Amy Henderson · Friday August 23, 2013
The sky is falling.
OK, so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but for many fans (and perhaps some in the front office in Daytona), the Chase field is a source of consternation this year with just three races to go until the 12 drivers who will vie for this year’s title are set in stone. And with just three weeks to find some luck, to hope someone else finds an unlucky streak, or to have the luck go completely South, a lot of teams—and their fans—are wondering where they’ll fall in the overall picture.
Sixth-place Matt Kenseth has just 29 points over tenth place. He’s probably safe—he’d have to lose more than ten places a race to five others and someone who already has a win or more would have to win the next three races to lock him out, but from seventh on back, it’s a free-for-all for spots. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is 20 points ahead of eleventh place…enough that an early crash could put him in real jeopardy, because he doesn’t have a win to fall back on. Defending champ Brad Keselowski is also hanging on by a thread and can’t afford to be caught in someone else’s trouble.
Wait, the perennial Most Popular driver and the defending champ could miss the whole show this year? Yes, and so could some other drivers whose popularity factor is near the top. Smoke’s done for the year after an injury. Jeff Gordon needs a miracle. Denny Hamlin isn’t even close after missing several races earlier after fracturing a vertebra. Even Kasey Kahne could find himself outside the Chase if his luck turns on him—and it has, more than once, this year.
This has to be NASCAR’s worst nightmare. Popular drivers have missed the Chase before (and certainly will in the future), but never have so many of the top t-shirt sellers been on the edge so close to Chase time. The sanctioning body tried to remedy the situation when it added two spots to what was a ten-driver field, and that helped, though it didn’t keep all the biggest names in the game: Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards missed it last year. Kahne didn’t make the 2011 field. That’s just how it goes; this will be the tenth Chase and only Jimmie Johnson will have been in all of them.
Come to think of it, Johnson may be part of what’s making NASCAR groan this year—he’s seemingly on cruise control in the points lead, while behind him, it’s chaos around those final spots.
But does it really hurt the sport overall if certain drivers don’t make the Chase? Or, for that matter, can one driver winning the title (after all, more than 40 do not win it in any given year) really be bad in the long run?
That’s complicated. In the short term, it’s probably not great. There are those fans who leave the track if their favorite driver drops out of the race early, so it’s likely they’ll tune out if their guy misses the title show. It seems less likely that people will stop watching because they don’t like the guy who’s winning if their guys is in it, because most loyal fans still want to cheer for their driver to get the best possible finish. But if it’s a runaway by someone? That could spell ratings trouble…this year.
In the bigger picture, even the most popular or the most reviled driver simply doesn’t have the impact that many people seem to think they do. After all, drivers have come and gone in the sport for more than 60 years and the sport has survived. Allotting the power to make or break the entire sport to one driver is silly. Even the most loved drivers have seen their last wins come and go, have retired from the sport or passed on, and moved from the current results and standings to the history books…and fans were able to find someone else to root for. Even the most reviled drivers saw their dominance fade eventually, and the sport didn’t suddenly gain thousands of fans because they were gone.
So, in the much more condensed focus of this year, any hiccups over who made the Chase will be temporary. If someone fans don’t like wins? If they’re fans of the sport, they’ll get over it and hope someone beats him next year.
In fact, looking at the Chase strictly as a vehicle for keeping popular drivers in contention, more fans should be interested in how it goes down, because before the format came to be, it was entirely possible for a driver not in the top 5 in points to have no hope of a title with ten races to go. Now, they do. From a pure racing fan’s standpoint, that’s not how it’s supposed to work, but for many more casual fans or for those who only watch for one specific driver, it should be a boon, because it erases any points gap the leaders have built.
Reality check on a driver missing the Chase: it’s highly unlikely that that driver would have had a snowball’s chance in Hades of winning a title anyway.
What they might have done is crack the top ten and earned a spot on stage for the banquet, and that was incentive for their fans to keep cheering. So while the Chase might keep some fans tuned in because of the points reset, it does risk the alienation of fans whose favorites didn’t make the cut. Not only will they not see their man on the stage in Las Vegas (if they can stomach the “entertainment” waiting for his appearance, but that’s another column for another day), but unless he dominates a race in the final ten, they probably won’t see him at all, because once the Chase starts, the TV broadcasters will virtually forget he exists.
And therein lies the real problem. It’s not that a driver missed the Chase. Fans can, for the most part, deal with that. What will keep them flipping the channel to football is knowing that their favorite probably won’t get more than a passing mention. In the end, that’s far more detrimental than simply missing the Chase, especially when coupled with the fact that if a Chase driver is running 27 laps down in 38th, he’ll still get more coverage than the non-Chaser running fifth. That has to be tiring for fans.
Bottom line, though, who makes the Chase and who doesn’t isn’t going to have a lasting impact on NASCAR as a whole. Even a year later, you don’t hear fans complaining that their favorite missed the Chase last year—they’re focused on the here and now, and rightly so. That’s the beauty of sports: things change and the sport itself carries on.
If you’re focused only on instant gratification, a big name missing the Chase isn’t great, and several of them not getting in is cause for worry. But that doesn’t mean NASCAR needs to make a drastic change to the format (though many fans would argue that they should get rid of it altogether, and it can certainly be argued that the Chase itself has hurt the sport overall in the last ten seasons) to make sure they get in next year. All that does is cheapen the accomplishment.
But for the sport as a whole, drivers have won and lost, come and gone for decades and the sport has survived. No matter who gets in and no matter who wins this year, things will be different a year from now, five years from now, a decade from now. That’s how it has always been, and it’s not going to change because of one driver.
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