Frontstretch Staff · Thursday February 13, 2014
New playoff system. New qualifying procedure. New attitude. As NASCAR heads towards Daytona in 2014, all around the sport are focused on the positive, looking for the perfect season to recapture a nation currently preoccupied with other sports, along with the Olympics in Sochi.
Can they do it? As Speedweeks dawn, both NASCAR’s Sprint Unlimited and the 56th Daytona 500 usher in a long list of questions along with them, the answers to which could define the sport for not just this year but the next NASCAR television contract. That means it’s time to get the blood pumping and start 2014 analysis, bringing Frontstretch back to your list of daily internet favorites. This week, we’ll get you thinking each day on one of five big questions facing stock car racing; as we try and find the answers, staff members you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and a little sense of humor.
Today’s Season Preview Topic: NASCAR made changes to the Chase format that emphasize winning races in both the “regular season” and the ten-race playoff. Will these new rules make the championship run more exciting, bringing new blood into the championship arena, or did NASCAR make a hail Mary desperation play that will ultimately fall short with race fans?
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: As I mentioned in a column, a few weeks ago my main concerns with the new playoff format revolve around the regular season. Whether fans like it or not, a focus on winning — along with a series of eliminations — should heighten both interest and aggression during the ten-race playoff. The whole goal of the changes was to ensure second place would, indeed, be the first loser and you’re going to see more risk-taking. No, it’s not just fuel mileage or crew chief decisions that keep fan interest for oh, about 15 seconds. I’m talking the type that used to define the last laps of a Bristol “bump-and-run” or Dale Earnhardt, Sr. somehow making it four-abreast at Talladega back in NASCAR’s old days — and still making it work.
The key to how successful the system becomes is how well NASCAR has it policed. Richmond, 2013 was bad enough; can you imagine Homestead with a Final Four compiled of one driver each from Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and Roush Fenway? The amount of “team orders” and circumventing rules, with millions on the line could border on the extreme. NASCAR officials have to be vigilant, on high alert that any such shenanigans down the stretch get snuffed out before becoming public knowledge. One national controversy for the sport, resulting in a CEO-ordered decision to put a driver in the playoffs crippled credibility. A second? That could destroy it for good.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the revamped format for the Chase is an example of such panicked thinking. That said, I believe the new “winner-take-all” approach to the Sprint Cup championship will make for decent racing aimed at more casual fans. The elimination stages will keep the late-season focus on a handful of drivers and teams, which means that what goes on in the first 26 events will be little more than window dressing. After all, it’s easier to watch the exploits of a few choice teams than it is to follow months of races that tend to – after a couple of months – blend into a blur of scattered results. This has been the basic tenor of the Chase since it began, but now “fair-weather” fans and regional media types will be more apt to stay engaged as specific drivers/teams are dropped from contention and the championship field is reduced heading into Homestead. For the die-hards of NASCAR Nation, however, the new format will simply be more of the same old story.
Tony Lumbis, Marketing Manager: Without a doubt, it is going to generate interest and bring in new fans. Casual race fans or those that follow other sports but not racing should hear a lot more NASCAR coverage this Fall, and I am certain it will draw in some new blood. However, much like what happened with the original Chase among other sweeping changes made early last decade, the new format is also going to alienate some of the die-hard fans. Many who miss the days of one entire season or reluctantly accepted the Chase are going to see this adjustment as just one more gimmick that will put them over the edge.
After the shine wore off a bit in the early 2000s, many of those “new” fans eventually lost interest while the “veterans” were long gone, with no sign of coming back. The question here will be, will enough of the new generation of “elimination era” fans stick around long enough to keep an established fan base… or will NASCAR end up with even more empty seats and stagnant ratings five years from now?
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: Will the new format make the championship more exciting? Sure, especially if you’re into wrecking. Given that NASCAR paired the announcement of the new format with basically green-lighting drivers taking each other out, some drivers will be very, um, aggressive during some races. And there is often a fine line between aggressive and dirty.
It could potentially bring a few new players into the arena, especially those who aren’t afraid to be the aggressor in the right situation. But no matter who wins, this Chase has the potential to make the title feel cheaper to race fans, because it was ultimately decided by the champion’s finish in one race. Fans who already feel that a Chase title is less worthy than a full-season one aren’t going to put a champion under this format on the same level as one who won under a season-long system. Plus, it’s meant to force drivers to race for wins, but would have produced a winless champion in 2013, so it seems like more hype than substance to me.
NASCAR is grasping at straws to bring in new fans; perhaps what they should have done was try to assure that the longtime fans would bring in the next generation as they had for decades. Yes, fans did want NASCAR to reward winning more, but what was missed by the sanctioning body was that most of them wanted that to be part of a season-long title race without a Chase included. In virtually every poll conducted by just about anyone in the last ten years, fans have been overwhelmingly against a Chase system of determining the champion. This new format doesn’t fix that; in the eyes of many fans, it makes it even worse.
Summer Bedgood, Senior Editor: I don’t think there is any doubt that this change will make the championship more exciting. Can you really get any more exciting than four evenly matched drivers battling it out for the season title? I don’t think you can!
In terms of turning fans away, the only fans who are turning away are the ones who are closed-minded and resistant to change. I think that’s sad considering that there is absolutely an opportunity here to grow the sport. At the very least, it gives us more reason to tune in because suddenly winning is the most important thing. Little teams now have a chance at making the Chase. Teams now have incentive to gamble at the end of races in terms of strategy. Drivers now have incentive to “go for it” even when it seems hopeless. Why would any passionate fan of NASCAR turn away from that? There’s no reason to!
I understand being skeptical, but I wish each and every fan would enter the season with an open mind. If there is one thing that NASCAR has proven over the last few years, it is that they are willing to change things when it is clear they aren’t working.
Mike Neff, Senior Writer/Short Track Coordinator: This format feels like yet another effort to try and grab the fans in the 18-34 age demographic that the sport so desperately covets but cannot seem to garner. The changes are going to bring excitement to the title chase because we’ll have four Richmond moments and then the final title race. It still doesn’t truly crown a season-long champion, but it certainly brings in some excitement to more races.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Editor: When the new format was originally presented, I was adamantly against it. Like Garth Algar of Wayne’s World once famously said, “We fear change…” But after having a few weeks to digest and repair the holes in the drywall, it does have some redeeming value. While I don’t believe being 16th in points, in any way, shape or form smacks of Championship-caliber, we are in a time where sponsors need something to help entice them to remain involved in the sport. If that means a team that may otherwise see their support vanish for not making The Chase (see UPS and the long-since mothballed No. 6 Roush-Fenway Ford) has a chance to highlight their sponsor on the big stage, then so be it. The elimination of the bottom four drivers every three races is fine, too since everybody loves brackets. If you’re not in the top five after three races, even though the points get reset you’re pretty much smoked anyway.
The issue I have with the “new Chase” is the notion it puts an emphasis on winning. It does not. If anything, it favors one of the top teams who have won “a” race to start the in-season testing early to prepare for The Chase even earlier than usual. The teams that are in scramble mode and those traditionally outside of the Top 10 in points are already trying to score a win, anyway. They pretty much do go for it every week, or try some weird pit strategy; there’s really not much difference between 17th and 25th place, especially with the one-point-per-position breakdown. If a premium is to be put on winning, then award a 15-20 point bonus for wins.
I wouldn’t call it a Hail Mary play, either, because it isn’t as if time has run out on NASCAR. It’s more like a 1st and 10 from the 25-yard line, with 30 seconds left, taking a couple of shots in the end zone before needing a field goal. Did I mention I hate sports analogies? With NBC taking over in 2015, I don’t think they’re looking to inherit somebody’s bad idea. After all, it was NBC who played host to the inaugural Chase – and best one to date – back in 2004. While I have never been a big proponent of NASCAR’s playoff, I actually do support trying to change and tweak it. If it continues to prove that people really aren’t that into it, maybe we’ll go back to having a season-long points championship again– as we should.
Matt Stallknecht, Assistant Editor: Let me start off by saying that I am quite certain that the new playoff system will deliver more excitement than past iterations of the Chase have. I know that there is still quite a bit of divergent opinion on this, but in my view, the new system emphasizes winning to such an extreme level that each race, regular season or otherwise, will likely be quite a bit more exciting due to the relative elimination of the concept of points racing. Winning is all that matters now. That being said, I have some reservations about the fairness of the “winner-take-all” rule, but when it comes right down to it, each team is playing under the same rules, and they will have to adjust their strategies accordingly if they want to win. Ultimately, we have a big risk/reward play. If the system delivers on the excitement, it could end up being a huge boon for the sport in terms of making the sport more friendly to a stick-‘n-ball audience — something that the sport desperately has needed to do. However, if any problems arise (think Richmond 2013) in the first year of this new playoff format, it could be a death knell. Either way, I applaud NASCAR for taking a risk that could ultimately pay off big in the end.
Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: At the risk of ripping open the carcass of this deceased equine, I once again ask the question: How stupid do you have to be to muck up the concept of a race? The Chase was unnecessary, the first changes were unnecessary and ad infinitum on down the line! All that was necessary was to keep the old points system and make a WIN worth, say, 100 or 150 more points than second place! What racer wouldn’t race for that!? This latest idea/change is straight from the mind of an idiot and is indeed a desperate Hail Mary, especially the “elimination” part! That part of the championship already happened mathematically, no matter what format!! Fans don’t want gimmicks! Fans want racing!
Beth Lunkenheimer, Managing Editor: When the first rumblings about this elimination system came out, I hated the idea of a single race determining the champion, and to a point that’s still the case. However, those four drivers still competing for the championship in the final race of the year will have earned their way to that spot. It’s not like NASCAR is randomly throwing four drivers into a championship battle. One of my biggest hopes with this system is that each and every race will see more drivers taking risks and racing for that win rather than a “good points day.”
S.D. Grady, Senior Writer: There’s always a double-edged sword to these points-tinkering attempts. Yes, every driver will be running for a win, but after Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson have won in the first five races of the season, is there a reason for them to drive hard until the Chase begins? Not necessarily, and that may result in even more teams playing it safe once they’ve landed the coveted “Chase spot.” For the Chase itself, the use of formal eliminations is nothing more than a media tool. The field casts off the teams who are not really in it for the Cup all by itself. These changes will give the broadcast booth something new to talk about, but I’m not on the edge of my seat waiting for their opinions. Overall, give the tweaks a “meh.” NASCAR needs to prove this adjustment was worthwhile before I’m all in.
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: I love the fact that they made this change. It now guarantees that the final race of the season will mean something, just like all other sports’ final championship events have meaning. It may or may not be a blowout in the end, but at least there will be good reason to watch that final race. I also love the emphasis on winning, even though you don’t necessarily have to win to take the title. It will force teams to think differently in terms of strategy and may also cause drivers to be more aggressive at times… and that’s a good thing. I’ve heard the term “points racing” so many times over the years, it’s nauseating. The main goal for any professional sporting event is to win, so it’s great to see that winning is going to matter even more now.
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