The Frontstretch: Networks Prop Up The Chase; Real Fans Reject It by Kurt Smith -- Friday July 25, 2008

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Networks Prop Up The Chase; Real Fans Reject It

Kurt Smith · Friday July 25, 2008

 

In four years of the worst playoff system in recent history to be forced down sports fans’ throats, I still haven’t seen or heard anything resembling a viable argument in favor of the Chase, even from professionals who write about NASCAR for a living.

Last week, Terry Blount of ESPN and our own Vito Pugliese took opposite tacks discussing the Chase and the effect it will have on Kyle Busch’s substantial points advantage. Pugliese decried the idea that Busch would lose what is currently a 700-plus point lead over barely qualifying teammate Denny Hamlin, while Blount cheered the prospect that other drivers will now have a chance to overtake Busch once NASCAR wipes out his points lead.

Now, race fans, which of these two writers works for an independent website, and which one works for the network that is televising the last ten races? In other words, which one is genuinely a fan at heart?

If you are a devoted sports fan, if you think the best man or woman should win, if you believe that the integrity of the outcome in any sport should be respected and preserved, if you think Bart Giamatti was right to expel Pete Rose from baseball, if at the very least you recognize that professional wrestling really isn’t a sport, then you cannot reasonably defend the Chase for the Sprint Cup on competition grounds. Your sports fan’s conscience shouldn’t allow it. It’s like a lifelong baseball fan welcoming the preponderance of steroids.

Last year, the drivers involved in The Chase celebrated their involvement, but real race fans still reject it.

Because when you get right down to it, the Chase does one thing and one thing only: it takes points away from drivers. Points that were earned the only way points should ever be earned in motorsports: on the racetrack.

I picked out the three best arguments that are generally made by other motorsports writers and casual fans, all of which are equally weak.

Most common and most annoying of Chase defenses is an argument that is made by an awful lot of people who cover this sport: it’s a good thing that NASCAR made the last few races more interesting.

It takes a long time to type a response to that with one hand while holding one’s nose at the idea that racing…and sports in general…is more about the show and the hype than about the excellence and hard work. Firstly, if a motorsports writer thinks racing is boring and needs a contrived playoff format, then maybe he should be questioning his choice of vocation. Secondly, has the Chase made the championship battle more interesting? The ratings certainly don’t show it, and we haven’t yet had a classic finish that we’ll be talking about for years.

Take the last four season finales. Having five drivers who could win it in 2004 might have been interesting, but let’s not forget that that season would have still been decided at Homestead between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon anyway, and it wouldn’t have been because they were running roughshod over the rest of the field like they did last year. In 2005, Tony Stewart needed only a mediocre finish at Miami to take the Cup, as did Jimmie Johnson in both of the last two years. The Homestead race was supposed to be the big payoff, not the race where you only tuned in to see if the points leader might DNF.

Chase supporters touting more excitement don’t often mention what has happened to the Bristol night race. That event used to be one of the highlights of the NASCAR season (remember?) filled with high-intensity pushing and shoving that participants and spectators would often remember for a long time. It has since become a televised sleeping pill, less watchable with each succeeding year. What was the most memorable moment from the last three Bristol night races? The only thing that comes to this columnist’s mind is Michael Waltrip holding up leader Kasey Kahne while two laps down. There’s a classic Bristol moment…right there with Gordon’s bump and run on Rusty!

It is actually ironic that the Bristol night race was infinitely better when it had less importance and wasn’t just before the playoffs. Now drivers are either protecting their spot in or near the Chase, or avoiding risking a wreck with another driver protecting their spot. Is this a formula for great short track racing?

Then there’s the notion that adding a playoff simply makes NASCAR “like other sports”. Besides that there is a playoff now, how is that the case?

In what other sport do non-playoff teams participate in the playoff events? What sport divides their season, cuts off the last third, resets the won-lost records of the better teams to 0-0 and then resumes the action? There is zero similarity between NASCAR’s playoff format and that of any other sport. At least in football and hockey, the better teams get a reward—home advantage. How about letting the points leader pick two or three of the venues where the last ten races will be?

And the last argument more or less admits that the playoff system is flawed: “The best teams step up when it counts!”

The best teams should have to prove that they’re the best over a period of 36 races, not 10. Taking that concept to its logical conclusion, the golfer who breaks par over 18 holes is not as good as the golfer who shoots 10 over for the course but wins the last five holes, “stepping up when it counts”. Absurd as that may sound, it is exactly the logic of the Chase.

Kyle Busch will probably cruise into the playoffs with a hefty lead, every point of which was earned on the racetrack by the sweat of his team and pit crew, and through his own spectacular…and exciting…performance. That lead will be instantaneously wiped out as if he and his team didn’t even show up in two of the races. If he then gets caught in a big wreck at Talladega because Michael McDowell got loose, it could cost him the title. That would be a sports travesty, the blame for which would fall at the feet of NASCAR…and continue to be one of the causes of the sport going from nearly eclipsing the NFL in popularity to increasingly becoming a sports laughingstock in just five short years.

Most of NASCAR’s hardcore fans aren’t buying the Chase. A lot of them are Southerners and have spent time on farms. They recognize the smell of bulls**t.

The Chase was started so that Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, and other popular drivers would be in the hunt for a title in more races. After the three most popular drivers in the sport all unexpectedly came up short of the playoffs in different seasons, it was expanded to 12 drivers. Could it be more blatant that NASCAR was trying to ensure a playoff show featuring Junior, Gordon and Tony Stewart? With Junior’s failure to make the Chase last year, it backfired severely. You know the possible expansion of the Chase to 15 drivers crossed their minds after the dismal ratings performance towards the end of 2007.

With this kind of governance, why does NASCAR get so uptight when they’re compared to the WWE? They’ve deliberately designed a playoff format to keep the more popular drivers in the show. If NASCAR doesn’t respect the virtue of the competition, dedication and excellence in the sport, for better or for worse, why should fans?

Some folks assert that like it or not, the Chase is here to stay. I’m not sure about that. We’re not talking about a sport that respects any kind of tradition, no matter how little it’s been sanctified. It took NASCAR exactly one year to ditch the idea of impound races. Does anyone doubt that if it were Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who was arguably denied two championships from the Chase format that it would still be in place? We’ll never know—it’s fairly certain that it wouldn’t happen twice.

And because even Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s fans know that, the Chase—and the mentality of a sport that implements a contrived playoff without considering the effects—has cost NASCAR a ton of respect as a sport with fans.

No matter how much some reporters try to suggest otherwise.

Special Edition of Kurt’s “Short” – Bet On Chevrolet!

I run a NASCAR fantasy league for some family members and buddies, and the one thing that has made me a winner for the last couple of seasons is picking Chevrolets for my team. After NASCAR’s latest foray into IROCisizing the Nationwide Series, I now realize why.

Remember when Bill Elliott was told by Bill France, Jr. that his Ford wasn’t going to stink up the show? Chevrolet driver Jeff Gordon was given no such admonishment…and if anyone stunk up the show it was Jeff Gordon.

When Jack Roush placed five Fords in the Chase in 2005 (thanks partly to NASCAR’s “money-saving” rule changes), NASCAR instituted a maximum number of cars rule, which only affected the one remaining successful Ford team owner. After Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevrolets won half of the races in 2007, NASCAR of course stepped up to the plate, doing absolutely nothing to slow down the team for whom the most popular driver would be running in 2008.

And now a Joe Gibbs Toyota has been wiping up the floor with the other cars in the Nationwide Series, and NASCAR actually had to point out the unfair advantage of a car that hasn’t won all season for an excuse to slow the No. 20 down! And it’s been proven once again, other manufacturers are welcome to participate and spend their money, just not to win.

And all this time I thought Dale Earnhardt was just a great driver.

Hey Mr. Stewart, I know it gets you into trouble, but I can’t get fined for it and it won’t bother me if I’m no longer allowed at NASCAR events. So I’ll say it for ya:

NASCAR IS LIKE THE WWE!
NASCAR IS LIKE THE WWE!
NASCAR IS LIKE THE WWE!
WWE! WWE! WWE!

Nyuk nyuk nyuk!

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
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SallyB
07/25/2008 05:52 AM
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Thank you for writing what so many fans have been saying since this obnoxious ‘crapshoot for the champeenship’ was started! It always grinds me when I hear that inane “Now Nascar is like other sports” rationalization. No, it’s not. And that’s exactly why so many people loved to watch it! And how can you justify allowing teams that are 500 points or more behind the leader after 26 races as being ‘legitimate contenders’. It has sucked the life out of the races for many of the ‘top 12’, encouraging points racing safety even more than before. Frankly, if someone has run so well as to be way ahead, they deserve to win the title. I used to feel that who won the title was secondary to the excitement of each individual race. By putting so much emphasis on the crapshoot, it has diminished the overall quality of racing. I’ve attended the night race at Bristol for the past 8 years. After watching the boring parade that resurfacing the track and the crapshoot has caused at Bristol, I am seriously considering giving up my seats. The past 2 years, you could feel the excitement draining out of the crowd as lap after lap of playing it safe made bristol just another race. Inever thought that could happen. But it has.

Bill B
07/25/2008 07:10 AM
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Great article. In my opinion, all the Chase does is to make luck a bigger factor in the formula that determines the champ. Give me back the old system it produced a more legitimate champion.

Gordon81Wins
07/25/2008 08:04 AM
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WWE! WWE! WWE!

Classic!

And right on.

Mark
07/25/2008 08:37 AM
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If people keep comparing NA$CAR to the WWE the folks at WWE are going to get upset…..they do have some level of respect for themselves. They know when they have screwed up… and do something about it…. that can’t be said of NA$CAR now can it?

Good article…. says it all.

Douglas
07/25/2008 09:13 AM
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WELL STATED! (and yes, I am shouting)!!

oh, and the caption on the picture: “Last year, the drivers involved in The Chase celebrated their involvement, but real race fans still reject it.”

Of course the drivers “support” the chase, NA$CAR dictates that they do so! Also, if you take the 12 drivers involved, at a salary average of some $15 million each, then you have some $180 million “supporting” THE CHASE!

Heck! why not? Money talks! Racing walks!

And the poor fan is left out in the cold!

I have been criticized for being “negative” about NA$CAR and it’s current state of affairs! But with the CoT, and the CHASE! What is there to like?

NOTHING!!!

The “racing” is ruined, from start to finish!

Max
07/25/2008 10:09 AM
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The chase was one of many of those hallucinations that a coked-up intoxicated Brian France has in the dark of night. (or middle of the day)

It seemed like a good idea at the time….

don mei
07/25/2008 10:25 AM
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Great article! Absolutely spot on. Nascar began this insipid “chase” to improve their fan base. They probably did; in the short run. Eventually most of those new fans found or will find, something else to amuse themselves. In the long run they annoyed a lot of us who now dont really pay that much attention any more to Cup races except for maybe the last 15 minutes..and most of those farces end up with the fabled “green, white, checker”.

Brian
07/25/2008 10:50 AM
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I have been saying the same thing about Chevy for 15 -20 years. Just ask my Dad or uncle. NASCAR and CHevy have been in bed together forever. Hell Fords were winning 40% of the races in the late 90’s yet a Chevy won the Championship almost every year. Look at Gordon’s Champ seasons Fords actually won most of the races he did not. 7 out of the top ten in the standings were Blue Ovals but it was so spread out that no one driver won more than a few races. Hence, Gordon won the championship as Chevy screwed every other driver other than Gordon and Earnhardt to win the whole shabang.

Connie
07/25/2008 10:51 AM
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I’ve alway thought if we must have a “Chase” why doesn’t Nascar split the races? If there is a 400 lap race scheduled run 200 with only the Chase contenders and 200 with the remaining drivers? I think that format could produce quite a show. 12 drivers fighting each other on a fair field instead of the top 12 hiding playing safe until it’s time to make a move. Heck why not even AFTER the race have a lap number drawn and the leader at that lap would get extra points so the drivers will try to fight for the lead the entire race instead of playing follow the leader? (just kidding or am I?)

No other sport has the teams that did not make the playoffs or finals compete against the teams who did not.

As it is a teammate who did not make the chase can go oops and take out a chase contender.

chris
07/25/2008 12:09 PM
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<- Not a “real fan”. I have not rejected the chase because I feel it is superior to what came before. Not to say that the chase is great. Just better than what was there before.

I would have preferred a points system overhaul that mostly eliminates points racing, rewards winning, and doesn’t reward:
1. Leading 1 lap under caution
or
2. Driving around in crashed junk to finish 35th instead of 39th.

Apparently, it was determined somewhere along the line that the points system itself was more important than the racing. That is not good.

As an editorial and not a “news item”, obviously one can write whatever one wishes…but I think this would have been a more interesting article if written from a forward looking perspective instead of a “preaching to the choir” sort of rehash of an old, tired issue.

What would you do to make the championship more compelling? Prior to the chase, the championship was a foregone conclusion weeks before season end the majority of the time. Now, it is (on average) closer, but some feel it is closer because of the “contrived” playoff format.

I’m trying not to ramble on. I do believe that there was a problem with the old points system, as it doesn’t reward trying to win, it rewards trying to finish consistently top-15. The same problem exists with the Chase, because they didn’t fix the problem, they tried to slap a band-aid on top of it, and with somewhat mixed/dubious results.

Joe
07/25/2008 12:32 PM
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NASCAR under Brainless Brian Fraqnce has done NOTHING but go backwards! If NASCAR were a public company, his a$$ would have been throw out years ago!

FS Kurt
07/25/2008 01:09 PM
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Chris, since you asked, here is what I would have done to improve the points system: nothing. Why? Because it wasn’t a problem to any fan that I knew, certainly not relative to bigger problems that the sport had at the time (and still has), like oversaturation of commercials in broadcasts. In fact, when NASCAR introduced the Chase, 75% of NASCAR fans polled said it was a bad idea. (NASCAR’s response was to stop polling the fans about it.)

From this it can be deduced that if the championship was decided before the last race of the season, then NASCAR fans as a rule did not seem to mind. And in addition to that, if the champion was declared before Homestead…so what? At least the champion earned it through excellence in a long haul. Is it more important that the battle be continued right through the last race, even if it means that NASCAR had to hand hundreds of points to inferior drivers to do it? That seems to be what you’re saying, Chris.

I get that some people don’t think the points system rewards winning enough. It still doesn’t and never will to some. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with that, but in a sport with one winner and 42 losers every week, the prize should go to the guy who puts up the best finishes overall. The No. 17 team was the best at it in NASCAR in 2003. The No. 24 team was the best at it in 2007. Before the Chase, the team that did it best won.

But let’s stipulate: you want winning to be rewarded more. Fine…add 10-20 points for a win. What is wrong with something as simple as that?

The Chase is not an old, tired issue, because it is still here, and it is still wrong: it is the crass disrespect of excellence in favor of attempting to force excitement.

Your usage of quotes for the word “contrived” suggests that you think that the points battles today are not contrived. But they are. “Contrived” means “forced”. Is there a better word to describe a points system that resets the top 12 after 26 races?

Paul
07/25/2008 01:17 PM
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I’m sorry but I don’t think it’s right to bump some buddy out of the way to win a race. At our local NASCAR sanctioned track if this happens you have to go back behind the guy you bumped. Why is it different at the top level? I don’t care if its just a nudge or what.

gomattgo
07/25/2008 01:55 PM
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interesting you bring up the ‘punishing’ of the ford teams. the snooze for the chase was implemented after Kenseth won a championship by routinely top fiving the field

I remember when people tried to win during the last 10 races of the season. Now they just try to stay out of the chasers way.

Adam
07/25/2008 02:10 PM
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Kurt, I disagree that the old points system “wasn’t a problem to any fan I knew.” The Chase is dispicable, but the old system still rewarded conservative points racing more than it should have. Matt Kenseth in 2003 coasted around avoiding trouble the last 2/3 of the year. Is that really what people want?

Still, good article. I agree that crowning the correct champion is far more important than it being exciting. Not that contrived bull**** is exciting anyway…

chris
07/25/2008 02:28 PM
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thanks for the response, Kurt. :)

I can definitely appreciate the perspective that they could have just left well enough alone.

My personal opinion is that the points system is just about the only thing that F1 gets right. It’s not that the reward for winning isn’t high enough, it’s that under the Nascar points system the punishment for a bad day is too harsh. A points system that dropped off down to about 20, and 20-43 got the same points (with DNQs getting less, obviously), would alleviate alot of the problem I have with the current points system. In the right values this would, in alot of cases, eliminate any need to have a playoff-type system.

(I had contrived in quotes purely because so many of the rules in professional sports are contrived/arbitrary for the express purpose of keeping competition close and building excitement.)

mike
07/25/2008 02:44 PM
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I HATED the old points system.

The chase isn’t bad but has some serious flaws. Personally, I think it kills some late races in the regular season like the night bristol race.

And when the chase starts it seems silly with all the other cars out there just “riding around”. I mean, why are they even there?

sparxmoore
07/25/2008 05:59 PM
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EXCELLENT ARTICLE …i AGREE 100% …Thank you for being one of the only folks covering na$car who draws attention to what REAL FANS think ! ratings and attendance been been going downhill since this system came about , but we are supposed to believe its the price of gas , or the tv coverage ! NOT !!

Duane
07/25/2008 08:00 PM
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Anyone remember Kuwicki’s championship? Three cars able to win the championship at the last race of the year. No crazy ass chase system was needed for that. The chase basically screws the remaining teams after the top 12 are set. Use to be a team fought like hell to place in the top 20 in order to sit at the big table in New York. Now, even if a team goes on a winning rampage they will not draw the attention that the top 12 gets by the media.

Kevin in SoCal
07/25/2008 11:38 PM
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I love how people’s opinions are slammed on this site if you dont agree with the majority. I guess I will take my fake appreciation for the sport and go watch the TV by myself, because I’m not a “real fan.”

10 races is too many. Most of the time its down to 5 drivers by the time the last five races are left, so lets do the Chase but with 5 drivers and 5 races. I like the bonus points for winning races, but I dont like the new ranking by wins. I would make it the old way of ranking with 5 points separating each driver, and then give 10 bonus points for each win. A driver with 5 wins in 10th place should not start the Chase ahead of a driver in 2nd place with 1 win. I also love the idea of changing the point system to similar to F1, so only the top 20 or 25 drivers get the most points.

dawg
07/26/2008 03:23 PM
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The only problem with the chase is that it’s on the wrong network! It should be on Fox, so Brian could crown his Faux Champion. Boogity, Boogity, Boogity!

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