Outrunning the Bear
Now that we’re firmly into the elimination rounds of the 2017 season I can't help but think about that old bear joke. You remember it don't you? The one that goes something like this…
Matt and Tony are camping when a bear suddenly comes out and growls. Matt starts putting on his tennis shoes.
Tony says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear!”
Matt says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear — I just have to outrun you!”
It's funny. It's true in life. If there is more than one, you don't have to beat the bear, you just beat the other person. It's also true in NASCAR Championships. Now more than ever. Since the method of crowning a Cup Champ was changed to the elimination rounds format, beating the bear has been pounded into us as the only way to advance, the only way to be Champ. That's just not true. You don't have to win the race and beat the bear, you just have to outrun the other driver(s). Just be fifth worst or better and you will advance to Homestead. Once you get to Homestead you still don't have to outrun the bear and win the race, just outrun the other three. That's the dirty little truth no one wants to talk about though.
Don't believe it? In this year’s first elimination round only two drivers beat the bear to advance. The remaining ten advanced because after lacing up their tennis shoes the last three races, they ran better than Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahn and Kurt Busch, who now join the other 28 or so who didn't initially make the Chase.
“I don't have to beat the bear, I only have to beat you” is as true now as it was in 2003, when Matt Kenseth won his Championship. It was a dominating Championship run, maybe one of the most dominant in the sports history. He did it by winning only one race. Truth is, his run was so dominating he didn't even need that win.
Matt was also the last driver to win a Championship based on performance over the entire season. There were no playoffs, no playoff points. No advance. No elimination. Just line ‘em up each week, run, earn the points and repeat ‘til season's end, and at the end, Matt had outrun the others and was crowned the Cup Champ. He did it the old fashioned way.
His run forever changed the sport as the Sanctioning Body’s fear of having a winless Cup Champ resulted in the first of many Chase formats. This new format emphasized winning over everything else and since then has been adjusted almost annually until we have what we have today.
Back then though, Matt started that season in a huge hole, leaving Daytona 19th in points, 77 points behind point leader, Michael Waltrip. He climbed to sixth after Rockingham, whittling 10 points from that deficit as Kurt Busch used his win there to vault to the points lead. Matt outran the bear at Vegas, the only win that season, jumping to second in points, three points behind Waltrip. Leaving Atlanta, there was a new point leader with Matt Kenseth ahead of Tony Stewart by 49 points.
He never looked back.
Tony held second for another race, losing another eight points along the way. Kurt Busch outran the bear at Bristol which pulled him to second but Matt pulled out to 138 point lead which he stretched to 155 at the next race. Junior started his first run at Matt with a win at Talladega and cutting the deficit to 129.
Over the next three races Junior cut the lead down to 20 points. Matt’s second place finish, coupled with Junior’s 41st place finish (remember when we had that many cars running?) at Charlotte stretched the lead to 160. Junior hung onto second for three more races before he and Jeff Gordon started a back and forth battle for second at Sonoma. Junior took it back at Daytona, Jeff at Chicago and London and Junior got it back at Pocono. Unfortunately for him though, Matt was now sitting on a 232 point lead. Over the next seven races Matt stretched his lead to over 400 points.
Kevin Harvick moved to second in points at Dover only to find that Matt’s lead had swelled to 436. Over the next four races we watched Kevin cut almost 200 points off Matt’s lead before Junior retook second place in points for the last time at Atlanta. Two races later Jimmie Johnson slid into second, 226 points back going into Homestead. Jimmie finished third there while Matt had early engine problems to finish last. It wasn't enough to overtake him though as Matt still finished 90 points to the good and took the 2003 Cup Champion. The final 90 point spread was the closest anyone had been to Matt since the Coca-Cola 600, twenty-five races earlier.
Only once, Las Vegas, did Matt outrun the bear. For the remaining 35 races, like a leader in clean air weaving from one lane to the next to keep the competition from getting a run on him, Matt outran Mike, Tony, Kurt, Junior, Jeff, Kevin and Jimmie and came away the winner.
Crowning the Champ has changed since then. I guess you could say the bear has changed, as there are now more bells and whistles added to liven things up and put on the perception that the Cup Champ has to be a race winner. As we hit the mid-point in the second round though, three of the remaining twelve have no wins this season. Matt Kenseth is one, sitting one point away from advancing. Winning Talladega or even Kansas would be nice but not necessary if he can outrun the Fords of Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski along with the Chevy of Jamie McMurray. As long as he can get four behind him he can keep advancing and that's the name of the game now. Remember-fifth worst or better advances.
Can we have a winless Champion this year? It's definitely possible. In addition to Matt, you have Jamie with a one point lead over Matt in eighth and Chase Elliott is sitting pretty in fourth. Anything can happen.
It would be neat if one of these three pull it off, if for no other reason than to make the unspoken possibility a reality. The PR spin alone would be more entertaining than about a third of the races this season.
Plus, a Matt Kenseth Championship would be a perfect ending to a perfectly winless season and book-end nicely with his first Championship that started all this mess.
One can only dream.