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AVONDALE, Ariz. -- You can feel the tension, the anticipation, in the dry desert air at Phoenix International Raceway.
Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski sound like two heavyweight contenders before a title bout, each giving reasons they are confident and will win the Sprint Cup title. Johnson is saying he expects to run well enough here that he should have a comfortable margin going to Homestead-Miami Speedway next week.
Keselowski is saying he'd be leading the standings instead of trailing by seven points with a couple of breaks the past two weeks. He isn't ruling out winning the final two races even though history tells us this is Johnson's title to lose based on his dominance in particular at Phoenix.
"That's quite frankly where my head is at, and we control our own destiny if we do that,'' Keselowski said. "I feel like we have an opportunity to win at Homestead, the same type of track as far as the asphalt configuration and the tire compound that we've been very successful with at Texas and Chicago.
"So I think that's going to play to our strength.''
There is an anticipation that this Chase could be even better than last year's when Tony Stewart won the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to beat Carl Edwards for the title on a tiebreaker.
Even Stewart is talking about how much fun it is to watch this play out as he sits well out of contention, 80 points out.
Then you take a look at the Nationwide Series standings, where defending champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler are tied for the lead without a Chase. It makes you wonder what life would be like in Cup if there weren't a 10-race playoff.
Don't pretend you haven't thought about it.
Many of you have shown a disdain for the Chase even though it has produced drama that otherwise might be missing this late in the season. You have reminded us repeatedly that Johnson would be a two-time champion instead of a five-time one if NASCAR hadn't gone to a 10-race playoff in 2004.
For some, it is like the sport has violated the sanctity of tradition.
The Nationwide standings give you ammunition to argue for a return to the way things were in 2003 when Matt Kenseth won the title with one victory. It was that season some believe forced the change. You can look back at last year's Nationwide standings, where Stenhouse had only a 17-point advantage over Sadler coming to Phoenix.
While this falls into the category of "it is what it is,'' because NASCAR isn't going to do away with the Chase, it does make you think.
And before we look at numbers that may give you a headache, remember teams likely would have planned their strategy differently had there not been a Chase. Remember that the point differential prior to last season was larger before the system was simplified to award one point for every position.
So what if there wasn't a Chase in Cup? This still would be a showdown between Johnson and Keselowski, only the difference between the two would be 19 points, with Johnson still in the lead.
Instead of Clint Bowyer (-36) and Kasey Kahne (-58) being third and fourth, Greg Biffle (-46) and Kenseth (-49) would be in those spots based on their consistency during the first 26 races. You would have five drivers within 55 points of the lead instead of three.
You'd also have Dale Earnhardt Jr. guaranteed a trip to the season-ending banquet in Las Vegas as a member of the top 10 despite missing two races with a concussion. He would be eighth in points, 27 ahead of Stewart in 11th.
But for every argument there is for not having a Chase, there are numerous ones for it. A year ago, Edwards would have come to Phoenix with the title basically wrapped up, 47 points ahead of Johnson.
He would have won the championship by 78 over Kevin Harvick and we'd be talking about how the defending champion was having such a horrible year. Stewart would have finished 87 back despite winning five times over the final 10 races.
If there weren't a Chase, Harvick would have come to Phoenix in 2010 with a 300-point advantage over Johnson instead of Denny Hamlin having a 33-point edge over Johnson. Harvick would have won the title by 285 points over Johnson.
If there weren't a Chase, Gordon would be a six-time champion instead of four, with additional titles in 2004 and 2007. Edwards would be a two-time champion -- he would have won in 2008 by 16 over Johnson instead of losing by 69 -- and Stewart would be a two-time champ instead of three.
One could argue with the new simplified points system there is reason to consider doing away with the Chase, which would make a very vocal segment happy.
But in the long run, the Chase is good for the sport. It all but guarantees the title won't be decided by now, something you can't say under the old format.
"The Chase for the championship really wasn't to change how the points looked or change how the points are tallied up,'' Earnhardt said. "It was just to drive attention to the fan base, get the fans excited that there was some sort of playoff system in effect.
"The fans get excited about everybody reverting back to no points and leveling the playing field with 10 to go. It excites them to have a group of guys competing throughout the last 10 races and have it simplified.''
Even an old-timer such as Bill Elliott can see that.
|Tony Stewart, the only driver to win a title before the Chase era and in it, is a fan of the Chase format, but he'd like to change something in it.|
"With them changing the format, it gives more interest to the sport,'' he said. "It's been good for the sport. Maybe I don't necessarily agree with the format, but sometimes change is what we need.''
Stewart, the only driver to win the title under both formats, likes the Chase better as well. He'd like to see NASCAR take a step further and allow each driver to throw out one bad race, but he understands that's not realistic because of the confusion it could create for the final race.
He says the Chase and simplified points structure has been "very, very positive for the sport.''
There remains a portion of you who will disagree. You'll point to the current Nationwide standings and say this is the way it could -- should -- be in Cup. You'll point to the 1992 Cup season in which Alan Kulwicki went from 30 points down to Davey Allison heading into the final race to become the champion by 10 over Elliott.
Keselowski, by the way, still calls that the best title race ever.
The important thing is there is a tight battle with two races remaining and that you can feel that added sense of tension that wasn't always there in the old system.
The important thing is this really is up in the air despite Johnson's superior record at Phoenix, particularly when you consider his dominance came before the track was repaved and reconfigured.
Since the reconfiguration, Johnson has finished 14th and fourth. Keselowski has gone 18th and fifth.
If on Sunday they go fourth and fifth like they were in the spring, the tension, the anticipation, will be even greater in the humid South Florida air next weekend.