Mark Howell · Thursday November 1, 2012
Say what you will about the wisdom of Brian France, but for all of his questionable decisions in the past (like moving the annual Sprint Cup awards banquet from New York City to Las Vegas, like hiring the over-the-top-eccentric comedian Carrot Top to help “roast” Jimmie Johnson before a live audience, like taking a pro-social media stance in an effort to attract more young fans, like striving to make stock car racing look more ecologically-friendly), his idea for The Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship is beginning to look like a good one. It’s taken several years, in my opinion, but recent (at least since 2011) results appear promising.
Here we sit just three races away from the crowing of a new Sprint Cup champion, and we’re enjoying a three-way battle that involves a previous winner, an up-and-coming “young gun”, and a likeable driver who’s turned his troubles into triumphs. Apart from the previous titles, these descriptors can be used for each of the men in question, and that’s much of the fun of this year’s postseason; experience is being challenged by the aggression and excitement of drivers who are getting oh-so-close to making their own mark in NASCAR’s record book. That kind of story is fun to watch as it unfolds with each passing week.
The problem is that NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship is being overlooked by what’s been a hectic autumn. Sure, recent races have been exciting and controversial. That comes with the territory of the Chase – teams fight to earn positions and points, which means trying to race above-and-beyond the routine of the previous 26 events. We see how hard teams work to make the Chase, and then we watch as the best-laid plans of the top-twelve drivers either succeed or fail.
But we’ve been surrounded by all manner of struggles, triumphs, successes, and failures since September. Consider the competition running alongside this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. There’s been the presidential campaign with its debates, press conferences, grumbling, and grousing, all of which should (hopefully) wind down with next week’s election on November 6th. There’s been the World Series, too, which ended with a chilly whimper in Detroit last Sunday night. And this was following the culmination of two league championship series that got us to the two teams who squared-off against each other in the Fall Classic.
In addition to baseball, there’s been the regular slate of college and professional football games. While this was the competition Brian France hoped to overrun by developing the Chase format, we’ve seen how truly difficult it is to pull fans away from these two juggernauts. Yeah, I know that NASCAR supposedly runs a close second to the NFL as America’s most popular and watched sport, but – the truth is – it doesn’t. It’s difficult to assert sporting dominance when your one event each week is lost amidst the onslaught of multiple games at both the collegiate and the professional levels.
While the Chase seems logical when challenging football for fans, it’s pretty much impossible to outperform the tradition of Sunday afternoons on the gridiron.
And, so far, this year’s Chase for the Championship has provided more twists and turns than a weekend at Watkins Glen. Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski have both won multiple Chase events as the Cup Series heads west this week to Texas Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin (a victim of electrical problems at Martinsville this past Sunday) has run well there in recent years. Add to the equation the fact that Roush Fenway teams are usually competitive in the Lone Star State (especially Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle), and we’ve got a formula for exciting racing and an even closer points race heading into Phoenix. After that last journey to the desert, there’s only the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami. Many questions remain unanswered as the schedule winds down and we face a three-driver dash for all the cash.
How could the attention of sports enthusiasts be focused elsewhere? Maybe we can blame the advent of internet and satellite dish television options….
This past Sunday, my family spent the afternoon with close friends. These friends have a satellite dish system that receives literally dozens of television stations and specialty networks. We shared some food while watching a recording of Saturday night’s World Series game from Detroit, which depressed everyone considerably. After the game, I asked my friend to switch the receiver over to ESPN, so I could catch a bit of the Tums Fast Relief 500 from Martinsville. He hit a key on the remote control and asked me, “Which one?”
There on the screen was a list of possible ESPN options, including high definition choices of all the standard offerings. In addition to Sprint Cup competition from Martinsville, there was men’s professional tennis from Switzerland and numerous other events being broadcast live in both HD and stereo. As he flipped around the channels, there were golf tournaments, soccer games, prizefights, and the expected full roster of nationally-televised NFL contests.
And that was just in terms of what you might consider “mainstream” sports being shown. There were films, talk shows, “extreme” events, and other competition-centered programs from which to choose, as well. Suddenly I channeled the aura of Brian France – there’s an exciting race taking shape at Martinsville with serious bearing on how the 2012 championship will be decided, and a potential audience is being seduced in other directions by lobs and putts and penalty kicks and jabs. Is there any way to effectively attract an audience when there’s so much to see on so many channels?
Never mind that Sunday’s race at Martinsville featured late-race gambles on pit strategy that affected the eventual outcome of the event. Never mind that a non-Chase driver in the form of Kyle Busch finished second, becoming one of four non-title contenders to wind up in the top ten. Never mind that Jimmie Johnson’s dominant performance allowed him to rack up major bonuses, erase a seven-point deficit, and leave Ridgeway with a slim two-point lead over Brad Keselowski.
So what should we mind? Maybe we should mind the fact that regardless of Brian France’s and/or NASCAR’s best intentions, late-season Chase races are always susceptible to getting lost amongst the clutter of weekend sports programming. I guess NASCAR should feel rather fortunate; things could be worse. The NBA has yet to gain its regular season momentum, and ongoing labor issues within the NHL have kept players off our televisions (at least for the time being).
And yet the issue remains the same: the Chase format reduces Cup competition to little more than points protection over the final ten weeks of the season. As such, Sprint Cup races seem to have lost their overall luster; racing takes a back seat to pacing as drivers try to align themselves mathematically within the championship point structure. The result – as I hear from fans almost every week – is dull racing at what should be (and used to be?) the most exciting time of the year.
But aren’t sports, in general, dull? Consider the recently-completed World Series. The lackluster nature of the four-game sweep of Detroit by San Francisco resulted in some of the lowest television ratings in the history of the Fall Classic. While the first game provided some fireworks (thanks to Pablo Sandoval’s three home runs), the next two games were shutouts. Game three was essentially over by the third inning. And we’re calling NASCAR races boring?
Don’t forget the early weeks of this year’s NFL season, either, when replacement referees turned competition into consternation through missed calls and all manner of assorted errors. The final outcomes of games changed dramatically because of erroneous decisions on the part of the temporary officials. Suddenly the mayhem we saw on the last lap at Talladega a few weeks ago didn’t look so unusual. Given the recent nature of sports in America, maybe some lapses in competitive judgment are to be expected and forgiven.
So maybe we ARE seeing a truly competitive edition of Brian France’s creation this year. Tony Stewart certainly made last year’s Chase an exciting one to watch, so why can’t lightning strike two years in a row? Will the points battle stay close over the next three weeks? Will a new name be etched on the Sprint Cup after the race at Homestead-Miami? Will Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team implode? Will Clint Bowyer and the No. 15 team erase their current 26-point deficit? Will Brad Keselowski hang tough and snag a Sprint Cup championship for Dodge as a last hurrah for the manufacturer?
I guess NASCAR Nation will just have to tune in and watch as the saga unfolds over the next three weekends. Unless, that is, there’s something better on TV….
In closing, allow me to send good wishes and positive thoughts to all of the Frontstretch staff and readers who’ve been adversely affected by the events of Hurricane Sandy. As a native son of the Northeast who still has family, friends, and colleagues along the Atlantic Coast, please know that you’re in not only MY thoughts, but also the thoughts of everyone here in the Upper Midwest. We saw some heavy rain and strong winds along Lake Michigan, but nothing even close to what brought the East Coast and New England to a standstill. Suddenly, all this NASCAR business doesn’t look so important…
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