According to an informal poll, the Chase format is not working for some NASCAR fans. But according to this same poll, the only desirable change would be a return to accumulating points for the entire season and then crowning the guy who has the most points as the champion.
I would humbly suggest that living in the past is not the way to go. The rest of the world outside of NASCAR and many of those who followed the sport lost faith in the previous system once Matt Kenseth stroked his way to the title in 2003. For those who think the Chase has somehow devalued winning individual races, consider Kenseth’s title run, when the driver and crew chief Robbie Reiser did the logical thing to gain the title, which meant strumboing for points after only one victory.
Even under the old Latford format, the champion would have been the same more often than not since the Chase began in 2004. But under the Chase, the winner always faces a gauntlet of pressure – the other 11 Chase drivers and the rest of the field – during the final 10 races, which assures the winner is a bona fide champion.
Making the Chase and not making the Chase makes a big difference in the season for the teams and drivers of those 12 who advance – as well as those who don’t advance. The latter hear an awful lot from their team owners and sponsors about the importance of making it to the playoffs. This year, it appears the teams of Michael Waltrip Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, which had cars running at the front of the field during the Chase despite not being in it, got the message.
The fans who don’t like the Chase keep missing the message. For drivers earning millions each year just by staying in the top 35 in the standings, there needs to be a way to keep them on top of the wheel. Given the still often high price of tickets to Sprint Cup events, fans ought to appreciate the fact drivers have to earn their money – or look at being replaced if they repeatedly fail to at least advance toward getting into the Chase. (For those on top teams who can make the Chase but don’t necessarily win races such as Jeff Gordon or Kenseth, the demands of sponsorship provide the motivation.)
The broader message also seems to be as big as a billboard and written in neon. Now that NASCAR is major league, it cannot compete in the American sports marketplace as if it was some sort of private preserve. Ticket sales, TV viewership, sponsor and team owner investment hinge on how well NASCAR competes versus other major league sports. The Chase has been the tool for introducing a playoff system similar to other leagues without tossing out the fundamentals of what it takes to be a stock car racing champion: the ability to win races (Jimmie Johnson has averaged seven wins per season during his five-year streak) and the ability to maintain consistent performance over the course of a season.
It is the major league question that seems to now be pre-occupying Brian France. The NASCAR chairman and CEO has signaled the possibility that the Chase format may be changed to enhance the showdown aspect of a championship in a manner similar to other sports, where one series and sometimes one game determines who wins the title.
The first conundrum of this approach is how to keep drivers motivated to win races and yet still win the championship. Any time it’s a matter of survival – such as gradually reducing the number of contenders over the course of the final 10 races of the season that now comprise the Chase – there’s always the chance of a repeat of the Kenseth scenario.
The second conundrum concerns the fact NASCAR has succeeded in reviving faltering fan interest over the past year by reintroducing older traditions. For a new Chase to sustain momentum, it would have to maintain the stock car racing traditions – such as the value of winning individual races as well as consistency in performance.
Although the needle goes back to zero any time a new series begins in baseball and basketball in the playoffs, or when the coin toss occurs at the Super Bowl, one of the charms of the Chase is the fact there’s only one re-set before the mano-a-mano begins. It’s a clean and easy to understand the format. I doubt whether multiple re-sets or oddball bonuses for winning a race during the Chase would be nearly as credible when it comes to declaring the champion.
In addition, just dropping the last four drivers after the first four races, to take one example, would be a farce. The last four are generally out of contention by that time.
Dropping the last four drivers after the first four races and narrowing the field to eight, to take one example, would be a farce. The last four drivers are generally out of contention after the first four races. The current Chase already whittles down the field and in a manner similar to the old full season format. Because it’s already self-evident who is out of the running after the early weeks of the Chase, to reduce the number of those eligible for the title as the Chase progresses would be mere marketing over actual substance.
Would an elimination format really motivate those who might get tossed off the island? Would it generate more appeal by keeping fans tuned in for what amounts to who gets hired and who gets fired going into, say, Charlotte? Does NASCAR want to be more like an artificial reality show in an attempt to become more like the World Series?
For me, it always comes back to the same solution. Award more points to a race winner during the regular season and the same number during the Chase. Assuming the better drivers are highly motivated to begin with, this would encourage more aggressive strategies throughout the season as well as during the Chase. It would enable some who have fallen behind to catch up, either before the Chase begins or after it’s started. This year’s Formula One championship was a primary example of a driver, Sebastian Vettel, coming from behind to win the title by winning the last two races.
It’s that final race showdown that France is angling for and perhaps would like to lock into place. To do that, you have to keep the points differential relatively tight, either through the points system or a re-set. In some ways the reasoning for guaranteeing a final showdown is a good one. The string of close championships that began with Richard Petty versus Darrell Waltrip in 1979 and continued almost non-stop through 1997 did as much to build NASCAR’s fan, media and TV following as any other development.
But given the recent close Chase among three drivers and the highly competitive 2010 season, where new marks were established for lead changes and race leaders, why mess with a Chase format that is already working well for NASCAR? The only thing missing is more incentive to win races.
Jonathan Ingram has been writing full-time about the world’s major motor racing series and events since 1983 for newspapers, magazines and web sites. Jonathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.