I’ve been following NASCAR since 1994. I watched my first Daytona 500 in 1995, 22 years ago, and I haven’t missed a single Daytona 500 since. I’m not new to this sport by any means. However, I feel like today’s NASCAR looks nothing like the NASCAR I grew up with. In my day, NASCAR was referred to as being in “the modern era.” This modern era, was often times defined as 1972-present, which made complete sense in the mid-90s. It was a way of separating the old way of crowning it’s champion, with the new modern way which had a very different points payout.
In 2004, when Nextel (Sprint) took over the sport, the points system changed again. Rather than defining the champion based on an accumulation of the full season’s races, like it had for the previous 55 years, it reset the top 10 drivers in the standings with 10 races to go, and those 10 drivers “Chase” for the championship. It was a new innovative way of creating a playoff style system that has worked so well for the other major sports in America. The system has been tweaked, adjusted, and renamed over the past 15 years, but the overall concept has remained the same since 2004.
What we are in now, I’d like to call the Chase-era. To me it’s important to differentiate the sport’s three eras. Richard Petty won his seven championships during a time when the competition was not a close. There were just a handful of guys who could compete every single week. In some cases these guys would run up to 62 races in a season. These guys would run Daytona on Saturday, Manassas, Virginia on Wednesday, Old Bridge Stadium in New Jersey on Friday, and Bridgehampton, New York on Sunday. That’s four races in a week. Race winners would win by two, three, sometimes even 10 laps. Things were way different back then.
Even the seven championships that Dale Earnhardt won, were won in a completely different way than they were won in Petty’s era. Sure, the competition was much closer, and there were upwards of 8-10 drivers who had a legitimate chance of winning on any given race weekend. The champion was decided after the full season of 28-36 races were completed. In some cases, the championship was decided several weeks before the final race of the season. It’s also been decided in the final moments of the season like it did in that famous 1992 season.
Jimmie Johnson, the most recent seven-time champion, earned every one of his crowns during the Chase-era of the sport. At the end of 26 races, everybody’s points were reset and they made a dash for the cup in the final 10 races. You could have a fantastic spring and summer, winning races and pulling away in the standings, only to lose your footing in the playoffs and come up short of the title. Bad races in March and July could essentially become throw away races, as long as you earned a win and clinched a playoff spot. As long as you’ve won a race in the first 26 races, you get to hit the reset button and make another run at the title. In fact, Kyle Busch won his championship in 2015 after missing much of the season due to injury.
Jimmie Johnson has won 80 races in his 17-year career, against a field of cars that can see any number of 18-20 different cars that have a legitimate chance of winning. He’s won those 80 races in an era with double-file restarts, and a free pass to the lead lap if you’re the first car one lap down. More cautions fly today than have ever flown in the history of the sport, offering more chances at these double-file restarts and earning laps back. The competition is as close as it has ever been.
That’s not to say that Jimmie Johnson was a better champion than Richard Petty. I’m not saying that Dale Earnhardt’s championships were harder earned than Jimmie Johnson’s. What I’m saying, is that these three champions must be compared like apples, oranges, and watermelons. They are all completely different eras that required their own special skill sets and strategies. The history of the sport is important, but it can’t be compared to the very different sport that it has evolved into. The Chase-era has been exciting and it’s been entertaining to watch, but we can’t compare it to the NASCAR of yesteryear.