A last-second 20-foot shot to win the NCAA basketball championship – in overtime.
A 40-yard pass completion to win the Super Bowl – with time expiring.
A walkoff home run to win the seventh game of the World Series – in New York City.
These are the moments of delight, drama and high-wire thrills NASCAR hopes to duplicate – or at least approach – with major surgery to its season-ending Chase. Speculation on the upcoming changes has centered on “knockout” eliminations dropping contenders to the side of the road as the march toward the final race rolls on, while the intent is to create theater in the round by leaving only a handful of drivers in the mix at the finish.
No final format has been decided for future Chases, but the elimination choice seems to be what NASCAR is putting most of its push behind.
Good? Bad? Some of both?
“If it builds excitement for the fans, I’m 100 percent for it,” said veteran team owner Richard Childress. “Whatever they want to do to build excitement, I’m for it.”
That seems to be basically the attitude of many individuals in the garage, although there are fears that a renovated Chase could edge over into gimmickry and that a sport that has lived for much of its existence on the idea that seasonal consistency is more important that occasional excellence might be diluting its history.
“I believe that maintaining the integrity of your body of work needs to mean something,” said driver Jeff Burton. “I am a proponent of your body of work putting you in a position where the people who don’t have that body of work aren’t in.
“I’ve heard talk of a winner-take-all one-race shootout. I’m OK with that, but I think our sport has had endurance mean something, and I think we have to be careful not to completely depart from that.”
Other sports that, like NASCAR, have very long seasons still end their schedules with playoffs – typically a series of games in a best-of-seven format, and it is very possible – indeed, often likely – that the team that performed the best during the regular season isn’t champion after all is said and done. The team with the best regular-season record in baseball, for example, often doesn’t advance to the World Series.
Until recent years (the Chase format was introduced in 2004 and has been slightly modified), NASCAR had rejected the idea of toying with its process of naming a champion based on solid consistency throughout its punishing February-to-November schedule.
With runaways relatively common and nail-biting, to-the-wire championship races rare, however, the sanctioning body tried to juice its closing weeks with a sudden departure from its past.
Results have been spotty, and there certainly has been little in the form of major drama that might entice viewers to turn off the NFL and switch to racing at Phoenix or Homestead.
“I have been, like others, a little surprised that the Chase in its current format has not yielded more exciting points-race finishes than it has,” said Chris Powell, Las Vegas Motor Speedway president. “In the first year [Kurt Busch won on a frantic closing day at Homestead], it did what everybody was hoping it would do. Since then, it’s been a bit of a disappointment.
“But I believe what they attempted to do with the Chase format in its current form was a good move, and to extrapolate that to, in effect, almost guarantee that it’s going to come down to the last race is something I’ll give them credit for, if that’s what they end up doing.
“I think there are many people who remember ‘yesterday’ and who don’t like what they would consider to be a contrived ending. But what could be more contrived than a wild-card team winning the World Series or the NFL?”
Powell and others credit NASCAR for attempting to create more excitement in the final weeks of the season.
“You can’t make people embrace something,” he said. “But you have to give NASCAR credit for trying this. You need the excitement at the end of the year, and that’s what a playoff format does. It creates excitement. And you have to remember – you don’t win the NFL championship by going 16-0 in the regular season. You have to do well in the playoffs.”
Comparing stock car racing to other sports doesn’t sit well with some fans, but the hard truth is that sports like college basketball, professional football, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League enhance the finishes of their seasons with high-stakes single games or series. Fitting NASCAR into that structure sometimes gives the appearance of trying to cram a baseball bat into a pinhole, but, if the end result is spectacle and sensation in the closing races, the struggle could be worth the effort.
“The interesting thing is that most sports do have a single-elimination championship system,” said Hendrick Motorsports president Marshall Carlson. “The flip side is that I’m not sure how well that fits in auto racing. I guess I’m kind of divided on how to look at that. I think there’s a blend in there somewhere, but I’m happy that they’re looking at a format that can be a boost for the sport and engaging for the fans.
“I think it’s a good thing that NASCAR has constantly looked at making sure we’re bringing a compelling and entertaining product that also resonates with legitimacy and the true spirit of the sport. At the end of the day, people watch any sport to get engaged and be excited and watch talent on display. Those atmospheres and environments are created through obstacle and trial. I think it’s positive they’re looking at that kind of format.”
Burton visited with Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo during last week’s race at Michigan International Speedway and said they had a discussion about the NCAA basketball tournament, an event that often is presented as the peak of sports excitement.
“We talked a little about how cool the NCAA tournament is, and the energy there is really cool,” Burton said. “But we have to make sure that every race means something. And we have so many races. We have to make certain that we don’t put so much emphasis on the last two or three races that the others don’t mean anything. And that’s always going to be a balance.”
Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark, whose time in the sport stretches into decades, sees both sides of the coin from the fan perspective – some think the sport has changed too much in recent years; others see the most recent changes – double-file restarts, almost-certain green-flag finishes – as positive.
“I’m for doing something as long as it doesn’t get gimmicky,” Clark said. “It should create focus on the championship and put an intensity toward trying to win races. I’ve never been a fan of consistency. I think racing is about winning races. I don’t think we reward the winners enough.
“I think you should have to win a race to get in the Chase. It doesn’t matter if you’re second or third in points. You should have to win to get in. We need a system that puts a premium on winning.
“When a driver gets out of his car after finishing sixth and says, ‘Well, we had a good points day,’ fans want to throw up. No, you didn’t have a good day. You’re the fifth loser.”
Todd Berrier, crew chief for Jeff Burton, said the excitement level among Chase competing teams will be proportional to the length of their eligibility.
“If you get to the point where they cut you out of it, you’re cutting the excitement down to only the number of people who have the capability of winning,” he said. “If they put you out of it, I think it will take something away. I think you’re better off with more people racing for it than less.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.