Amy Henderson · Monday January 20, 2014
Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column you just might be seeing more of in 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and puts together a list of five people, places, things, and ideas surrounding a piece of the sport. In the debut column, Amy takes a look at some rumored changes to the championship format for 2014. Those include a 16-driver Chase field, made up exclusively of race winners plus a bracket-style elimination during the Chase which would culminate in a winner-take-all, two-driver shootout for the Cup title in the Homestead season finale.
Here are five reasons why she says these changes would hurt, not help, the sport.
1. Fans want fewer gimmicks, not more.
When NASCAR unveiled the original Chase system for the 2004 season, many race fans were not enamored. And when that first Chase concluded, a good number were even less enamored after Kurt Busch, who would have finished a fairly distant fourth under the previous format, won the title. The Chase, many fans agreed, was a gimmick. Some said it was to boost late-season ratings and compete with the NFL for viewers on Sundays. Others said it was an attempt to make racing more exciting, created in a era where the cars had become so aerodynamically dependent that passing was at a premium. Still others said it was in response to Matt Kenseth’s dominance in 2003, where he led the series points by 354 with ten races to go (though he eventually won by a much smaller margin of only 90).
Whatever the reason, though, many fans were unhappy with the Chase… and the majority still haven’t warmed up to it. When NASCAR’s official website ran a fan poll a year or so ago, asking fans their opinion on the system, almost 80% said they don’t like the Chase system and wanted NASCAR to scrap it. That’s a pretty clear-cut majority, even for a non-scientific poll.
Observers need look no further than the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series to see for themselves that a season-long championship battle can be a thriller. The NNS title was decided in the closing laps of the final race of the year; that happened with no eliminations, no Chase, no gimmicks at all. The CWTS title was won in a landslide, by comparison but there was also little complaining about that from fans. Most largely acknowledged that Matt Crafton deserved to win in a landslide after his stellar season. Fans weren’t lamenting the lack of a points reset to close up the field in those series, nor were they calling for a Chase-style format. In general, when a Chase is suggested for those series, fans balk, because they simply don’t want it.
So, if most of NASCAR Nation would like to get rid of the Chase, getting back to a season-long championship, it makes little sense to try and increase their interest by rearranging the whole thing to add more fixes and false excitement. A winner-take all at Homestead might sound exciting, but is it really a sound decision when the champion crowned could potentially be a driver who would have finished outside the top ten, or even the top 15 in points even under the current Chase system? The answer to that is probably obvious to most race fans.
2. It cheapens the championship.
As noted above, the proposed new system could set up a scenario in which a driver far down in actual points earned could potentially win the title. Had the 2013 Chase used the qualifications for the Chase being mulled over (the top 16 race winners), David Ragan would have made the Chase. Ragan finished 28th in Cup points in 2013, not even the best among his small-team brethren. And with a head-to-head format in the Chase rather than accumulated points, it’s possible a driver like Ragan could get lucky and win the title. Sure, fans love an underdog, and Ragan’s win was one of the best feel-good stories of 2013. But should a driver outside the top 20 in points really have a chance to win the season championship?
Many fans were upset in 2004, when Busch won what many perceived to be Jeff Gordon’s rightful title after Gordon accumulated the most points overall. The same thing happened in 2007 (Jimmie Johnson won the Chase title while Gordon would have won under the previous format), 2008 (Johnson – Chase, Carl Edwards – old format), 2010 (Johnson – Chase, Kevin Harvick – old format), and 2011 (Tony Stewart – Chase, Edwards – old format). And each time that happens, there was fan outcry that the “real” champion didn’t win. There is also a feeling amongst many fans that should Jimmie Johnson win seven titles, they won’t mean as much as those of Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt, who didn’t have the Chase format for any of their seven championships.
So how would it go over with fans if the champion would have finished 20th in points, even under the current Chase system? Probably not well. Even if you take into account that everyone probably would have raced differently if the Chase were not in place, many fans feel the title is already cheapened. Opening it up further to the possibility of a team that’s truly not championship-caliber is only going to make the perception that the title is meaningless more pronounced.
3. This is not the NFL.
Elimination-style playoff formats work in other sports because there are two teams playing at a time. But in NASCAR, there are 43 teams for every race who, even if not a championship factor, influence their outcome.
That means a title could be completely out of a team’s hands. While it’s possible under any format to get caught in someone else’s problems, finishing poorly as a result, in a winner-take-all elimination, a team could lose an otherwise deserved title because of someone else’s mistake. That’s not what sports should be about. If a football team makes too many mistakes, they’ll lose a game, and the same is true in racing. But imagine if a team lost the Super Bowl because their quarterback got taken out of the game by a player from a team that wasn’t even playing for the title, because there were two games going on on the same field at the same time. There would be complete outrage from football fans, and rightfully so.
As absurd as that scenario sounds, it makes using a playoff format that works in other sports equally absurd in NASCAR, where there are 43 teams on the track each week, all running their own race toward their own goals. The reason that a season-long championship worked in NASCAR for more than 50 years is because of the unpredictability factor. The best teams will, over an entire season, overcome the obstacles and contend for a title despite the risks. The rest simply won’t, and that’s not a bad thing.
If NASCAR wants to have long-term success among the other major sports in America, the sanctioning body needs to recognize that racing is not comparable to a stick-and-ball sport, and that’s why many fans choose it to begin with. Trying to contend for viewers with the NFL by trying to be more like the NFL isn’t going to win anyone over. Why would fans of other sports stop watching those in favor of a sport that has tried to make itself the same? Answer: they won’t. They’ll choose the sport that most appeals to them on its own merits. And a contrived, overhyped championship season that puts forth an almost satirical imitation of another sport entirely isn’t going to have merit with current fans or the ones NASCAR is trying to lure from other sports.
4. It’s not going to improve the racing from week to week.
Sure, it might make a few races more interesting here and there, but by and large, teams aren’t going to change their approach to an entire 500-mile event. They know that in order to win, they must first make it to the end of the race, and they aren’t going to take chances that might risk that halfway through.
The real problem with individual races is twofold, and it has little to do with the championship format at all. First, it’s the race cars themselves—they’re too fast and too aerodynamically dependent as a result that they don’t handle well when they’re actually racing side-by-side. If a driver has the choice between fighting his racecar for a position 150 miles into a 500-mile event, possibly crashing in the process, or riding it out for a while, well… sometimes he’s going to choose to ride it out. Even at the end of a race, with points on the line, a driver isn’t going to risk crashing and finishing in the bottom 10 when he can finish with a top 5, but not a win. A new format won’t change that.
The other problem is some fans’ perception that in order to be an exciting race, there has to be door-to-door racing for the lead on every lap and a margin of victory of less than a car length. While it would great to have a battle like Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch waged in the 2003 Southern 500, every week it’s not a realistic expectation. Sometimes, a driver just has a dominant day. Sometimes, it’s a fuel mileage race. Sometimes, a driver’s car just isn’t good enough to make that late-race run. And that’s all OK. It’s been part of the game since racing began, and casual observers need to understand how this sport works. If it can be improved without manipulating the actual process, such as by making cars easier to pass with or by giving a few more points to race winners, that’s great. What’s not a good idea is trying to manipulate the fundamental basis of the sport; that’s what unfolds naturally on the racetrack through strategy and skill.
A new title format also can’t magically transform what happens on the racetrack every week because there are too many nuances to the sport, too many variables, too much at stake for teams. Trying to manipulate races comes across as gimmickry; that isn’t what race fans want to see.
5. It’s not going to boost ratings long-term, either.
Sure, more people might tune in to an elimination race for the season finale, but overall, ratings are probably a pretty accurate reflection of what the sport’s fan base is right now. They’re down from the early 2000s because the fad ended. The people who tuned in when the sport was the big trend at the water cooler have, for the most part, left and moved on to the next trend. Some new, true fans were created during the boom, but others were lost as the sport began to change and cater to a newer breed of race fan – the video game generation of a thrill a minute. With the coolness worn off, what’s left is a fan base whose loyalty is still a bit tenuous. Many diehards, who would plan weekends around races have become, by their own admission, casual fans who might tune in if there’s nothing better on.
The rumored changes aren’t going to lure NFL diehards from their games any more than an NFL game is going to lure a hardcore race fan away from a race. But casual fans are not the same as the fanatics, and they’re going to choose based on what’s in front of them on a given day. Are they going to choose the sport that has exciting, unforced action, or the one that’s been shaped and trimmed and squeezed in an attempt to make it fit a mold it was never meant to fit? They might tune in to see the circus at first, but if there’s no substance, they aren’t going to stay. And it’s substance that this proposed format is lacking. It feels contrived because it is contrived, even more so than the original Chase… and in the end, people will see through that, making it a hard sell to both devoted and casual fans.
Connect with Amy!
Contact Amy Henderson
©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!