As fans continue tuning out, drivers need to turn it on this year.

What does NASCAR's newly renamed Chase for the Sprint Cup – previously known as the Chase for the Nextel Cup for its first four seasons – have in common with the stock market?

After both hit incredible highpoints, things have continued to fall backward at frightening speed.

When the 10-race Chase playoff format debuted in 2004, NASCAR could not have written a better script for the ultimate ending.

Kurt Busch held off Jimmie Johnson by a razor-thin – and record for closest championship differential – eight points to be the first Chase winner.

To add even further drama in the season finale at Homestead, Fla., Busch twice fell out of the points lead as the race played out. In other words, had the race stopped at either of those two instances, Johnson would have won the championship.

But after Busch bounced back from near disaster – having a wheel fall off his Ford as he barely missed a retaining wall while trying to limp back to pit road – it was that same instance that seemed to give him enough energy to bounce back and go on to claim the title.

Unfortunately, the following three Chase episodes did not play out with similar drama or excitement – rather, lacking the kind of panache and enthusiasm that had people talking for months after Busch's title win in 2004, and which inspired similar Chase-like formats to be implemented in golf's PGA Tour and in drag racing's National Hot Rod Association circuit.

In 2005, two of the sport's biggest names, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., failed to even qualify for the Chase, which was ultimately won by Tony Stewart. With the sport's two most popular drivers out of the running for their fifth and first Cup titles, respectively, fans dropped out and tuned out in droves.

Then in 2006, Stewart also failed to qualify for the Chase, missing out by a mere 16 points, leaving him unable to defend the previous year's championship.

But Stewart didn't let being out of the big party depress him. Instead, he went out and created his own party, upstaging most of the Chase entrants by winning three of the 10 races in the Chase.

At the same time, Jimmie Johnson shook off an early-season cheating scandal to put together an incredible run of consistency in the final six Chase races – going from seemingly being all but eliminated after the fourth playoff race – to bounce back and win his first Cup championship in convincing fashion.

And then in 2007, Johnson did what many thought couldn't be done: As good as he was in the 2006 Chase stretch run, he was even better this past season to hold off teammate Gordon and win his second consecutive championship.

The downturn in popularity and notoriety in the 2005 and 2006 playoffs forced NASCAR Chairman Brian France to introduce two major changes to the format in 2007.

First, the field was expanded from 10 to 12 drivers – a nod, many felt, to Gordon, Earnhardt and Stewart missing from the Chase in the previous years.

And to put a premium on winning, France established a new points system that awarded more points to race winners in the first 26 pre-Chase races, which led to a seeding system that saw Gordon incredulously lose a 318-point edge heading into the 2007 Chase. One minute, Gordon was flying high dominating every other driver; the next minute, he started the Chase in second place behind Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

Unfortunately, each of the last three Chase editions has caused NASCAR's popularity to wane. Several Chase races failed to sell out. TV viewership ratings dropped, sometimes by nearly as much as 20 percent from the previous year's event.

The introduction of NASCAR's highly touted Car of Tomorrow – which took part in five of last season's 10 Chase races – further pushed fans away.

Which brings us to 2008, the fifth year of the Chase – and arguably the most important playoff to date.

While France has not "tweaked" this year's format as he did last year, more observers than ever before will be closely watching and scrutinizing every move NASCAR makes. If the Chase does not return to some of the Hollywood-like drama we saw in 2004, NASCAR's credibility could take a further and even more devastating hit than any other to date.

Unless this season's Chase rights itself and bounces back from some of the disappointments that have occurred over the last three editions, it could lead to an even greater alienation of fans from the sport's marquis event – to the point where some observers believe France may be forced to completely scrap the entire system if it reaches such a desperate low point.

The Chase was a great idea when it debuted. The biggest question now is whether it still is – or ever will become again – such a great idea.

Jerry Bonkowski is National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo! Sports and a featured contributor for Gatehouse News Service. He can be reached at NASCARColumnist@Yahoo.com.