The Frontstretch: Racing To The Point: Ugliness Of Playoff Format Comes To Light by Brett Poirier -- Tuesday September 17, 2013

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Racing To The Point: Ugliness Of Playoff Format Comes To Light

Brett Poirier · Tuesday September 17, 2013


It’s crazy to think that this is the 10th year of NASCAR’s playoff format to decide a champion, the Chase for the Sprint Cup. For fans that were hoping the Chase was only going to be a fad like bell-bottom jeans, Pokémon cards and pet rocks, it isn’t.

The Chase is here to stay.

If this Chase pic looks odd, that’s because it is. Only in NASCAR is it possibly to foul up the playoff berths.

So is all the ugliness that comes with it.

Remember how opposed the fan base was to the Chase idea when it was originally presented in 2003? Nobody likes change. Opponents of the Chase argued that the most-deserving driver could easily not be crowned champion in a 10-race playoff, that drivers outside of the playoffs would simply become nothing more than pawns on a chessboard once the Chase started and that a playoff format wasn’t going to garner any more interest than the traditional format.

Well, 10 years later…check, check and check. The last 10 days have given us all the proof we ever needed that the Chase is a flawed system.

At Richmond, we saw desperation at its finest as a pair of organizations, Penske Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, manipulated the outcome of the race and turned the post-race celebration into something resembling a funeral procession.

Then there were the numerous judgment calls by NASCAR. Martin Truex Jr. is out — even though he didn’t do anything — and Ryan Newman is in because they docked Truex Jr. an absurd amount of points (50). Once again I have to ask, how do you dock a team more points than they could earn on a race weekend?

Then we hear that Penske basically paid off Front Row Motorsports to move Joey Logano up a spot at Richmond. Penske is fined, but Logano stays in the Chase, somehow.

Then NASCAR decided to dramatically add a 13th-driver, Jeff Gordon, to a 12-driver playoff field. They could’ve just added Gordon when they added Newman, but that would make too much sense. Instead, they waited to hear the ruling in the court of public opinion, and then added Gordon.

Meanwhile, Truex and Dave Marcis are both out. I group those two together because they’ll probably get equal television time in the next nine races. NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France cited “extraordinary circumstances” and said that placing Gordon in the playoffs was helping to protect the integrity of the sport. Imagine NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell added a 13th team to the NFL playoffs because a ref blew a call. It would never happen.

How many teams will make the Chase next year? It’s a legitimate question now; it wouldn’t have been one a week ago. Extraordinary circumstances have a broad definition, and I doubt it’s the last time someone from NASCAR mentions it.

Here’s why. Telling everyone to race at 100 percent effort all the time isn’t solving the Chase problems. By the way, how do you measure whether or not someone is racing at 100 percent effort or not? David Gilliland was accused of running much slower lap times at the end of the Richmond race to let Logano in front, but how could the governing body ever prove that he wasn’t giving 100 percent of his effort? Is NASCAR going to invent the first effort-measuring meter, and place it in each driver’s arm before the race?

Friday’s new rules didn’t solve any of the issues that hang over the Chase like a black cloud. The main one is money. Millions in incentives and bonus money are on the line for teams who qualify.

According to USA Today, NASCAR and Sprint awarded an average of $1.7 million in season-ending bonus money to its Chase teams last season versus $643,500 to 13th-place Kyle Busch. That’s not accounting for the media exposure Chase teams receive versus non-Chase teams. Aric Almirola ran in the top 10 nearly all race on Sunday, was even up to fourth at one point ahead of Jimmie Johnson. You might not have realized it, though, because the ESPN cameras were allergic to the Petty blue on Almirola’s Ford or something. At this point, ESPN decided that Almirola is nothing more than a pawn, much like everyone else who didn’t qualify for the Chase. He’s going to have to lead every lap in a race to gain any attention from here on out.

With all this line, no wonder Roger Penske showed up with his posse on the spotter’s stand at Richmond, and no wonder MWR general manager Ty Norris did everything but run onto pit road and tackle crew members. Money makes people do crazy things. As long as the payoff remains similar to what it is today, stay tuned for more NASCAR press conferences following the last regular season race.

All this drama is for a format that isn’t working. The next two races — New Hampshire and Dover — received the lowest two television ratings in the 36-race schedule last season, according to the Sports Business Journal. Most Chase races are receiving less viewership than regular season races. This could only happen in NASCAR. Could you imagine any other major sport where less people watched the playoffs — the games that supposedly matter the most — than the regular season? You’re not going to find one.

For fans that have stuck by the sport, the last 10 days have been an embarrassment. Try explaining to a friend who doesn’t follow the sport how Gordon and Newman made the Chase and Truex didn’t. Try explaining how Clint Bowyer spun intentionally, Brian Vickers pitted for no reason and Gilliland slowed to a crawl.

I guarantee they look back at you like you are crazy.

Meanwhile, fans that abandoned the sport because of the format have shown that maybe they were right in doing so. Just about every worry fans had about the Chase in 2003 has come to fruition in 2013.

Those fans don’t have to be embarrassed. They can just point, laugh and say, ‘I told you so.’

Contact Brett Poirier

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Racing to the Point: NASCAR Has Its Own Heartbreak Kid
Beyond the Cockpit: Brittany Force, the Fastest Force
Voices from the Cheap Seats: Advertising for Dummies
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: Off Week-Richmond Edition
Couch Potato Tuesday: Picking The Best IndyCar On-Air Personalities


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09/17/2013 09:37 AM

Everything’s a nail when all you have is a hammer with which to bash the Chase.

Ratings are down in some of the early Chase races? Duh, but did you notice the NFL started last week? Name one thing that takes place on Sunday afternoons in the fall that doesn’t suffer because the NFL sucks the air out of everything else.

If it weren’t for the Chase, Richmond would have been just another race, one of 36… and there wouldn’t have been the coverage of who made it, who didn’t. Agree or not with the line that any publicity is good publicity, Nascar definitely got some attention this past week.

And while the Chase may have some issues, you gloss over the fact that without the Chase, there would likely be less interest in these races. Ooh, Jimmy Johnson with a full race points lead heading into the last ten races of the year. Yeah, that’s the ticket, I’ll drop everything else to watch a very unexciting race for the championship.

And finally, you blame the Chase for problems that would be the same Chase or no Chase. Viewership is down because there’s not enough carnage out there for the casual fan. They want to see crashes, they want to see fights, they want to see cars on the visible edge of losing control. Yes, these potential viewers don’t appreciate racing the way hardcore fans do, but there aren’t enough hardcore fans to justify coverage on the Ocho. If you want to boost viewership, you need the non-fan to tune in, and right now, Chase or no Chase, Nascar isn’t giving those viewers what those viewers want to watch.

But keep on bashing the Chase, I know it makes you feel good.

09/17/2013 09:41 AM

Excellent article.

There’s a reason why sports stations across the nation don’t talk Nascar. Not even the local sports stations in the south. It’s a joke, and the last week have only made it worse. Sports websites have absolutely SLAMMED Nascar and Brian France.

Nascar has officially crossed over into the Twilight Zone. I have friends and family, knowing that I’m a long time Nascar fan, laughing at me asking me questions that I can’t answer. Because there’s NO WAY to make sense of the current state of Nascar. Even my stepson, a big Gordon fan, can defend this stuff.

The current leadership of Nascar have done sigificant damage to what was once a legitamate sport. Now it’s a sham.

Bill B
09/17/2013 10:19 AM

“Just about every worry fans had about the Chase in 2003 has come to fruition in 2013.”

Could not agree more. I remember many of us putting out scenarios of why the chase would be problematic.

One question I have about the new “you are supposed to give 100% at all times” rule is how that shakes out at Daytona and Talladega. Is purposely dropping to the back and running in a “mini” pack 5 second behind the main pack still going to be allowed?

09/17/2013 10:50 AM

The funny thing is the NFL was still the 800 lbs gorilla back when NSACAR was climbing in attendance, viewership, ratings, etc. The Sunday dates have always conflicted with the NFL since the inception of NASCAR being on TV for every race.
The big issue is the money grab by the ISC and France family. Nothing wrong with earning a living and growing but there is a point where growth will stop.
Look back at the stats and when did NASCAR really start going downhill? When they started catering to the new 10-15% of fans and lost sight of the core group of fans that made the sport popular in the first place.
NASCAR tried to act like regular ball sports which by its very nature is a conflict. Too many rules, too many inconsistent penalties, too inconsistent on enforcement of “rules”, lost sight of the main reason people watched for the racing. The championship was made bigger than the racing itself which caused all sorts of problems. This happened back in the early 90’s and has gotten worse. Look back at the televised races earlier in the year in the 80’s and there was barely a mention of the championship.
The fans are getting burnt out due to the over-coverage of the sport and the constant push of “commercials”.

09/17/2013 11:10 AM

Bill B.,

One of MANY great questions.

I’ll ask again: If the leader drops back to let a teammate pass for a point, then retakes the lead, is that manipulation or not racing hard 100% or both?

And should we red flag the race to figure it out, like five-time champion Jimmie Johnson has suggested?

09/17/2013 11:48 AM

“Just about every worry fans had about the Chase in 2003 has come to fruition in 2013.”

And yet, NASCAR’s CEO continues to think this format is the “best” for NASCAR. His infamous comment of “someone told you they don’t like the chase” when questioned about it at Homestead a year or so ago shows just how out of touch he is with the sport.

Since I’ve disliked this format since its inception but continue to watch, I guess that means I’m crazy. Of course, I also have to say that I watch a lot less racing than I did before.

I think Bill B’s question about racing at the RP tracks is a really good one. Any time you try and measure “effort” without having a quantitative method is never good.

I keep hoping the damn chase will just go away. As happy as was when they announced Gordon was in the chase on Friday, I’d have been ecstatic if the announcement had been – the chase has been suspended.

Tom, you say Richmond would have been just a race. The thing is – that is what NASCAR used to be — everybody raced every race as an individual event. It made going to a race FUN! That’s what I liked about it and if you had a bad race, well, heck, you just raced even harder next week. With the dumb chase format and the revised points system, it’s points racing all the time. Personally I find points racing much less interesting than the old way.

09/17/2013 12:38 PM

Chase or no Chase the NFL will suck up all the TV ratings on Sundays in Fall. I wish NASCAR would sit down with Sprint and the teams and have an honest conversation about the Chase. 10 years later and I don’t think it accomplished much, except ensuring the Title isn’t clinched before Homestead. I’d rather go back to a 36 race total format with a new points system that rewards winning a bunch more. Take that Chase money and put it back into the race purses with incentive programs that reward winning.

Bad Wolf
09/17/2013 12:42 PM

As Nelson Muntz would say while pointing at Nascar;

Haaa Haaa!

Kevin in SoCal
09/17/2013 01:03 PM

I agree with Tom.

And, fans whined when Gordon got screwed by Bowyer’s spin, but then NASCAR added Gordon to the Chase, and now fans are bashing NASCAR for screwing with the Chase? You cant have it both ways, people.

09/17/2013 03:26 PM

The fans who whined about Gordon and are bashing Nascar for screwing with the Chase are Gordon haters. Not hard to see that. Let anything benefit Gordon and they come out of the woodwork.

09/17/2013 04:15 PM

I have no horse in this race; I’m just one of those old fashioned fans who enjoy watching good racing, the kind we used to have in Nascar. Its become a joke, they are all running for position during the first twenty six races, not to win. The point system is a farce and so is the leadership. As a business professional, I am absolutely astounded at the ineptness of Brian France whose abject lack of knowledge seems to have permeated all of Nascar’s leadership. Keep watching those empty seats, there will soon be more of them.

09/17/2013 04:45 PM

By using the ‘chase’ to make the championship more important than the individual races, Nascar has screwed themselves. The races always conflicted with the NFL…now that’ s suddenly the reason for empty seats and low viewership? How about the fact that fans are limited to info on only 10, no, 12…oops….13 drivers over the final 10 races? How about the overkill hype about ‘the chase to the chase’, and then ‘the chase’? If I never hear that word again it will be too soon.

09/17/2013 04:49 PM

Again, I agree with JP 100%. And, why does one always say “The Chase” is here to stay. What unmovable force in this great big universe makes it so?

Bill B
09/17/2013 05:39 PM

“What unmovable force in this great big universe makes it so?”

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a “force” but it’s certainly an unmovable blob…. Brian France.

I agree with everyone about the chase. Points racing didn’t used to start until about this time of year and even then didn’t get into full swing until the last 6 races and usually only involved two or three drivers that were still in hunt. The rest of the field could go for win or wreck. Prior to those last 10 races there was no reason to fixate on points because too many things had to go a particular driver’s way to be there at the end (plus they didn’t give the other 9 guys points to even it up) so going for the win and the best finish was the best way to take care of the points. Now everyone points races the entire 36 races (except for the guys that missed the chase the last ten races who have nothing to lose).

09/17/2013 05:56 PM

I’m one of the I told you so crowd, and glad i am. The crazy part, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen a family member take a thriving business and run it into the ground. They get that position simply because they are born into it, not because they are the best person for the job. The one thing we can all agree on is that Brian France is an idiot. If you cut off his head he wouldn’t be any dumber and more sad is the case. RIP NA$CAR.

09/17/2013 07:48 PM

Jim is absolutely right. Not sure who it was that first put forth this observation, but it definitely rings true: The first generation creates the business; the second generation grows the business; and the third generation flushes the business down the toilet.

Sherri T
09/17/2013 09:07 PM

I think the time is ripe for a NASCAR replacement! There are plenty of non-ISC racetracks out there and the fans are ready for a legitimate group who runs a legitimate set of races and crowns a champion who wins for the whole year’s worth of racing. Why wait for NASCAR to fix what it’s @#$%-ed up. If they won’t listen to the fans – replace them! I’m sick of the mess. If they won’t listen and if France thinks he’s the be-all and end-all of racing. Prove him wrong!