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.
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.’
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