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Woulda, coulda, shoulda


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Woulda, coulda, shoulda

By Dan Beaver, Yahoo! Sports

December 10, 2007

There are a great number of fans who believe Jeff Gordon is the legitimate champion of 2007.

In fact, if NASCAR had not implemented the playoff-style Chase format, Gordon would also have won in 2004, giving him six Cup trophies on his mantelpiece. Heading into the 2008 season, the top storyline would be whether he could match Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s seven championships.

Gordon, though, is still stuck on four, a reality he's done his best to come to grips with. As the '07 regular season came to an end, Gordon repeatedly told reporters he bore no ill will toward the new system that was about to take away his near 300-plus-point lead. He and his team knew the rules when the season started, he said, and if they were going to win a NASCAR Nextel Cup championship it would have to be accomplished in the current Chase format.

Just three days prior to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Gordon repeated his stance, even though it was quite clear at that point that the new system would keep him from winning championship No. 5.

Still, his fans continue to wonder what might have been.

But here's the thing about that – the staggering advantage Gordon built over the field in the first 26 races is precisely why NASCAR implemented the Chase in the first place. Had the points been left alone, Gordon would have run away with the '07 title, prompting a lot of fans to tune out with several races still to be run.

Ironically, the two changes NASCAR made to the Chase format heading into the '07 season are what might have done in Gordon. Let me explain.

Prior to the season, NASCAR expanded the Chase from 10 to 12 drivers. It also implemented a 10-point bonus heading into the Chase for each regular season victory.

By the time the tour hit Watkins Glen in early August, Gordon had all but locked up a playoff spot, meaning all he had to race for was wins and the extra 10 points that came with each victory.

Everything was going according to his plan. With two laps to go in the Centurion Boats at the Glen, Gordon was in the lead, poised to grab win No. 5 on the season. That is, until a rare mistake when he wheel-hopped his Chevrolet entering Turn 1. He spun out, relinquished the lead and wound up ninth.

The next week at Michigan he stayed on track with old tires because he knew he did not have a strong enough car to drive to the front if he pitted. When the DuPont Chevy slipped up in front of Matt Kenseth, Gordon got turned into the infield grass soggy from three days of rain. Stuck in the mud, he lost a lap and finished 27th.

The following week at Bristol, the team took wild swings at the setup and missed, finishing 19th. A week later, Gordon wound up 22nd at California.

If the outcomes in those four events played even a small role in how Gordon chose to approach the 10-race Chase – Gordon admitted he raced more conservatively in the playoff – it probably meant the difference between Gordon winning and losing the championship to Jimmie Johnson, whose average finish in the Chase was only a tick better than Gordon, 5.0 compared to 5.1

It's worth repeating, if only to appease Gordon fans, but under the old format Johnson would have finished second, 353 points behind Gordon, who would have wrapped up the championship with two races still to go.

Couple that with the '04 championship Gordon would have won under the old system, when he would have finished 247 points ahead of Kurt Busch, who did win the title, and Gordon would have shook the moniker "Four Time" a long time ago.

As you've probably noticed, the phrase "would have" occurs a lot in the previous paragraphs. But while Gordon seems to accept the new reality, his fans are still having a hard time coming to grips.

For those resisting the change, NASCAR's imposition of a playoff-style format in a sport like auto racing may seem like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. But know this: they have a big enough hammer to accomplish the task and are more than willing to wield it, regardless of your opinion.

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It is a shame that he will be unfavorablly compared to drivers that did not have to put up with this new system.

Jeff Gordon is a great driver and already owns FOUR Championships, and IMHO will probably capture at least one more before he hangs up his driving suit. How can that be looked at as unfavorable compared to anyone, King Richard included? I say he will always be viewed as one of the greats.

:blink: ...well maybe not by Earnhardt Sr. & Jr. fans, but we all know whats going on there. ^_^

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