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FONTANA, Calif. – In a few weeks, if Jimmie Johnson is running away with his fifth-straight championship, the cries will come for changes to the Chase format.
That's because, as it turns out, this year's version is not living up to its billing as the most wide-open Chase ever, not after Sunday's 10-10-10 massacre at Auto Club Speedway. Carl Edwards stalled on the track, Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch went up in smoke with blown engines, and Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick hurt their chances with self-inflicted speeding penalties on pit road.
Yes, Tony Stewart sort of climbed back into the hunt with his second win of the season, but the effort was mostly a stay of execution for Smoke, who began the day staring at a 127-point deficit. The win moved Stewart up five spots in the standings to fifth, but he still trails Johnson (who finished third) by a whopping 107 points.
Four races in and drivers sixth on down in the standings are realistically out of the title hunt. Stewart remains a long shot, as does Gordon, who is now 85 points behind Johnson.
That leaves just two drivers – Denny Hamlin (-36 points) and Harvick (-54) – as realistic contenders to challenge Johnson's reign. And if and when they are eliminated, the cries for change will come.
When they do, we'll hear that the Chase needs a separate points system, that 10 races is too many, that an elimination format is necessary, that Brian France's playoff just plain stinks.
Blah, blah, blah. What's really being called for is a Jimmie-proofing of the championship.
The ugly truth for Chase haters is that the format favors nobody. Johnson puts himself in contention every year because he's really good. He keeps taking the trophy home because he's more consistent than everyone else.
Put another way, he's the four-time defending champ (going on five) because everyone else makes more mistakes than he does. Just look at what's happened in the first four races of this year's Chase:
• Stewart and Jeff Burton each ran out of gas on the final lap at New Hampshire. They were running 1-3 at the time.
• Bowyer got slammed with a 150-point penalty for failing inspection after winning at New Hampshire.
• Kyle Busch whacked David Reutimann at Kansas, got whacked back, then had his engine blow at ACS.
• Biffle and Edwards had their aforementioned mechanical issues at ACS.
Take away each of these issues and all six of these drivers are still in the hunt. In fact, had Stewart let off the gas at New Hampshire even a little, he'd be second in the standings, around 30 points down.
The format has nothing to do with Johnson's lead. Others' miscues do.
"We as a team have tried to be smart about things and have the company motto 'be top five,' " Johnson said after his third-place finish. "Honestly, we make a lot of mistakes, including myself. The whole thought process of being in the top five was just to kind of have everybody stay calm and in control."
That is what Hamlin and Harvick have to continue to do. Neither has been spectacular in the Chase. But more importantly, neither has made a major miscue, either. Hamlin did get spun at New Hampshire, but he rallied and nearly won the race. Harvick has labored in all four Chase races, but he has managed to climb his way near the front each time to salvage a decent finish.
As a result, both are still very much in the title hunt and, if Johnson makes a mistake, are close enough to make him pay for it.
"We are in a decent spot – we're not in a great spot," Hamlin said. "We run better the second half of the Chase. We always have. At this point to be within whatever amount of points we are, … I can take that and I can race him from there."
And really, isn't that what everyone wants – a race to the title?
It's here to be had, with this formula, so long as more than one person makes it through the first nine races without committing championship suicide. At least six have so far.
Five are still alive, with the chance at knocking off Jimmie Johnson. But it's on them to stick around long enough to make this championship battle interesting.