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CUP: The Chase Has/Is Doing Its Job

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Matt Kenseth inevitably gets the blame for making the Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) championship so boring with his solid consistency in 2003 that NASCAR’s overseers decided something new and revolutionary was necessary.

Quiet Matt led virtually the entire season in ‘03, taking any positive energy out of the title race. Not even finishing last in the final race at Homestead could derail Jack Roush’s driver. Kenseth still wound up winning the title by 90 points over runner-up Jimmie Johnson.

It was no sweat and no drama.

Hence the onset of the Chase, the 10-race postseason that began in 2004.

A whole lot of people don’t like the Chase. Their arguments run the gamut: It’s artificial. It’s unfair to a driver who builds up a big lead during the 26-race regular season. Nobody pays attention to anyone but the 12 drivers who qualified for NASCAR’s postseason. The 10 race venues favor certain drivers – notably four-time reigning champion Johnson.

But numbers show that Brian France, the architect of the Chase, actually had a pretty good idea – if it’s more competitive championships that everyone wants.

The Chase is in its seventh season and, heading to this Sunday’s finale at Homestead, the three-way title battle is too close to call.

Denny Hamlin, looking for his first championship, is just 15 points ahead of Johnson and 46 ahead of Kevin Harvick, also aiming for his first Cup title.

The last really close title was in ‘04, the first year of the Chase, when Kurt Busch came to Homestead 18 points ahead of Jeff Gordon, 72 in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 82 ahead of Mark Martin.

That one wound up being the closest finish in NASCAR history, with Busch hanging on through some dramatic adversity in the final race to beat Johnson by eight points and Gordon by 16.

Looking at the seven years before the Chase began, there was nothing nearly as tight or dramatic as the finishes in '04 and this year.

The closest duel with one race to go during that span was in 1997 when Gordon held a 77-point lead over eventual runner-up Dale Jarrett. Tony Stewart led Martin by 89 points with one race to go in 2002. Otherwise, the closest points race in the years just prior to the Chase was in 1999 when Jarrett held a 211-point edge over eventual runner-up Bobby Labonte.

Leads like that don’t leave much to the imagination – or sell many tickets.

Despite his small lead this year, though, history tells us that Hamlin is going to hold on and win the championship. Since 1993, the driver leading heading into the final race has won the title, no matter what the points lead.

But at least the championship battles in the Chase era have been generally entertaining, with some mystery left for the final race.

Other than Johnson’s leads of 141 points over Carl Edwards in 2008 and 108 over Martin last year, the biggest margin heading into Homestead during the Chase years was 96 by Johnson over Gordon in '07.

But upsets can happen.

The last time a driver came from behind in the final race to win the championship was in 1992 when heavy underdog Alan Kulwicki pulled off a huge upset over Bill Elliott and Davey Allison.

That race at Atlanta – then the home of the finale – was truly historic. Beyond the incredible points battle that saw six drivers within 113 points heading in the last event, it was also the last race for NASCAR King Richard Petty and the Cup debut of superstar Gordon.

But it was the championship that grabbed the headlines that day.

Allison led Kulwicki by 30 points and Elliott by 40 when they arrived at Atlanta. Harry Gant, Kyle Petty and Martin also came to the final race with a shot at the title, but never got close after the green flag waved.

In the race, Allison was taken out early in a crash, leaving Elliott and Kulwicki to fight an incredible duel. Elliott won the race and led 102 laps, but wound up losing the title by 10 points. Kulwicki celebrated the championship after leading 103 laps, earning the five-point bonus, and finishing second. Allison finished 63 points back.

Of course, you can read and study stats until your eyes are blurry, but the championship is going to be decided on Homestead’s 1.5-mile oval. It should be a really competitive race and the champion is likely to be the man who makes the least mistakes.

This is what the Chase is supposed be all about.

Mike Harris was the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Associated Press and is now a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com. Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com.