The Frontstretch: More Excitement? The Chase Hasn’t Even Done That by Kurt Smith -- Thursday November 6, 2008

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More Excitement? The Chase Hasn’t Even Done That

Kurt Smith · Thursday November 6, 2008


The Chase for the Sprint Cup has been called “controversial” and “unpopular with some fans”, which are PC phrases for “a lot of people hate it”. In its fifth year, with ratings declining yet again as we close in on another likely lackluster finish to the season, we have reached the point where the Chase isn’t even succeeding where it was intended to succeed.

Granted, as I discussed a couple of columns ago, Jimmie Johnson’s domination doesn’t make for high ratings for this sport. That isn’t a knock on Johnson and his gang at all…it is to the 48 team’s enormous credit that they have, for the most part, stunk up the show in an era where NASCAR is attempting everything possible to turn the series into IROC. (Columnist’s caveat: the IROC series is now defunct.) Johnson just doesn’t inspire a reaction like Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, or Tony Stewart. Should Johnson be dominating right now without a Chase, chances are the ratings wouldn’t be much better than they currently are.

I’m not going to dwell on the irony that the title race would actually be closer without the Chase right now, although it is significant. As is often said, the rules are what they are and I’ve expounded plenty on what might have been.

What I am questioning, though, is how a playoff format whose main goal was “more excitement”—a format that punishes performing drivers and teams unfairly and yet is justified in the name of “more excitement”, a format that has forsaken what had been a perfectly acceptable system for determining a NASCAR champion for “more excitement”—has produced, in four out of five years of its existence, some of the dullest title runs in recent memory?

One answer is that, in actuality, 10 races is a lot. And for all of the blather about how a team can build up an insurmountable lead in 32 races, we’re now finding out that a team can build up a pretty large lead in seven races, too. A team can build a big lead in four races. Get hot at the right time, and you can make the other teams look silly out there for a short while.

NASCAR hoped to generate more excitement by crowning its champion using the Chase format, but with scores of unhappy fans, it is a risk that hasn’t paid off.

Another thing that comes to mind is the length of the season. This wasn’t a problem not very long ago, when NASCAR was less popular than it is today and had a proud reputation for appealing to rednecks. But with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s recent diatribe about the season being too long, it bears examination. I won’t delve too far into it…I don’t want to tread on Amy’s turf this week…but I wonder how much of an effect the Chase has had on the perception of season length.

NASCAR’s regular season now takes up 26 weekends, eight more than the NFL that Junior cited. Add the All-Star race and the Domestic Beer Shootout and now there are seven months of auto racing before the playoffs even start. Certainly, that will not leave an average fan hungry for more. Then the sport takes yet another two and a half months to determine a champion.

I submit that without a two and a half month long playoff, the length of the season would not be as much of an issue. Baseball crowns its champion in seven months. The NFL is done in less than six, and that’s with a week or two of hype leading up to the championship game. Both sports’ playoff systems are flawed in their own way—no self-respecting sport should allow a “wild card”, or as I call it, a “team that wasn’t all that good but made the playoffs anyway because more playoffs mean more money”—but at least they don’t take an extra two and a half months to determine their champions.

My buddy Danny Peters has defended that NASCAR allows 10 races in its playoff and makes the case that it’s better than a baseball team possibly being out of it in three games after dominating all year. He has a point. But we are talking about excitement here, which was and remains the main argument put forth in favor of the Chase. Instead, a 10-race, two and a half month playoff helps reinforce the idea that NASCAR’s season is too long.

But we know, of course, that NASCAR will not shorten the season. Go to a meeting with Mike Helton, Bruton Smith and Brian France and suggest that the season be shortened four races and that they should give up the millions in revenue brought in by holding dual events in Fontana, Texas, Michigan and Atlanta. Ha ha. So what are we left with?

NASCAR has, of course, dug in their heels with the Chase. It isn’t going away. But the ratings and attendance show that not only has it not succeeded in grabbing the attention of casual fans, it’s helped contribute to the egress of a few loyal ones. They have even reached the point where the star whose last name was synonymous with the love of auto racing is now saying that the season is too long.

The Chase was a big risk, especially when NASCAR repeatedly polled its fans on its website about it and was repeatedly rebuked, generally by 3-1 margins, until they simply stopped asking and proclaimed it a success. There is no way that NASCAR could not have not known that a large contingent of fans would be unhappy with a contrived perversion of the points system—so the only logical assumption for going ahead with it anyway was the belief that people would come around when 3-4 drivers could still win the title at Homestead every season. That took guts, I’ll give them that. After five years, perhaps four of which have seen one driver build a commanding lead with one race to go, it turns out that the risk NASCAR took has backfired. The unhappy fan is still unhappy, the casual fan is still just casual, and neither is bothering to tune in for a likely humdrum finale to a nine and a half month season.

There is, of course, the Junior factor—but even with Junior out of the title chase, I can’t help but think that if Carl Edwards and/or Jeff Burton had a realistic chance of winning it by Homestead, there might be some curiosity. If Jimmie has a poor finish in Phoenix, we’ll see if that holds up. But in at least three out of five seasons that has not been the case. The Miami race has often been an unexciting parade with everyone staying completely clear of the points leader, sometimes racing in three three-wide rows to stay behind him, adding further to the smell factor.

So I politely ask you a two-part question, Chase supporters: first, has the Chase made the end of the season more exciting for you, and are you pumped for Homestead? Be honest. And second, where are all of those casual fans that wouldn’t start watching NASCAR until there was a playoff?

The ratings sure aren’t revealing them.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Happy Hour salutes Kyle Busch (remember him?) for his $100,000 donation to Sam Ard. I’m a little amused that some have said “well, he’s still a punk, but that was a nice thing to do”. Can’t this kid get a break?
  • OK, with DEI and Ganassi possibly merging, take a minute and form a picture in your head of Teresa and Chip meeting to decide who will call the shots.
  • Jeff Gordon is currently fifth in the standings, while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is 11th. Has anyone pointed out that Junior would be ahead of Gordon without the Chase? NASCAR is so much less fun now that they’re teammates.
  • David Gilliland didn’t help his cause at Texas if he is looking for a ride next year. According to a crew member for Juan Pablo Montoya, lots of people have had problems with Gilliland not letting other drivers pass him. I’ve never understood why people get so upset about that. Isn’t this racing?

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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Sally B
11/07/2008 05:49 AM

I agree totally that a 26 race ‘regular’ season and the 10 race ‘not-a-playoff’ format makes the season seem interminable. Before the crapshoot came along, the emphasis was on each individual race. Who won the title was just the natural outcome of having a great season. Maybe, with all the cookie cutter tracks and the aero dependant COT, Nascar thought putting the spotlight on the title would help cover up what a drag most of the races have become. As for the season being too long, it seem to me that, during Nascar’s huge growth, the season was the same length as it is now. The difference? Nascar used to have more tracks that were totally unlike each other, tracks designed for stock cars, not ‘dual purpose’ for Indy cars. As much as even the cookie cutters may have individual challenges for crew chiefs as far as set ups, too many of the races on them are identical. No more Rockingham with it’s abrasive surface, or North Wilkesboro with it’s roller coaster straights and short track excitement. When the only difference in too many of the tracks is how many ‘amenities’ they offer to distract from the fact that the races are too similar…that’s what now makes the season seem unending. When the gimmicks become more important than the actual races, no wonder many of us are losing interest.

11/07/2008 07:58 AM

Your quote: “ lots of people have had problems with Gilliland not letting other drivers pass him. I’ve never understood why people get so upset about that. Isn’t this racing?”

Amen! That my friend is racing, real racing!

And for Sally B., actually if the CoT handled properly, and could be adjusted for each track, then you would see lots of exciting racing wherever they went. Lets not blame the tracks for lack of competition!

It’s in the cars Dear! The cars!

Not the tracks!

11/07/2008 08:16 AM

So I politely ask you a two-part question, Chase supporters: first, has the Chase made the end of the season more exciting for you, and are you pumped for Homestead? Be honest. And second, where are all of those casual fans that wouldn’t start watching NASCAR until there was a playoff?

I’m not a Chase supporter but, No the Chse has not made ANYTHING more exciting. And, where are they, I don’t think they ever existed in the first place. Most everyone I have ever tried to introduce NA$CAR to either LOVED it or HATED it. There really wasn’t much of an in between.

On another note, I ran into a couple of my race buddies yesterday and the told me they were going to Homestead in two weeks. I looked one of them square in the eyes and asked WHY????? His response “cuz it was free, what da you think, I would pay for something like that” I rest my case.

11/07/2008 08:28 AM

Sally hit the nail on the head, in part. The reason the season didn’t feel as long was two-fold:

1) There was a greater variety of tracks, like she said—made you more interested to see what would happen every week. Now it seems like 1.5 mile oval followed by 1.5 mile oval followed by 2 mile oval-that’s-almost-like-a-1.5 mile oval…

2) More chance to see different drivers win. With the super-mega-hyper teams running the show now, and only a few drivers dominating, you can make a fairly decent bet when you tune in that Jimmy Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards or possibly Greg Biffle will win a race. And often (not always, but often), it’s won with some bullshit fuel mileage pit sequence or by a landslide, rather than a competitive race.

It used to be that seasons like 1998, with Gordon and Martin winning 20 races between the two of them, was a rare sight to see. Now it doesn’t seem as rare.

11/07/2008 09:12 AM

You said: OK, with DEI and Ganassi possibly merging, take a minute and form a picture in your head of Teresa and Chip meeting to decide who will call the shots.

They met, they butted heads, they called it a draw, and left the room. About as exciting as the Chase…..

Shayne Flaherty
11/07/2008 10:13 AM

I’m not a fan of the Chase. The Chase is nothing but hype. It’s a failed attempt to repackage an already stale product. Adding a label that says, “new and improved” does nothing for me. NASCAR needs to take a hard look at the current points system. There is always the potential for a driver to dominate the season, Chase or not. I just want to see good racing. Whether Jimmie has it “in the bag” before Homestead or not, I want to see a good race. Evidently, that’s asking for something NASCAR isn’t willing to give me.

11/07/2008 11:18 AM

You’re right about one thing. No matter how much we fans have stated how much we dislike the chase, na$car has dug in it’s heels and like a spoiled little brat is saying, “It’s my toy and I“M not gonna share it.” The chase DOES NOT compensate winning, it compensates taking it easy and using the first 26 races as a test session. As for the tracks, man I miss tracks like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham (I’m showing my age here.) Fact is, in it’s refusal to listen to it’s fans na$car is chasing away it’s core fanbase. Thanks for listening.

don mei
11/07/2008 12:00 PM

“Real racing?” Two, three, four laps down and mixing it up with the fast guys?? Sounds more like “Real Stupid” to me. Have a nice day!!!

Kevin in SoCal
11/07/2008 01:15 PM

Chase supporters: first, has the Chase made the end of the season more exciting for you, and are you pumped for Homestead? Be honest. And second, where are all of those casual fans that wouldn’t start watching NASCAR until there was a playoff?

One: I’m excited for every race. The only thing better than 800 horsepower screaming down the frontstretch at wide open throttle, is 8000 horsepower going down the quarter mile – oops, 1000 feet. Its the only reason I look forward to Sundays. The Chase was supposed to eliminate domination by one guy all season, as Matt Kenseth did in 2003 and Jeff Gordon would have done in 2007. Instead, because even 10 races is too long, its created domination anyway. Shorten the Chase to 5 drivers and 5 races, reset the points, and then let the best man win.
As Mark said, most of the people either love NASCAR or hate it. Changing the rules around wont affect the people who hate it.

11/09/2008 01:21 AM

I haven’t watched a single chase race this year.

Partly because I can’t stand ESPN.

And because of the dreaded 1.5 mile tracks.

Homestead? Over football? You gotta be kidding!

11/10/2008 08:41 PM

Something is wrong! I’ve watched every race for the past 9 years—-until now. I’ve taped the last two, & plan to tape the Homestead Race.
I can only tolerate being able to fast-forward the race.
I hate that this is happening.
The TV analysts constantly espounding on Jimmy & Carl for 3-4 hrs, has had a major effect. Enough already! I can’t bear it anymore. There are 41 other drivers I’d like to see, & hear about.

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