Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What Does Kyle Busch's Success Say About The Chase Format

I am not surprised Kyle Busch won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race after returning from his injuries suffered in February at Daytona. I am not surprised Kyle Busch is in the top thirty of points and likely will be in the Chase this autumn. I am not surprised Kyle Busch has been the best driver since the start of summer because Kyle Busch has been the only driver with something to race for.

When Kyle Busch made his first start of 2015 at the Coca-Cola 600, he entered 179 points out of 30th position with 15 races remaining before the start of the Chase. He had a goal set that he had to reach if he wanted a shot at the championship in 2015. Winning a single race was the easy part but it was the 179-point mountain that was standing in his way.

While Kyle Busch had a lofty goal, the other drivers had a much easier goal: Win a single race. NASCAR's standard of being Chase eligible is a bar set very low. Win a race and be in the top 30 of points. To give you an idea of how easy it is to be in the top 30 in points, last year only five driver (Michael Annett, David Ragan, Cole Whitt, Reed Sorenson and Alex Bowman) started the first 26 races and were not in the top 30 in points. The year before that, only two drivers (David Reutimann and Travis Kvapil) started the first 26 races and were not in the top 30. The average finishes of those five drivers over the first 26 races were 28.69 (Annett), 29.5 (Ragan), 29.88 (Whitt), 30.5 (Sorenson), 32.07 (Bowman), 30.46 (Reutimann), and 30.65 (Kvapil). The average points total for 30th in points since the points system changed in 2011 was 420.75. To score that over 15 races, a driver would need to score 28.05 points a race or average a finish just under 16th. Kyle Busch's average finish in the 11 races before the Chase since becoming a full-time driver in 2005 is 14.44.

This season, the only drivers to have started the first 22 races and are not in the Top 30 are Whitt (31st), David Gilliland (32nd) and Annett (35th). Between those three drivers, none of them have a top ten finish, the best finish among those three drivers is 11th by Gilliland at the Daytona 500, the best finish among those three drivers at a non-restrictor plate racetrack is 18th by Gilliland at Bristol and the three drivers have combined for five top 20 finishes this season.

For all the drivers who had made the first 11 races while Kyle Busch was on the sidelines, staying in the top 30 was very obtainable because all a driver needs to do is start every race, meaning all they really need to focus on is competing for victories. For the top drivers, who are averaging around a 15th place finish and have yet to win, they know there will be at least one spot available for a driver who has not won a race as the likelihood of their being 16 or more different winners in the first 26 races is slim. For Kyle Busch, all he would need to do would be to win a race and then be average. The top 30 wasn't a guarantee for Busch to achieve but it was doable and the quickest way for him to do it would be to score maximum points as many times as possible.

While NASCAR believes the new Chase format emphasizes winning, it really emphasizes winning one race. Busch has had an incentive to win as many races as possible as it would increase his likelihood of making it into the top 30. There is no incentive for Martin Truex, Jr. or Carl Edwards to win as many races as possible. Sure, each victory earns a driver three bonus points for the start of the Chase but three retirements in the first round of the Chase and all those bonus points won't be enough to keep a driver's championship hopes alive.

If the bar to make the Chase based on victories were the top 12 with a maximum of 12 drivers making the Chase, then the drivers would have more incentive, as the bar would be much higher. Right now, Carl Edwards sits 15th in points and is locked into the Chase. If the bar were the top 12, he would have to step up his game but with this system he could finish last in the next four races and still be in the Chase.

By emphasizing winning one race, NASCAR has deemphasized being the best week in and week out.  Once a driver wins, the goal is to remain in the top 30, which isn't that hard. Once a team wins a race, they can afford to have a handful of poor races as they are pretty much locked into the Chase.

Not to take anything away from Kyle Busch's recent accomplishments because winning three consecutive races and four in five isn't something a driver does every season. It is impressive but Kyle Busch is doing it because of how high the bar is for him while drivers such as Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have been set in the Chase before Busch even returned to competition. This spell of dominance won't matter once the Chase begins.

To compare it to another sport, it's like the Ottawa Senators this spring, who won 16 of their final 22 games and snuck into the Stanley Cup Playoffs after it looked like they didn't have a shot at the postseason at the start of March. Compare that to the Detroit Red Wings, who won just nine of their final 22 games and were still a better seed than Ottawa. Ottawa had to play lights out while Detroit had some wiggle room.

If NASCAR made points difficult to come by or adopted a system such as the 9-6-4-3-2-1 system that Formula One used for 30 seasons, then perhaps competition would be at it's highest level each and every week and drivers wouldn't settle for an 18th-place finish when things weren't going their way and perhaps Kyle Busch wouldn't have four victories since returning to competition. For the last few months Kyle Busch and the rest of the NASCAR have been on different playing fields, not necessarily because Busch has been running so well but because he has had to run this well while other top teams have already been waiting for months for the Chase to begin.