yet.

Earnhardt hasn't lost hope.

"You don't really know, I guess,'' he said Friday. "I mean, 34 positions, you can do that in a race. With the right luck, you can make it happen. We're going to have to run good to do that. We'll see how that goes.

"We've had some pretty fast cars, some quick enough cars to have some good finishes. Man, I would like to win a race before the year is out, and I think we can do that as a team. I feel confident that we can do that. I don't think it's over by no means."

Earnhardt will need a strong showing Sunday at Kansas Speedway to keep any realistic chances alive. Earnhardt said he believes he needs a finish in the top three. That's pressure.

"I don't really let the pressure bother me too much," Earnhardt said. "Attention bothers me, not pressure, just feeling like you're in the fish tank. The pressure is not a big deal. I've been around this sport a long, long time and I feel like I've got a good idea on what I'm doing."

The Kansas race historically tells a lot about how things will end up. Five of the seven Chase champions led the standings after the Kansas Chase race, including three of the last four for Johnson.

If he leaves here with the points lead he'll have the target on his back again.

"Not to be a smartass, but we're 13 points away from being that guy," Johnson said. "That's really what my goal is and where I want to be. In a 10-race format, if you're the guy setting the way, you gain an advantage. That's what I want."

That's what all these Chasers want. The championship is within reach for most of them.

If you are a fan of one of these drivers, how could you say you're opposed to the Chase? Don't you want your guy to win the title? Aren't you happy he still has a shot with seven races left?

When it's over, your driver may fall short. Maybe he was the guy who would have won it in the pre-Chase system, so you'll be mad.

I'm sure there are plenty of angry people right now in New York and Philly. But they all saw an exciting playoff series and knew their team just didn't get it done at the end.

Give me a playoff, and a Chase, any day. Whoever wins it after 10 pressure-filled races definitely deserves it.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.