Obviously, one of the drivers who's tied for the Sprint Cup Series lead with four victories didn't make the cut when the Chase field was set Saturday night at Richmond--despite a valiant fifth-place finish there.

That would be Kyle Busch. Clearly, it would benefit the Chase to have one of the series' most talented, aggressive and mercurial drivers fighting for the championship.

On the other hand, the Chase and the sport will survive without him, despite what appears to be growing sentiment to gerrymander drivers who win races into NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

It's important to avoid knee-jerk reactions when a driver of Busch's magnitude misses the Chase. At this point, tinkering with the format would do more harm than good.

If you'll recall, the introduction of the Chase for the 2004 season was not without controversy, given how large a departure it was from the scoring system developed by the late Bob Latford, which rewarded consistent strength--but not necessarily race wins--over the course of an entire season.

Up front, the Chase faced mixed reviews, but the first season under the new system won plenty of converts after Kurt Busch eked out the title over Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in an intense battle that wasn't settled until the final lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

It's probably just coincidence, but after Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon failed to qualify for the 2005 Chase, NASCAR expanded the field from 10 drivers to 12 for the 2007 season. That same year, the sanctioning body introduced the seeding system whereby drivers start the Chase with 5,000 points plus 10 bonus points for every race won during the first 26 events.

That same year, NASCAR added five points to the total a driver gets for winning a race, increasing the maximum score from 190 to 195 (for a driver who wins and leads the most laps). So, in effect, NASCAR has already increased the reward a driver gets for winning, both in terms of the week-to-week standings and in the seeding for the Chase.

To punch a driver's ticket into the Chase just because he wins a few races, however, would be misguided.

Everyone knows the rules at the start of the season, and qualifying for the Chase often comes down to a handful of choices made during the first 26 races. As it turned out, Busch fell eight points short of 12th place. All else equal, he would have qualified for the postseason had he not tried to block Tony Stewart on the final lap at Daytona in July, where he finished 14th instead of a probable second or third.

To ask Kyle Busch not to go for the win would be asking him to act contrary to his nature, but you can't argue he doesn't know the consequences.

"This year has just been a lot of bad luck, too, on my part just being dumb, and getting in the wrong position at the wrong time--and yet just some other failures that we might have had," Busch said after winning Aug. 22 at Bristol in one of the high-water marks of an inconsistent season.

If a team could qualify for the Chase simply by winning a requisite number of races, you might have a situation similar to that on the PGA Tour, where top players--most notably Tiger Woods--play limited schedules, pick and choose the venues they like and still accumulate enough points to win the Tour's version of the Chase, the FedEx Cup.

Sponsors might like that approach to Cup racing, with smaller outlays necessary to secure a Chase spot, but fans who don't get a chance to see their favorite drivers at every track certainly wouldn't.

As Gordon has said repeatedly, comparing champions from different eras is difficult enough without changing the format every few years. Accordingly, it's time for NASCAR to leave the Chase system alone.

A loud second for that motion comes from Johnson, the three-time defending champion: "It's worked pretty damn good for me the last three years, so it's hard to complain."

By Reid Spencer


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