There's a constant debate among NASCAR fans on whether they like the Chase or not. That debate has been compounded this year with the addition of the wild card.
Interestingly enough, if the Chase started today, the wild card would have no bearing as the two qualifiers currently sit in 11th and 12th and would have rounded out the 12-car field anyway.
That doesn't stop the argument on NASCAR's choice of having a "playoff" Chase format.
It's human nature to resist change, and, since the Chase system wasn't created until 2004, many NASCAR fans have struggled accepting the change. However, while traditionalists detest the setup, the Chase has undoubtedly added a viewer friendly element to the sport.
Football has playoffs. Hockey has playoffs. Basketball has playoffs. Baseball has playoffs. Soccer has playoffs. NASCAR's a sport. Why shouldn't NASCAR have playoffs?
Can you imagine how boring football would be with no Super Bowl or baseball with no World Series!? Even with the system Major League Baseball runs right now, the poor fans of teams like Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have very little chance at seeing their team compete for a title.
It was along those same lines that NASCAR created the Chase. From 1998-2001, each Cup winner won the title by at least 200 points. Simply put, if they'd had another race and the points leader wrecked out in 43rd, he was up by so much that not even a green flag-checkered flag lead could have caught the second-place driver up.
That's not exciting; that's not fun! And, while it rewards the best team over the course of the entire season, it doesn't necessarily recognize the best team at the end of the season.
Here in New England, we need not look farther than our 2004 Red Sox or 2011 Bruins. Neither one of those teams were the best team throughout the season, they were the best team by the end of the season.
On a smaller scale, the race isn't always won by the driver that leads the most laps, but it's always won by the guy that leads the last lap. The Chase and the playoffs are a similar concept: the best finisher wins a trophy.
Jimmie Johnson might not have the best car over the course of the first 26 races (although this year he actually might). The No. 48 teams bakes its bread by doing well enough and making the necessary adjustments leading up to the Chase so that by year's end, they have the best car.
All in all, as a sports supporter from another background, I strongly favor the Chase system. It's something that helps those familiar with other sports identify with the Sprint Cup Series and focus in as the season comes down to the wire.
Soapboxing aside, fantasy NASCAR doesn't use a Chase format. It just uses a season format, so you can't just put it in cruise control on Saturday night and finish in the low teens, à la Dale Jr. the past several weeks. Here's a look at the preview for Richmond International Raceway's Wonderful Pistachios 400. (Pistachios are wonderful, I might add.)
*In case you're new to this segment, check out my first fantasy post on how the system works.
Strategy: A lot of drivers should show a win-at-all-costs mentality this weekend. For those looking for a Wild Card, they'll need a win just to have a shot. For those already clinched in the Chase, it'll be three valuable bonus points once the standings are reset next week. Your job will be to distinguish which ones have the best shot at winning and which ones might overdrive and wreck.
#11 Denny Hamlin - This is Hamlin's home track and he's lived up to that designation. He's got two wins and six top-fives in 11 starts for an average finish of 7.5. He definitely feels right at home!
#18 Kyle Busch - Busch is your man this week! He has (get this) 11 top-fives in 13 starts. That's right: 11/13 top-fives. As would be assumed, his average finish is an insane 4.9 at Richmond. There's no reason he shouldn't start.
#24 Jeff Gordon - Gordon has 23 top-10s and seven DNFs in 37 starts. When you do the optimistic math, he's only finished outside of the top-10 in seven of the 30 races he's finished over the course of his long career. He also won last week, so he gets the green flag over Kevin Harvick (who I was debating including).
#48 Jimmie Johnson - It's bad luck to ever recommend parking Johnson, that much I know. The fact he has two wins means he could easily make a fool out of me, but with just seven top-10s in 19 starts, I'd save him for another track. He's got better stats at most other places.
#2 Brad Keselowski - He's one of the worst B-List drivers at Richmond but has a small, four race sample size from which to pull. Far be it from me to tell Brad and his busted ankle that this is the week his current streak of six-straight top-10s comes to an end.
#5 Mark Martin - Martin has 27 top-10s in 51 starts and more recently has five top-fives in the last 11 races at Richmond. However, he has just two top-10s in the last 10 races this season. You make the call.
#33 Clint Bowyer - Bowyer's 2008 win at Richmond is his only top-five, but he has six top-10s in eleven starts, which put his average finish at 9.5. He also leads the B-List with a driver rating of 97.9. He'll have to buck the usual trend this weekend as he'll need a win (and not just a solid top-10) to have any shot at the Chase.
#39 Ryan Newman - Eleven top-10s in 19 starts, the B-List's second-best driver rating of 92.6 and he's far and away the best driver on the list in 2011. That's worth a start!
#56 Martin Truex Jr. - At this point, a lot of drivers' allocations are being taxed, so Truex's nifty hot streak is coming at a nice time. However, Richmond isn't a good track for him as his average finish of 23.8 is well below his career of 19.4.
#88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. - It's obvious at this point that Junior is content to just coast around in 15th place. He only needs to finish 20th to clinch a spot and, like Jennifer Aniston's character in Office Space, he appears content doing the bare minimum.
#6 David Ragan - Ragan is the only driver among the C-Lists top-three (Paul Menard and Regan Smith being the other two) that has so much as a top-10 at Richmond. If there's any hope this week on the C-List, it probably lies under the hood of the No. 6.
#47 Bobby Labonte - Labonte's wreck last week was the last straw for me and officially landed him in the large pile of C-List junk I had no desire to start. That was until I looked at how bad the guys I would be willing to start have done at Richmond. I thought maybe I'd try to polish the No. 47 a little bit and see if I couldn't find some shine somewhere for one more weekend.
#27 Paul Menard - Menard is simply one win away from the Chase, but he won't get there. Following a win at the Brickyard, he finished 10th at Pocono and hasn't sniffed it in the four races since. At Richmond specifically, he finished 16th in his first race in 2007 and hasn't done better than 26th since. There's no reason to believe he'll steal a Chase spot with a win this weekend. None.
My Preliminary Roster
A - KYLE BUSCH (4), Hamlin (7)
B - BOWYER (4), KESELOWSKI (7), Allmendinger (8), Martin (3)
C - RAGAN (2), Labonte (5)
*Number in parenthesis are allocations remaining.