The Frontstretch: Wild Card Doesn't Make Chase Exciting; It Makes it Worse by Amy Henderson -- Thursday August 11, 2011

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Wild Card Doesn't Make Chase Exciting; It Makes it Worse

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday August 11, 2011


With five races to go until the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set, most of the spots are all but guaranteed. Sure, there are a few that could change hands in the top 10 (Denny Hamlin could, for instance, oust Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Tony Stewart by beating the No. 88 or the No. 14 by an average of five positions per race), but for the most part, the heart of the field is set.

But wait, there’s more.

This year’s Chase will feature the top ten drivers in regular points as of Richmond (instead of the previous top 12) plus two drivers who will get in via the newly created “wild card” spots. To grab one of these two places, the driver must be in the top 20 in points. The drivers in positions 11-20 with the most wins will get the two Chase bids, with points position used as a tiebreaker. As of now, the spots would go to 18th-place driver Brad Keselowski with a pair of wins and 11th-place Denny Hamlin, whose single win is tied with Paul Menard and David Ragan, but is higher in the overall standings. NASCAR, and some media as well, would have you believe this is a great thing generating excitement and forcing drivers to go for wins instead of racing for a good points day.

The problem is, it’s not a great thing. It cheapens the championship even more than it’s already been cheapened by the Chase.

Brad Keselowski has had a fine sophomore season with two wins, but 18th in points is hardly a championship-caliber effort. Yet, five races from now, the No. 2 team may get a shot at just that.

The problem with the Chase is not that the championship turns out differently than it would under the old system. The fact is, you can’t speculate who “would” have won, because all the top teams would have approached the season differently, and that means that the outcome under the old system isn’t set in stone. The reason the Chase is a poor way of determining the champion is it gives teams that had virtually no chance of winning a clear shot at the title. It’s one thing to realize that the top three or four teams would have raced the regular season differently, but if a team is seventh, eighth, tenth in points? They aren’t playing the system, they’re that far behind for a reason: they simply aren’t championship caliber teams that year. And yet, the current system gives them back what would have been a nearly insurmountable deficit.

The wild card positions make it even worse. While many will say that the race for these positions are all in fun, that they aren’t really going to contend, there’s also the possibility that they could finish in the top spot. And I’m sorry, but an 18th-place team in August doesn’t deserve to be a championship team in November. In order to win the title without NASCAR’s help, 18th-place Brad Keselowski would have to beat points leader Carl Edwards by a dozen positions every race for the rest of the year. If Keselowski averaged a fifth place finish for the remainder of the year, Edwards would have to average a seventeenth place or worse. While it could happen mathematically, it’s not going to. And that’s just taking Edwards into account. It gets even more ridiculous when you add in Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch having to average sixteenth or worse at the same time. Eighth place Ryan Newman would have to finish 12th or worse every week, and on down the line.

Make no mistake, Keselowski and his team have had a very good year. But a championship year? Not even close, and they shouldn’t be in the position to win one. The same goes for Hamlin, Menard, and Ragan. Solid season, not a title season. Not when even drivers within the top ten don’t have much of a case for being champions. Tenth-place Dale Earnhardt, Jr., would have to beat Edwards, Johnson, and Busch by six spots a race as well as overcoming six other drivers. Sixth-place Matt Kenseth would have to beat all five drivers in front of him by at least two spots per race to have a chance, and even that’s a tough order.

The wild card spots do nothing positive for NASCAR. They make an already contrived championship even more so. There is nothing wrong with simply admitting it’s not your year and working on being better next year. In fact, teams like the No. 2 would probably already have an eye on 2012 if not for the wild card. It’s possible that focusing on the Chase will actually take away from their chances of being a legitimate contender next year.

NASCAR already has a system in place in which teams that don’t deserve championships can win one. The last thing they need to do is to bring in teams that deserve titles even less than some top ten teams. This isn’t football, where one game decides who moves on and who ultimately wins. It’s not basketball, baseball, or hockey where the title is decided in a series of contests between only two teams. It’s a sport that demands performance at the top of the pack every week for ten months. To tell the teams who have done that, “Good job, now we’re taking away what you guys earned so these guys can get back in it” is just absurd. Adding, “Oh yeah, these guys had a couple of wins, even though they weren’t consistent enough to get the job done, so we’re letting them in, too” is even worse.

There is a reason teams get into championship contention in points before the reset in Richmond: they earned it by being better than the other teams. If having a champion with multiple race wins is truly that important to a sport that did just fine with that possibility for fifty years, then tighten the Chase requirements to a top 10 in points and at least one win, and if only five drivers make the Chase, so be it. Better yet, give drivers a huge number of bonus points for a win and dump the Chase system altogether. But don’t make an already flawed system even worse by giving drivers who are barely in the top 20 in points the undeserved chance to take the title from drivers who have earned it all year long.

Sure, it might add a feel-good story for the fans, but warm fuzzies don’t win legitimate championships. Sure, it adds an element of suspense, but there could be plenty of suspense if there was no reset with the top three separated by just ten markers.

The Chase was contrived before. With the addition of the wild card, it’s contrived and cheap.

Contact Amy Henderson

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08/12/2011 06:45 AM

Most of the “media” members that support the Chase either work for NASCAR or ESPN, who broadcasts the Chase races. Of course they think it’s great…they want to keep their jobs.

Charlie Foxtrot
08/12/2011 06:51 AM

The amazing thing is that NASCAR continues to try and shove the Chase down everyone’s throat and keeps saying how great it is, no matter how far the ratings and attendance drop and how many fans utterly hate it.

Any other sport would have promptly dumped such an unpopular playoff system in the trash, never to be seen again. Not NASCAR. They still think they’ll somehow get people to like this turd.

Stephen HOOD
08/12/2011 07:09 AM

I can see where consistency across the entirety of a season is a legitimate way to choose a champion. At the same time, I think a good argument can be made that in a race, whether you are talking about a single race or a race for a championship, it is the team that crosses the finish line first at the end that wins. It really doesn’t matter if you led 399 of the 400 lap race, the one that leads the last lap is the winner.

So, for me, I like that the Chase format rewards improvement over the course of a season. In the old system, a driver could accumulate an insurmountable amount of points through the early part of a season (NW the past few seasons) and coast through the last 1/2 dozen races protecting a lead. In the current situation in Cup, the championship format seems to reward consistency as well as those teams that pull off some spectacular displays of tenacity. I like that a team that started out slow or had a few too many DnF’s in the early going, can catch back up with a long consistent run, or can break through with a couple of wins. In the current system the top five or six teams will still be in the hunt, and the other teams that fill out the remaining spots are given an opportunity to pull off an upset with a string of great runs in the last ten races.

I like the idea that a Brad Keselowski or a Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Tony Stewart could pull together a 10 race streak and win the big trophy at the end. History shows that that isn’t going to happen, but occasionally a wild card team wins the Superbowl, so it can be in NASCAR. I don’t think it cheapens the championship, but instead, makes the championship more difficult to attain. Maybe the Chase is contrived and has destroyed NASCAR, but I think the new points system fused together with the wildcard spots may have salvaged the Chase and given NASCAR the opportunity for the best season in years. No, it isn’t my granddady’s NASCAR, But, a Buick is no longer my grandaddy’s Buick. Have you seen a Buick lately? Those are fine looking cars.

If you want to fix NASCAR, fix the race car. I think the Chase is an innovation worth preserving, at least for a few more years.

Bill B
08/12/2011 07:19 AM

I hate the chase but I think adding the wildcards made the turd less putrid. It definitely makes winning very important for any team that has chase aspirations. As far as I’m concerned the guys that are 11th and 12th in the points have a snowballs chance in hell of winning it. Statistically about the same as the wild card guys. You are right Amy, those guys are that far back in the points for a reason – they haven’t been consistent.
If it were up to me we’d go back to the original championship model but if I had to stick with the chase format I’d make it the top 5 guys in points and 3 wildcards.

08/12/2011 07:42 AM

Members of the media keep wondering why Jimmy Johnson isn’t universally acknowledged by fans to be on of the greatest drivers of all time by winning 5 ‘title’ in a row. I say it’s because he won them all under the ‘chase’ format. I find it hard to be as impressed with someone who basically gets a ‘do over’ for the final 10 races points wise, than someone who has maintained that excellence without being given a ‘tight points race’ with 10 races left in the season. While I admire the team’s excellence, it’s like Kyle Busch’s ’100 wins’. A feat to be aplauded, but not exactly awe inspiring. Or necessarily legit.

08/12/2011 09:26 AM

Great Comment, While I am A Kyle Fan I do understand the difference in his 100 wins and Petty and Pearson’s.

I loved your comment about Jimmie’s 5 championship being like Kyle’s 100 wins. While both have won they are circumstances that question the legitmatimacy of thier numbers.

08/12/2011 09:50 AM

Like everyone else, I have an idea for how I’d determine the championship. But we’ve been hashing this out for 8 years, why bother?

Brian France says that there have been no complaints about the Chase so that’s all anyone needs to know. Here’s a novel idea, next time you redo the points/championship, sit all of the Hall Of Fame honorees down in a room and give them an evening to sort it out. Who knows better than them?

Don Mei
08/12/2011 11:11 AM

Brian’s Brainstorm for 2012; only allow drivers whose first or last names begin with the letter “E”. Makes as much sense as what we have now.

08/12/2011 11:12 AM

I find the chase format interesting. If a wild card driver somehow does win the championship then he must have earned it in the final 10 races. That would mean he outraced everyone in the chase. Too bad for 18, 48, 22, 99 ect. if they choke in the last 10 races. That just means they didn’t deserve to win. Stop worrying the cream win stay on top. There is a reason that a team is in 18th currently. Just because he has one lucky finish and one actual racing finish doesn’t mean this team can compete for 10 consecutive races.

08/12/2011 11:28 AM

The Chase gave us Kurt Busch a Title! Kurt Busch started the first chase 7th in points and due to some bad luck by some others he won the championship. So why would you think with a wild card turd of a race like Talladega in the mix, that a Wild Card cannot win the Chase? The Chase is horrible, it was King Brian’s great idea to compete with the NFL. We see how that is working out. I do like the new points system but let it run over an entire season and get rid of this stupid playoff format

08/12/2011 12:33 PM

I don’t understand the hate for playoffs – all major sports have a playoff. It keeps the public’s already fleeting attention span focused longer. Just because a team/player is a great regular season competitor, doesn’t necessrily prove their heart or their compete level until they have to prove it when it matters most. Baseball purists were up in arms about wildcards, now MLB is looking to add more. You can’t tell me Wildcard Weekend in the NFL is crap – it offers some of the best games all year. And this Wildcard chase almost guarantees that the 8-25 places in the standings are going to be absolutely racing balls-out for the rest of the “regular season” to get a couple of wins and snag a spot. The chase may be flawed, but the Wildcard is a great addition. I am no NASCAR appologist, BZF has absolutely damaged the overall product and in the process destroyed local racing and the entire feeder system, but this part is actually intriguing.

08/12/2011 12:39 PM

Amy>> I guess that is like just because you write stuff for Frontstretch, that doesn’t make you a journalist. And remember, all you are giving is your uneducated opinion.

08/12/2011 12:41 PM

Personally, these last 2 spots are just a side show created by Nascar to make things exciting during the summer months. While it is making it more exciting, it won’t change much come Chase time because those 2 drivers have a slim chance at being in contention anyway, so it doesn’t really bother me.

The part I hate more is not giving the points leader after Richmond any type of advantage. Instead they give the other Chase drivers free points (see Jimmie Johnson) and award them the championship because they are good for only 10 races.

The last few races before the Chase will be the most exciting ones of the year. Once the Chase starts it will be back to the points racing boredom that has been the staple of the Chase championships since its inception.

Kevin in SoCal
08/12/2011 12:52 PM

I agree with Tim. People like Amy complain that the Chase system rewards “stroking,” but the addition of these wild card spots forces teams to go all out and actually race if they want to make the Chase and win the Championship. Isnt that what you want? Or do you prefer to see Carl Edwards “stroking” and just running well enough to beat his competitors by 2 or 3 spots every week?

08/12/2011 01:48 PM

Kevin in SoCal-
First, if someone can run just well enough to beat his competitors by a couple of spots each week, I’d say that makes his team better than his competitors. Second (and more importantly), having been to a race where the championship had already been decided (Loudon 2001), I can say that racers show up and race whether or not points are on the line. Jeff Gordon didn’t show up with any less fire just because he’d already lifted the Cup, and Robby Gordon didn’t care any less about that race just because there weren’t championship implications. “Stroking” with a championship locked up under the old system doesn’t seem any more likely than “stroking” with a Chase spot locked up in the current system, at least. (It actually seems worse under the current system to me since there are no rewards for a driver higher in the standings once the Chase starts.)

That hate for playoffs is because there isn’t any need for them in this sport because every team competes against every other team. In baseball you need a playoff because the team with the best record might have been playing in an easier division. You can’t just say “the best record wins.” In this sport, there are no off-games. No “we’re playing a weak team, so let’s give our star player a rest.” No one-on-one races, no brackets, it’s every driver, every team, every race. And the very idea of somehow needing a playoff when you’ve already got a season-long one just doesn’t sit well with a lot of us.

08/12/2011 04:23 PM

Ramblin’- not to be adversarial just for the sake of it, but that accertation is crap. The closest thing to a season-long championship in major sports used to be baseball as their format only allowed the 4 division winners to play for the championship – the “dog days” of summer created next to no excitement and the ratings reflected that. Since MLB went to 6 divisions and 2 more wildcards, their are way more teams involved and most playoff matchups are not settled until the final days of the season. Fans have a huge stake in staying involved. And it must be working, as MLB is about to expand the playoffs yet again.

In racing, it’s all done on sponsorship. If the fans tune out, especially the periferal ones, then sponsors simply will not get involved. No sponsors = no racing. Additionally, given the ridiculous rulebook and the allowable level of tinkering leeway that a car builder has, the big-money teams that can test the most, have the most engineers and the best programmers for their simulations, are always going to have a big advantage, especially at the beginning of the season when new engines and setups are introduced to respond to the ever-changing rulebook. Contrary to popular opinion, the spec-racer COT that NASCAR now has makes it MUCH more difficult for new teams to compete as when you get to higher levels, it is the micro-adjustments that make winners, and those micro-things cost huge bucks. Back the rulebook off and allow some innovation and the newer and smaller teams could compete much easier with some out-of-the-box thinking. Further, if a team is way ahead, or at least set in their position, they have traditionally used the last several races as “test and tune” sessions for the next year, using experimental engine parts and funky setups, and caring nothing at all about going for a win. Not a very exciting way to get to the end of the season.

Last, take a look at the standings – the only thing that matters is top-10’s – top 5’s and wins mean almost nothing. The playoff, especially now with the wildcard, will allow for teams that started off behind and got their poop in a group part way through the season to actually get in the hunt. And to make that work, teams need to push for a win and not just settle for “another good points day”.

sylvia richardson
08/12/2011 07:36 PM


08/12/2011 08:16 PM

So Amy, I guess you don’t like The Chase. I guess we’re in the majority.

Jim Allan
08/12/2011 08:17 PM

No one is paying any attention. KING BRIAN wants it and he is always correct, therefore it is better. Nuff said.

Tom Dalfonzo
08/12/2011 10:01 PM

How hard can it be to base the title format entirely on winning races? The driver with the most wins wins it all. In the words of Al Davis: “Just Win, Baby”.

Matt L
08/13/2011 11:27 AM

I hate the chase, but adding the wild card has helped revitalize the importance of winning. This season would be very dull without it.

08/14/2011 06:22 PM

No wins, No Chase. Put that in the rule book.

Carl D.
08/15/2011 10:07 AM

Comparing the chase with wildcard spots to the chase without wildcard spots is like comparing the smell of a skunk with the smell of a dead skunk. You’re going to want to hold your nose regardless.

08/15/2011 05:26 PM

Any seasonal championship based on performance in individual contests is “contrived.”
This particular one in which a Keselowski or a Menard can still win the title after a decidedly un-championlike first half only keeps hope alive, a longshot at best perhaps, but a chance nonetheless.
But I guess these racers are the kind of people who, once they fall behind, just give up and lose their competitive spirit.
No matter how you slice it up, a seasonal championship is an arbitrary decision. Even a single event is an arbitraty decision (If the race was longer I could have passed the leader.)
So lay down the rules in advance and every competitor knows what it will take and may the best woMan win.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
Earnhardt Out For Charlotte and Kansas After Talldega Concussion
Piquet, Jr. Wins K&N East Opener

Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.