Short of moving the Southern 500 to Fontana, there’s perhaps been nothing more maligned during Brian France’s reign at the top of stock car racing than the Chase.
Back in 2004, when that faithful move was made to put the Southern 500 on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the intent was clear; a more modern facility in a larger TV market would result in bigger money for all involved. And the result? One of NASCAR’s crown jewels died, Fontana found itself back to one Cup race within seven seasons, and the Auto Club Speedway had to cut its race length down to 400 miles as the few fans that actually showed up to the track screamed “Mercy” at the top of their lungs.
Funny…this whole Chase thing is working just as well as did replacing the Southern 500 with the Pop Secret 500 and various other incarnations, depending on who was stupid enough to sponsor a Fontana race. After all, the Chase was created because back in 2003, a Roush Racing driver by the name of Matt Kenseth won only one race all year at Las Vegas. But by scoring more top-10 finishes than anyone else, Kenseth weathered a string of disappointing results late in the season at Talladega and Kansas and scored the championship, even as a red-hot Ryan Newman won 11 poles, eight races and won the Driver of the Year crown.
That just didn’t sit well with Sir Brian. Kenseth clinched the title a whole race early, robbing stock car racing of a playoff moment—of a four-wide, last lap session of trading paint that would crown a champion. So 30 years of precedent out the window, and a playoff structure that would work about as well as having NFL playoff teams play non-playoff teams starting at week 12 was put in place.
Fast forward to 2011, and the Chase is about to do just what it was created to prevent; crown a one-win champion that rides consistency en route to the crown. Because now, with the five-time champion eliminated in every means but mathematics from this year’s hunt, the leader is now a Roush Fenway Racing driver. A driver who has only won one race…at Las Vegas…this season and who’s leading the points not on the strength of wins, but a series-leading 22 top-10 finishes. And go figure, it’s a driver in Carl Edwards who knows just how it feels to lead the series in wins but still lose the crown (see 2008).
This isn’t rocket science. It doesn’t matter if the points get reset, or if a new points system gets put in place. Fact is, the old point system didn’t reward winning enough to create an incentive for drivers to race like Ryan Newman did in 2003, or Edwards did in 2008, to go for the win—top 10 be damned. And while the new points system certainly managed to up the penalty for a bad finish, the proportion of points to be won for finishing first instead of second went down, not up.
A system meant to ensure that winning meant more, and that the Matt Kenseths of the world didn’t stink up the show has done just that. Stink up the show, mind you, not ensure that winning actually means more than a beer shower before going home.
It was the Chase, or rather the build-up to it, that effectively castrated the Bristol night race. And it doesn’t even matter the track configuration. Who can forget the 2004 yawner on the old surface that featured a 200+ lap green flag run? Or the recent string of underwhelming events under the lights? Sure, the Carl Edwards / Kyle Busch tussle of 2008 was one for the ages, but the attendance says it all…ever since the Chase, tickets for the Bristol night race are available and advertised on TV. The guys that have to race their way in are being cautious, and the ones out of the running fear being the guy that knocks someone out of the playoffs. Not the best ingredients for compelling short-track racing.
It is the Chase that has made the intermediate oval the end-all, be-all determinant of just who can win a Cup championship. Sure, before this “playoff” gimmick those venues already accounted for 13 of 36 races on the schedule (36.1%). But now, with only the final 10 events actually counting, that number’s up to 50%. Find a multitude of fans happy about that mess.
Now, fortunately for NASCAR, should Edwards end up winning the title, Kenseth-style, it’ll be a fan favorite. It’ll be someone other than Jimmie Johnson! And it will be something to have men named France, Helton and Pemberton exclaiming that NASCAR’s 2011 champion is someone the sport should be proud to have wearing its crown.
Maybe all of that talk will be enough to mask the lack of emphasis on winning and the fact that the Chase is failing to prevent the circumstance it was created to stop. That playoffs don’t work in a 43 car field where everyone competes against each other every weekend.
Then again, why expect anything else in this era?
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