The disgrace of missing the Chase

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Greg Biffle briefly flirted with the Nextel Cup championship last season, while teammate Carl Edwards made a surprising push toward his own title. Although both fell short, they started this season prepared -- and perhaps even predicted -- to finish the job.
But it's not going to happen for either of them.
Or Kurt Busch, the 2004 Chase for the championship winner.
Or Ryan Newman, a two-time Chase qualifier.
They all find themselves stuck in a group of 33 drivers locked out of the championship hunt, shoved aside for the rest of the season as the spotlight focuses on the lucky 10 racing for the title. Unless they win a race, or wreck a Chase contender, they'll get little attention from here on out.
Biffle, runner-up to Tony Stewart in last year's Chase, knows that firsthand.
He failed to make the Chase in 2004, and struggled for any type of recognition that season. He'd rack up solid finishes, then wait around dumbfounded for the celebratory salutations that never came.
"If you're not in the Chase, you're nobody," Biffle said. "Those are kind of harsh words, but that's what everybody wants -- they want to be in the Chase. I finished third at Kansas [in 2004] and automatically a storm of media goes over to Jeff Gordon's car because he got fifth. We finished third and you're like, 'I'm over here!'
"That's the big difference -- you're somebody if you make the Chase."
Format's downside
That's the downside of NASCAR's new championship format. It's generated interest in the sport, and put the focus on the 10 drivers racing for the title, but in some respects it's come at the expense of the rest of the field.
The Chase is the end all in NASCAR, beginning with January's preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway. Drivers arrive focused on qualifying for the postseason, knowing a solid run in the season opener sets the tone for the rest of the year.
Any bobble at the beginning of the season can sabotage an entire year -- just ask Jeremy Mayfield.
His team was so far out of whack only eight weeks into the season that everyone at Evernham Motorsports knew he wouldn't make the Chase for the third consecutive season. With tensions running high between driver and car owner, Ray Evernham gave him permission in July to look for another job and lined up Elliott Sadler to replace him.
But when Evernham and Mayfield couldn't coexist a minute longer, he fired him and moved Sadler in 14 races early.
"The sport is changing and the Chase has changed it," Evernham said. "Used to be you raced your butt off until November, took a break and then you'd get ready for Daytona. Now, you're getting ready for next year in the August-September time frame.
"If you don't have your ducks in a row by August-September, you're behind and you're going to see things happening earlier and earlier. Now you're looking at August-September as the breakpoint for all the changes."
Focus on next year
In addition to early driver swaps, the Chase has allowed the also-rans to focus on next year much earlier then they would have before. When Edwards, who finished third in last season's Chase, was eliminated from contention Saturday night in Bristol, Tenn., he climbed out of his car ready to work on 2007.
"We're going to use these next 12 or 13 races to test for '07," he sighed. "We've kind of had a long, rough year with the luck, so we'll just make the most of it and go on and have a good time.
"If we can keep our heads on straight and go out and do the best we can every week and learn from our lessons, we're going to be a tough team to compete with in the future."
Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. used the same strategy last season. Once eliminated from the postseason, they brought in new crew chiefs with 10 races to go to give the new team leaders a head start. Gordon wound up finishing 11th last year -- locking up the guaranteed $1 million in prize money NASCAR pays the highest non-Chase driver -- and both drivers are in position to make the Chase with two races to go this year.
Something to race for
But NASCAR is adamant that drivers not racing for the title don't have to quietly slip into oblivion or write off the rest of the year. NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston points to Joe Nemechek's 2004 win in Kansas, and last season's victories by Dale Jarrett in Talladega and Kyle Busch in Phoenix -- none of the drivers was in the Chase, but in winning one of the final 10 events they were able to grab some of the spotlight.
"The non-Chasers are still racing for the $1 million payout, and they are still competing to win races," Poston said. "And they are going to have an influence on the championship based on their performance.
"Will some drivers go out there and try to finish with an eye toward 2007? Absolutely. But if you no longer have a chance to win the championship, you are still going to go out there and play hard and try to accomplish something for the remainder of the season."
Poston also balances the notion that the Chase eliminates attention on any driver outside the top 10 by arguing that the spotlight is now on more drivers than ever. Before the Chase, only a handful of drivers were in title contention at this point of the season. Now, the championship is up for grabs.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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