Nextel Cup driver Jimmie Johnson wasn’t a supporter of NASCAR’s 10-driver, 10-race playoff system when it was implemented last season.
But as Year No. 2 of the Chase for the Nextel Cup winds down over the next couple of weeks, count him a reluctant backer.
Johnson, who is just 38 points behind Tony Stewart in the Chase, still has plenty of issues with the postseason format, but he’s not fighting the concept’s results. Fan interest in NASCAR has been increasing during the fall months
this season and in 2004, so the Chase must be working, Johnson reasons.
"From the bottom of my heart, I still like the old (format), but the fact that our sport’s growing, that’s what it’s all about," said Johnson, who hopes to erase Stewart’s lead in the Chase this Sunday in the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
And that appears to be the growing sentiment among Nextel Cup’s top drivers. The Chase is great for drawing fans and interest to the sport, but many drivers aren’t happy with the format on several fronts.
Johnson’s main beef, shared by a few other drivers, is with the way points are distributed to the 10 drivers after the 26 "regular season" races. The points leader heading into the 10-race Chase is assigned 5,050 points and the second-place driver gets 5,045 points and each subsequent driver drops in five-point increments.
The top drivers heading into the Chase aren’t rewarded enough for their success, said Johnson, who would have benefited from this last season when he entered the Chase second in the points. "There needs to be a bigger spread between the (points) when you transfer in, so there’s more of an importance put on the first 26 races," he said.
Rusty Wallace, who missed the Chase last season but made it this year, also has points issues. Have a separate scoring system for the 10 drivers within the 43-car race, he said. "I wish those 10 guys were racing against each other instead of having the rest of the field intermingled in the outcome of that," said Wallace, who will retire after the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20.
Several drivers would like to punt the Talladega Superspeedway race out of the Chase. The race’s reputation for huge accidents makes it the wild card in the Chase equation, many drivers have said.
"I’d get the (Talladega) restrictor-plate race out of the Chase; it doesn’t belong in there," said Roush Racing’s Greg Biffle, who sits fourth in the Chase points. "It’s too much of a roll of the dice. It’s out of the driver’s control. . . . With this much on the line, to have that race in there is just not good. Put a Richmond in there and trade it for a Talladega."
One NASCAR official took issue with Biffle’s idea.
"I wholeheartedly disagree with Biffle on Talladega," said Jim Hunter, a vice president with NASCAR. "Talladega has helped put NASCAR on the map."
Other ideas various drivers would like to see worked into the Chase:
• Adding more drivers to the Chase.
• Rotating tracks so fans in other cities can experience the playoff atmosphere.
• Rewarding more points to race winners.
But there’s no indication that NASCAR officials would be open to altering the playoff system for 2006.
Why change it if it’s working, they say.
Television ratings for the Chase are up 5 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research data. Ratings were also up 5 percent for the Chase races in 2004, the first year of the playoff system. To date, NASCAR’s ratings on NBC and TNT have risen 8 percent for the year. Most of the Chase races this season, including this Sunday’s race at PIR, have been sellouts, and last Sunday’s race in Texas drew a near-capacity crowd of 195,000.
So many of the drivers’ complaints concerning the Chase are falling on deaf ears at NASCAR. At least for another season.
"I don’t anticipate any changes," Hunter said.
Friday: 10 a.m. — Craftsman Trucks qualifying; Noon — Busch Series practice; 1:20 p.m. — Nextel Cup Series practice; 2:50 p.m. — Busch Series final practice; 4 p.m. — Nextel Cup Series final practice; 6 p.m. — Craftsman Truck Series race, the Chevy Silverado 150.
Saturday: 9:05 a.m. — Busch Series qualifying; 11:10 a.m. — Nextel Cup Series qualifying; 1:30 p.m. — Busch Series race, the Busch 200.
Sunday: 8 a.m. — Gates open; 1:30 p.m. — Nextel Cup race, Checker Auto Parts 500.
Tickets: Available online at www.phoenixinternationalraceway.com or by phone at (866) 408-7223.
Info: (623) 463-5600