The Frontstretch: Why I Don't Hate The Chase -- And You Shouldn't, Either by Danny Peters -- Tuesday August 19, 2008

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Why I Don't Hate The Chase -- And You Shouldn't, Either

The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday August 19, 2008

 

Soccer’s English Premier League (EPL) runs from mid-August to mid-May. It’s a relentless 38-game, nine month slog with the 20 best teams in the land, in a country that lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes the beautiful game. Each team plays each other once at home and once on the road, with three points earned for each victory, one point for a draw (tie), and nothing for a defeat. With that easy scoring system, the league title is calculated just as simply: the team at the top of the pile — with the most points after 38 games — wins it all.

Now, there isn’t much English football fans agree on, but one of the most commonly accepted tenets is that, come the end of the season, the league table doesn’t lie. The team that finishes on the top of the pile deserves the accolade, even if they’ve spent the previous 37 games in second place or below. You may not like the way it happens (especially if your team leads all the way and loses it on the last day) but when the final whistle blows on the season the best team always, always wins.

Having watched this system of points all my life, I thought about how I’d feel if the EPL adopted a similar “Chase” format with teams being split off after, say, 28 of the 38 league games. My initial, instinctive reaction was utter horror — and I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone. I imagine this is probably how some of you felt when the Chase was first debuted back in 2004. Back home, the outcry from fans everywhere would reach legendary proportions, and they would kill the idea stone dead before it even began. Let me put it another way: there would be more of a chance Scott Riggs wins 10 straight races than there would be for a Chase format in English football. So, in short, I get the argument of the long-term fan. I see the point they make about the Chase format killing the integrity — allowing the “wrong” guy to win the championship and cheating the rightful points leader out of the crown. I understand why you might despise this “arbitrary” system… I just don’t necessarily agree.

For me, as a late convert to NASCAR, the only points system I’ve ever known is the Chase — so in many ways, I don’t have the benefit of perspective or comparison to the old style. By the time I arrived in the business, the Chase had been instituted and that was that. So the truth is, despite feeling almost guilty, when I read some of the critical articles about it I really have to disagree — for I quite like the Chase. Some might say that maybe I’m not a “real” devotee of the sport, that for running against the common accepted theme of the hardcore fans I’m an idiot who doesn’t understand it. Well, let me be clear here: I’m not saying I love the Chase or that it’s the best scoring innovation in the history of motorsports — nor am I saying it couldn’t get better. What I will say, though, is that it gets a worse rap than perhaps it deserves, and that many of the haters are being critical for the sake of being critical.

Here’s why:

The Chase is still 10 races
The Chase still makes up a 10-race stretch of the 36-race system — nearly 30 percent of the overall schedule. This is a large portion for the playoff: not some two or three race sprint where the big upset has a better chance of occurring. The fact is that the Chase, just like the old system, rewards consistency. Winning five races and finishing 43rd in the other five isn’t going to get it done, while finishing in the Top 10 each race might do it. So just like the old points system (as Matt Kenseth showed in 2003), the Chase ultimately rewards those drivers who make the fewest mistakes.

Another point I’d make here is that if you’re the best in the first 26 races, you should probably also be the best in the last 10. It’s enough of a sample size, and given that all the protagonists are aware of the system, this is even more the case. 10 races also gives you the chance to slip up and recover, a “mulligan” of sorts that keeps you in the running even if you hit some untimely bad luck. Let’s not forget, either, that before 2004 no driver has ever been outside the Top 10 with 10 races to go and come back to win the big prize. You might not like it — but in 10 races, an awful lot can happen that’s not just dependent on the outcome of one winner-take-all showdown.

It’s an equitable and relatively balanced schedule
Of the 10 scheduled races in the playoffs, eight are at tracks team will visit for a second time this season. Only Kansas and the final race in Miami are first-time events, so it does at least give the participants some comfort in terms of what to expect (and of course, any pertinent notes from the first time around.)

Secondly, the types of track that make up the Chase are relatively representative of the whole season. Of the 10 facilities, one is a short track (Martinsville), three are one-milers (Loudon, Phoenix, Dover) while five are 1.5-mile tracks (Atlanta, Texas, Miami, Kansas, and Lowe’s) with the final event being the plate race at Talladega. The upshot is that if you were good in the first 26, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be in the last 10. It’s not entirely fair (you’d probably have one less one-miler; but overall, it’s representative and balanced).

The Chase is not the first scoring system change, either
Since the first engines were gunned in Race One back in 1949, there have been eleven different scoring systems. While this doesn’t mean that a radical change like the Chase is automatically OK, it still shows that for all the questioning and carping about the playoffs, a points restructuring is not exactly a new invention in NASCAR.

Of course, the Chase was the first major alteration since the previous system was implemented in 1975 — but the fact remains that change in the way the points are calculated is not new. Don’t forget that back in the day, most systems cut off the points at 25th place; so again, the Chase is a massive evolution, but it’s not the first time (and surely won’t be the last) that the scoring system has been revamped.

It creates a whole new category of Chase hopefuls … a new benchmark in the sport

With the Chase cutoff coming post-Richmond, we’ve seen a whole slew of new driver categories pertaining to the Chase. You have the solid Chasers (the likes of Johnson, Kenseth, Gordon, etc.), the Chase aspirants (Bowyer, Hamlin, etc.), and the Chase Long Shots (a category David Ragan would squarely be in right now). Then, you have the Juan Pablo Montoya-style “Chase or Bust” types. In short, the possibility to get into the Chase (or get close) creates a different series of expectations and opportunities — not to mention a measuring stick year-on-year.

Some may consider this contrived or manufactured excitement. Tell that to the likes of David Ragan, for whom just making the Chase would represent a massive achievement — not to mention a sure sign to sponsors that the kid is for real and more than worth a punt.

Having a playoff system doesn’t make it like any other sport
There are those that say the Chase is good because NASCAR is now in line with other sports, and that this is a reason to have the it. I don’t believe that’s the case, per se, although I’m not denying that wasn’t the idea. But it’s also not that comparable to what exists already in other sports. It takes four playoff games to win it all in the NFL, and a minimum of 16 and a maximum of 28 games in the NBA and NHL, which has an 82-game regular season. In baseball, it’s much worse. After 162 regular season games over six long months, you can go three and out in Round One of the playoffs. It only takes a minimum of 11 and a maximum of 19 games to get it all done — creating percentages far lower than NASCAR’s 30 percent playoff schedule I mentioned earlier.

Yes, the Chase is a playoff system of sorts; but again, it’s not that comparable. Plus, I come back to an argument I’ve made more than once in this column, that NASCAR isn’t like any other sport however you hand out the prizes — and I’ll continue to say this until I’m blue in the face.

Only two Chase championships under the old points system would have gone to a different winner — and both of those instances belong to Jeff Gordon (2004, 2007). But can we assume the Rainbow Warrior would have automatically walked away with those season titles?

It’s not perfect — but it’s not bad, either

In 2004, Jeff Gordon held a 60-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and a 61-point lead over Dale Earnhardt, Jr. when the points were reset for the first time. In the end it was Kurt Busch who would, improbably, take the inaugural Chase crown; his winning margin was a mere eight points over Johnson. Had the Chase not been run, Gordon would have won his fifth Championship by 47 points over his teammate.

Those are the facts, but here’s my question: Who’s to say Gordon (or Johnson or Earnhardt) wouldn’t have run differently without the Chase — perhaps a different fuel strategy, a risky two-tire call, etc.? The fact remains that the participants will race according to how the points are given out. Gordon was Chase racing up to and then during the final 10 races. How would he have run differently? No one can know, but I think it’s a point worth making in conjunction with this argument. 47 points over 5,500 total markers is a tiny margin, and it’s hard to say things wouldn’t have played out very differently without the Chase.

Yes, based on the old rules Gordon would have won but neither he, Busch, nor any other drivers who turned a lap in the Sprint Cup Series in 2004 were playing by the old rules.

Tony Stewart beat out Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle by 35 points to win his second crown in 2005. In the traditional standings, he would have held a very comfortable 215-point lead over the Biff and been 428 ahead of Johnson. Edwards, meanwhile, would have been 602 back. In short, the right driver won the championship even if it was closer than it should have been.

Likewise in 2006. Jimmie Johnson won his first title, topping both the Chase and traditional points standings. He beat out Matt Kenseth by some 56 points in the Chase, but using the old scoring method, was just four points ahead of the No. 17. In this case I refer you to the point above about Gordon… four lousy points. If that doesn’t change the way you race, I don’t know what does.

And then we have 2007, when Jeff Gordon had a season for the ages … well, almost. The driver of the No. 24 beat Johnson handily in the traditional standings by a margin of some 353 points. And with an average finish of 5.3 in the last 10 races, it wasn’t as if he was a slouch in that department, either. But Johnson reeled off four wins in the last five races to nip Gordon at the post.

This makes 2008 the most interesting season yet. The Chase has been “right” twice and “wrong” twice, so it will be interesting to see how it swings. If Kyle Busch doesn’t win, would it be that much of a disaster? And come to that, how would the Junior fans react if it were their driver who pulled a “Kurt Busch” and “stole” the championship?

The best teams step up and win it
This is seen by anti-Chasers as one of the biggest problems with the format. “The best teams always step up,” they scoff. NASCAR isn’t pinochle, after all. Every. Race. Counts.

Well frankly, I don’t see what the fuss about this point is. Why wouldn’t the best teams step up? Isn’t that exactly what they should do? Don’t the best teams always get it done when they need to? Most of the time, yeah, they do. So yeah, in the Chase the best teams do step up — and why this is a problem with some fans, I’m just not sure. Does Jimmie Johnson try twice as hard because it’s a Chase race? No, not at all. Does Junior, Jeff, or Smoke? No. No. No.

The fact is, the Chase could be a lot worse despite what the hardcore fan thinks. Yes, it is more exciting for the new or casual fan; but the fact remains NASCAR needs those new fans. If new fans are not brought into the sport, how can it grow?

Is the Chase perfect? No, far from it; but what is? What’s important is that I’ll be glued to the screen come Loudon — that’s for sure. And so will you.

Contact Danny Peters

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M.B. Voelker
08/19/2008 07:35 AM
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As a Kyle Busch fan I’m nervous about having my driver’s lead chopped. But I remain in favor of the Chase because it was boring to have the Championship locked up a race or two before the end of the season. It took the meaning and purpose out of the final races.

And for all people complain about the Chase making the media focus only on 10/12 drivers and forget the rest of the field, that’s 7-8 more drivers than they used to focus on. Used to be you had the leader, second place, and maybe, some years, 3rd and 4th to talk about from September through October.

You’re making one mistake though. You said, “If new fans are not brought into the sport, how can it grow?”

The “hardcore” fans who complain about every change don’t want Nascar to grow. They want Nascar to revert back to a small-time, regional sport of purely local interest. Then it will be their own, little, private club again without any Yankees like me or “furriners” like you. ;)

Douglas
08/19/2008 07:48 AM
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APPLES” racing
ORANGES”! A mixed bag at best!

So, where in your “logic” and wisdom, do you ever see the “chase”, or chumpionship, qualifiers, continue to race the “backmarkers”, i.e, those 31 cars/drivers that have been eliminated from chumpionship contention, and have said “backmarkers”, be allowed to influence the outcome of the actual chumpionship?

In simple terms, the chase leading car can be caught up in the wreck of the 43rd position car and have his chance of winning a “NA$CAR CHUMPIONSHIP” be ruined by a backmarker?

That simply does not make any sense whatsoever.

In a ten race run, being taken out by a backmarker is much more costly than if the points system “recognizes” all 36 races.

don mei
08/19/2008 11:48 AM
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Ridiculous…the drivers in contention race to qualify and not to win. Want to stir things up? Dump the chase and add 25 points to first place then we will see about “hey we had a good day with the Hayseed Ramada Boiled Turnip Special..ran her into a solid eighteenth place by golly.” Sigh..I guess I still haven’t figured out its not racing; its entertainment.

Steve Cloyd
08/19/2008 12:14 PM
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Chase = Contrived excitement.

Give me good races instead. Fix aero push. Go to tracks that suit the cars, not your market strategy. Stop fixating on personalities and trivialities, and concentrate more on good, hard racing.

Then we’ll talk about me watching again NASCAR.

Kevin in SoCal
08/19/2008 12:47 PM
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Thank you Danny. I enjoy the Chase too, as it keeps one guy from stinking up the show and wrapping up the title with 5 races to go. However, the few changes I would make, as I’ve said before, is 5 drivers and 5 races. 10 races still allows for too much points racing, and except for 2004, the champ was all but decided by the final race. And by the time there are 5 races left, its usually down to 5 drivers or less anyway. But by having 12 drivers and 10 races, NASCAR gets to recognize more drivers and exploit the system longer. I would also change the seeding system, so however you finish in the standings after Richmond, that’s where you remain. Reset the points with 10 points separating each driver, and THEN add the 10 bonus points for each win. There’s no good reason why a guy with 5 wins in 10th place should start ahead of a guy with 1 or 2 wins who happens to be leading the standings. That way there is more of a reward for where you finished the “regular season.”

Adam
08/19/2008 12:50 PM
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Danny, you make some good points, but I have to disagree. In my opinion, it’s more important for the most deserving driver to win the championship than it is to have the title come down to the last lap at Homestead. The excitment should come from the races themselves, which under the Chase format, doesn’t seem to be happening. Do you really enjoy seeing guys plod around for a “solid points day”?

How about using a variation of the points system from the soccer league you mentioned…3 points for a win, 1 point for a top five, 1 point for leading the most laps.

Skip
08/19/2008 01:53 PM
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I have mixed feelings, because I hate seeing what the chase has done to the late summer races, where guys just try to get points and don’t even attempt to win.

But on the other hand, up until a few years ago I basically would stop watching NASCAR at the end of the summer. Football would start up, and that was that for Sunday afternoons. It wouldn’t matter, because by the first of September the championship was typicaly all but clinched anyways.

Marilyn
08/19/2008 02:40 PM
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Someone please answer this for me….if there are only 12 drivers in the chase…..why let the other 31 drivers on the track??? Since the chase started i’ve seen so many in the top 12 TAKEN out just because the driver out there going for nothing more than a day’s pay , wreck one going for the championship and ruining that drivers chance!!!! Yes i’m a granma and don’t understand a lot of things but I have watched Nascar from it’s beginning and I hate the chase. I don’t see anyplace it should be called fair. If there are only 12 in the chase then the races should only be for that 12. Am I missing something here or what?

Douglas
08/19/2008 04:02 PM
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Thank you Marilyn, you understand the new NA$CAR “system”!

What a joke!

Kevin in SoCal
08/19/2008 04:17 PM
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I’m not a business major, but can you imagine sponsors for 26 races, and then those that make the chase get new or different sponsors for 10 more races? Only those with the best chance at winning would have sponsorship for the last 10 races.
Plus, would you go to the track to see 12 guys driving around? I think Tony Stewart’s 2006 suggestion of 300 miles for the 31 guys, and then 100 miles for the chase guys would make sense here.

Ed
08/19/2008 05:00 PM
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Actually, none of it makes sense. Golf is trying this mess and no one pays any attention to it, just to the individual tournament winners. The same with racing. Few people really pay attention to the chase, just who wins the races. The championship really means little anymore except to the rich punk who wins it with his rich owner, who buys it with his multicar operation.

Matt
08/19/2008 09:40 PM
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There is one failing point of the Chase that proves its ultimate flaw. A driver can win the title and not win a single race. In what sport can a team that has never won an event be crowned champion?

Yes, it could happen under the old points system and we have in fact had two one race winner champions, Kenseth and Benny Parsons. But the contrived points system that Brian France belched out en route home from Happy Hour one night makes it MORE likely not less. Like the song goes, the fact it ain’t happens just means it ain’t happened yet.

You want to spice up things esp. during the moribund summer months? Institute a points system that pays a massive bonus for winning, very signifigant points jumps for each position in the top ten that inspire the fastest drivers to gun for every position and drop each drivers worst three finishes from the points at the end of the season. In every event it is essential that drivers see an incentive to gun for every spot they can get. Currently a driver in the top 10 sees only a potential bonus of five points for pressing the issue to make a pass, while he fears a massive points loss if he presses the issue to make a banzai pass. Thus they cruise and fans snooze.

As a long time fan, I can tell you in the past, particularly the 60s and 70s, there was a lot less emphasis on the title and more on big race wins. Drivers like David Pearson rarely ran the full schedule. One of the reasons the King has seven titles is because Petty Enginering was one of the few teams committed to running the full slate of events. Even they couldn’t run every race some years because up to three events were scheduled at on the same day in various geographic locatiions.

Points systems adopted from 1971-74 were based on the fact with the factory’s pullout NASCAR was having trouble filling the field. Thus they designed points systems that made it essential that drivers compete in every event and run to the finish rather than parking after 20 laps because they made more money that way from the purse than they’d have earned burning fuel and tires for the entire event.

My friend by your own admission you are new to the sport. The old points system worked. Do yourself a favor. Track down a full set of videos from the 1992 season when the title was decided to by a single lap led in the final race of the year. In addition to the best season of stock car racing ever you’ll get to see the likes of Bill Elliott in his prime, and drivers who predated your interest in the sport like the late Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki. Yes, 1992 was the bellweather but there were other great title chases like 79, 89, and 85. As in any legitimate sport, there were years that someone ran away with the title, but they richly deserved to do so, and that’s the nature of true sport versus entertainment. It’s the difference between the “First 48” and CSI.

dawg
08/19/2008 10:50 PM
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You hate what you want too, & I’ll hate what I want too. For me it’s the so called chase. YTG Brian, give us a ten race champion.

D Jones
08/19/2008 10:58 PM
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There are 12 reasons I don’t like the Chase. It’s only those drivers that are ever mentioned during a race. Unless there is a wreck with one of the leftover drivers. Plus, the 12 rarely “race” because they don’t want to lose positions by wrecking or going laps down. Just watch them give away positions on the track to be on the safe side.

Kevin in SoCal @12:47, good post. I agree with you.

GW
08/19/2008 11:23 PM
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The Chase was a STUPID idea. All it does is screw up the racing the last ten races. You have 31 drivers riding around trying to stay out of the way while twelve guys try to race. STUPID! If I had my way, there wouldn’t be any points system at all.

Contact Danny Peters