The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : "NASCAR" Nation Lets Out A Collective Yawn by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday September 11, 2008

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : "NASCAR" Nation Lets Out A Collective Yawn

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday September 11, 2008

 

After all the hoopla and hype, the combatants for this year’s 10-race Chase, the fifth iteration of this championship format, are finally decided. Undoubtedly, some fans of these 12 drivers are charged up and anxious to see how their boys will do in the next 10 races, or if anyone can knock Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards from the lofty summit perches they have enjoyed to date this season. For loyal stock car fans, this is the championship format we have, for better or worse, and we’re stuck with it — even if a lot of us don’t like it.

I’ve written pages upon pages of prose dealing with my dislike of the artificially contrived championship Chase format, and I won’t repeat myself here. (Yeah, yeah, I probably will next week.) But ultimately, the primary goal of the Chase — to lure casual fans of stock car racing formats and even non-racing fans to the sport for the 10 final races, using a post-season style championship style format — has failed. Unlike the World Series, which annually draws casual fans and non-fans who might not have watched a regular season MLB game all year, the Chase just hasn’t caught the public at large’s imagination. Brian France and his minions will do everything in their power to parade the 12 Chasers in major media outlets this week, but by and large, the American public will give out a collective yawn and surf over to Sportscenter to see who won this week’s NFL games.

Why? Admittedly this is a tough time of year to draw attention in the sport’s arena. The juggernaut of the NFL has resumed play, the college football season began weeks ago, and series of games that will decide this year’s World Series is in progress. With all that going on, your typical sportscaster has about four and a half minutes to fill on the six and eleven o’clock news before cutting to commercial, or to the weatherman getting frantic about the latest tropical storm. If they show highlights of the local football team, a local baseball team that has some outside chance at entering post-season play, and a couple of local college football highlights here in the Northeast, there might be a few dead seconds left to announce that Kyle Busch won a stock car race at some far flung hamlet that few folks could locate on a map for a cash prize named Loudon.

Competing with the NFL and MLB, NASCAR racing gets little more than a mention on local sports newscasts outside of the Southeast during the Chase.

The Chase was intended to muscle its way into the Fall parade of sports highlights but, by and large, it has failed. That might not be fair. Even in an era of declining attendance, more fans muscle into some stock car races than attend even the Super Bowl. Down in the Southeast, things are notably better — stock car racing is given some serious airtime and attention — but NASCAR has made it no secret that they don’t want to be seen as a “regional Bubba” sport. Rather than being a big fish in a small pond, they’ve let themselves become a small fish in a big pond. Stock car racing is a tough sell in some markets where the leading newspapers’ arrivals predated the invention of the automobile, and some of those papers’ editors seem unconvinced this automobile fad is going to amount to much more than a source of global warming.

Other challenges face NASCAR as they try to draw casual and non-fans to their ranks. First and foremost is the racing this season in general has been substandard (I’m being kind) thanks in large parts to the Car of Horror. Yeah, there have been some good races this year, as there are every year, but if a casual fan tuned into Fontana a few weeks ago because nothing else was on that night, after 50 laps they were channel surfing away seeking a more palatable fare. If you do indeed lure those casual and non-fans to the table, you need to grab them by the throat with the action and convert them to the fold. In today’s MTV and text message-driven society, folks have short attention spans. NASCAR might have five minutes to get a thumbs up or a thumbs down from those folks, and with most drivers just cruising until the last handful of laps, we have a serious problem on our hands.

Another challenge facing NASCAR is the difficulty of casual fans to understand what’s going on. Our sport is somewhat unique in that two teams don’t pair off against one another. All 43 teams compete against each other weekly. One driver wins; 42 lose. Leaving Richmond, there are five drivers going for a Championship that have yet to win a race. That’s not possible in most sports… and it shouldn’t be in ours. Winning a points-paying race should be a prerequisite for Chase contention, period. Etch it in granite. Book ‘em Dano.

Then, there’s the regular season points system that confuses even some fairly loyal fans. A driver gets 185 points for winning. Huh? Why 185? The guy who finishes second gets five points less. Wow, that’s not much of a bonus for winning. At the end of the season, the NFL looks at how many wins and losses a team has. They don’t add up the points scored by a team, including points scored in losses, to decide which teams make the playoffs. If you won 12 games and lost six by a close margin, the other team that won 13 games and lost five by huge margins gets in. Our points system needs to be overhauled — and the change is long overdue. There needs to be a huge points award for winning and Top 5 finishing… not consistent cruising.

The schedule is another handicap NASCAR faces. With the Chase about to begin, you’d think NASCAR would want to put their best foot forward. Instead, the Chase begins at Loudon, a race track that has consistently proven to provide substandard racing since it became a blot on our schedule. Any fan drawn to checkout the start of the Chase by Jeff Gordon appearing on Regis and Kelly this week is going to be lapsing into a coma 20 minutes into a race.

It’s too bad the powers that be won’t kick off the Chase in Darlington. Darlington is a track with unmatched tradition and a habit of producing great racing. It’s a testament to who we are as NASCAR fans; proudly unashamed of our Southeastern roots and our hardscrabble nature. We’re different than stick and ball sports, and we like it that way. Yes, a race at Darlington could turn into a real snoozer too, but if I’m betting my paycheck on Darlington or Loudon producing an exciting race, I’ve got my money on the Lady in Black and her nearly 60-year history.

Another thing non-fans (and I’ve reached a point in my life most of my fans are either non-fans or ex-fans) simply can’t get their minds around is how a winning driver in NASCAR can be caught cheating and still be allowed to keep the win. It’s a black eye for our sport, and I’ve grown tired of trying to defend the principle. Likewise, I can understand how some of these mystery debris cautions thrown when a race gets too boring have convinced some non-fans that NASCAR racing is “pro-wrassling on wheels.”

But the most frequent complaint I get from newer or non-fans is that the races are simply too long. I’m an old-timer — 500-mile races are fine by me, as long as they take place at venues like Darlington. 400 miles at Fontana is way too long, even for me. I think I could endure a 40 lap race there without having to use a tongue depressor to prop open my mouth so I don’t drown in my own saliva. So, maybe it’s time that NASCAR follow the Formula 1 folks’ lead and simply decide each race will be three hours long. If circumstances dictate that the full race length is unattainable, then a caution will be thrown, the pits opened and the cars lined back up for a 10 lap shootout at any track other than the road courses.

My final bit of advice for my buddies at NASCAR (who are constantly calling me asking for my input, of course) to attract newer fans to our playoffs is to institute an “elimination” rule. The Super Bowl is obviously the Granddaddy of the championship deciding events based on TV ratings. The NFL playoff games draw big numbers and fan interest as well, because after each game, one team will be eliminated from competition. It doesn’t matter if that team wins by a little or wins by a lot — if they lose, they’re done. That adds an element of suspense. So here’s how I see it. 10 drivers make the Chase. They all get to warm up in the first race to get over the jitters. After that each week the lowest finishing title contender is eliminated. Drivers who win a race in the Chase are exempt from being eliminated during the Chase afterwards. At the final race of the season the two remaining drivers who haven’t been the low finisher and any driver who won a race prior to being eliminated start the season finale… and the highest finishing driver among them is the new champion. Is it fair? Not completely. Was it fair when the New England Patriots lost the Super Bowl despite an unbeaten regular season? But it is high drama, and starting from week one, every title contender is going to be going Hell’s bells trying to win races to stave off the possibility of elimination after a wreck or a blown engine.

Meanwhile, to build interest in the Chase, I’d use the off week between the regular season and the Chase to highlight the 10 unique drivers in different media outlets. For instance, given his love of rock and roll and his lifestyle, have Dale Earnhardt, Jr. do a week of appearances on MTV and VH1. A driver who is an avid hunter or fisherman might do programs with the Outdoor Network. A driver who collects and restores old cars might show up on SPEED. A driver like Jeff Gordon with more upscale tastes might be on the Fine Living or Gourmet Channel. And of course, Tony Stewart could be on the Beer-Swilling, Doughnut Munching, Neanderthal Network — I think it goes by the name of Spike. Or perhaps he could do a voice appearance on South Park as Cartman’s long lost twin brother. The goal is to have people who might not have an interest in racing decide, “Hey, I like this guy. He and I have a lot in common. I’m going to watch this NASCAR post-season and pull for him.” Whatever works.

Obviously, I am not a fan of the Chase. I am proud to be the first writer (at least that I am aware of) that condemned it as ludicrous and borderline blasphemous. I like the old points system, and if NASCAR were to show the wisdom to readopt it, I’m be euphoric. From where I sit, the majority of traditional fans still despise the system, and the majority of casual or non-fans could care less about the Chase. If there must be a “post-season” in NASCAR… do it right.

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Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?
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Sally B
09/11/2008 06:10 AM
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A pretty good indicator of how much interest the crapshoot has generated would be to look at track attendance and TV ratings. Since both tend to go down as the season progresses, it doesn’t seem that the ‘chase’ has really attracted anyone. Or anything. As I haven’t noted a marked jump in either stat during the final 10 races, Nascar needs a reality check.

Bill B
09/11/2008 07:14 AM
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If you ask me the single biggest thing that NASCAR could do to compete with the NFL during the chase is to have all ten races on Saturday night. You aren’t going to beat the NFL in a head to head battle so try to be where ever they are not.

Douglas
09/11/2008 07:48 AM
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WOW! You covered a lot of bases, (err, I mean miles) with this column!

The “CHASE” has never been a good idea, never will be a good idea, and
will never “draw” any new fans into the sport!

In my case, even though my interest in NA$CAR has flown out the window many years ago, gee, just about the time dear Brian took control, when the “CHASE” starts, I don’t even turn the TV on to see even one lap of ANY CHASE RACE!

I don’t like “phony”!

Ed
09/11/2008 08:05 AM
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There is so little that can be done to make the “chase” interesting. There is also no need to try to compete with the NFL or anyone else. The two are apples and oranges. Bottom line? NASCAR is going to go back where it once was: with the hard core and a few casuals. It stood alone fine when it was pretty much a regional sport with the few tracks out side the SE. The venues were usually well filled, but greed took over and it is going into the toilet.

marshall
09/11/2008 08:44 AM
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No No No , we do NOT need to put the Chase races on tv on Saturday nights . Local race tracks are having a tough enough time as it is without encouraging their few remaining spectators to stay home and watch NASCAR on tv .
The fix for the championship , and for the sport itself is to first go back to the old style championship format , the one that we all liked and the one that worked just fine for decades . And second , much , much less emphasis should be put on the championship and all of the emphasis should be put on the importance of each and every race .
And yes the races are absolutly too long , helped by the mind numbing number of caution flags ( many of which are not needed ) and the seemingly endless laps run under each caution ( why does it take five laps to pick up a piece of brake duct ? ) that completely alter the complexion of the race each time . Theres nothing wrong with the idea of a timed race , but since you attributed the idea to F1 , Brian will never consider it . It has to be his idea or the NFLs before he will try anything .

john
09/11/2008 09:05 AM
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I agree on most of what you have to say Matt, with the exception that I think road courses are great and we should have more, if anything.

But I disagree that you should have to win to get into the Chase—that would simply further validate it!! I want SO bad for Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart to win this bullshit playoff without winning a race—maybe that would finally convince “Brain” France to end this farce.

On the subject of race lengths, I couldn’t agree more and have said this for years—NASCAR should take a page from the Australian V8 Supercar series, and have three or four marquee “endurance” events—the Daytona 500, the Coke 600, the Southern 500, and I guess the Brickyard 400. That would make them seem more special, beyond the obvious reasons. Then have every other race finish within a 3-hour time frame, give or take.

The best stockcar racing in the world right now isn’t even with cars—it’s the Craftsman Truck Series. Why? On top of having no bullshit playoffs, they have less bitchy whiney boygirls driving, they race on a lot more short tracks (I wish they’d do a road course again though), and most importantly the races are a reasonable length to sit down with a few beer and enjoy on a Friday evening.

Mark
09/11/2008 09:22 AM
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I had the pleasure of attending the race this past weeekend in Richmond. And for a change, we got to see a great race there. One observation…. the stand were sparse to say the least. And I’m guessing it had to do with the NFL. It wasn’t the weather, it was beatiful there. It wasn’t the time – I love 1 PM races. Face it – when the NFL circus rolls into town, a lot of fans tune out. The Chase was not the way to fix that little problem. And to be honest, I don’t know what is. But I too am beginning to loose interest in NA$CAR. I’m just shy of 50 years old, have been watching NA$CAR since the good ole days of the Wide World of Sports. I have been to well over 200 races. But, to tell you the truth, NA$CAR is wearing thin om me right now….. thye really need to figure out where to turn this thing around…. while they still can.

yankeegranny
09/11/2008 10:06 AM
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I guess I must be a real outsider. Went to the race at Darlington this spring and didn’t like anything about it. went to the race at Richland last week and loved every second of it and can’t wait to go back. Have tickets to Martinsville and we’ll see how that goes. I could go to Richmond to a race every week. First class facility and the people are great. I would like to see that track as the final chase race. My husband, who likes very little about Nascar couldn’t wait to get out of
darlington and won;t go back, He loved RIR and suggested we try Martinsville. I think he is a convert.Love the chase format and think the 88 may have something in reserve.

r

Callaway
09/11/2008 10:23 AM
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Sadly Brian France has never gotten past the fact that he’s not running a stick and ball sport although I’m sure he would love to. Instead of refining what was already a good product and one that was knocking on the doors of all but one of the big three he decides to contrive this farcical Chase. The thing that I will be interested in seeing is if the networks stick to never showing the non Chase drivers like in the past which I’m sure is an ever popular idea with their sponsors. Maybe next year he can really open it up and make it like the NCAA basketball tourney starting maybe at the Brickyard or before paring the field down until it truly does become a go or go home situation, leaving Homestead the site of final race the longest drag racing in history between the final two cars……What ya think Bri I think think the idea has legs and we know what an idea guy you are?

Kevin in SoCal
09/11/2008 01:42 PM
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Yeah, everyone hates the Chase, but look, this website has a “Chase Challenge” Fanstasy game and they want us all to get involved. Talk about hypocrisy!

Yeah, you hate Fontana, we all know it. I hate your negativity about all of NASCAR. I hope you’re mailing your columns to NASCAR’s office in Florida, too. You dont know if they read this website to hear all your great opinions on the ways to change their sport and make it better, like it once was.

Deluded Fan
09/11/2008 02:09 PM
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In order to get into the “Chase”, a driver should have to have at least one win, Even if you have the most points, if you don’t have a win, you don’t get in. Imagine how that could change the viewpoint of a driver throughout the year! NA$CAR says they want drivers to focus on winning, yet they allow almost half of the Chase field to be made up of non-winners?!?!? Yes, I know the drivers who don’t have wins, yet still made the chase this year used the current format to their advantage…as well they should. But make it mandatory that you have the points AND a win and you will see drivers running all out to get a win (at least until they have that win anyway, and even then they might go for more wins to keep someone else from getting them). In my fantasy (because you know that the powers that be would never actually listen to the fans…), increase the points differential between 1st and 2nd to 50 points, between 2nd and 3rd 35 points, between 3rd and 4th and 4th and 5th 20 points and then have a 50 point drop to 6th with a 5 point difference down from there– i.e 1st – 400 points, 2nd – 350, 3rd – 315, 4th – 295, 5th – 275, 6th – 225, 7th – 220, etc. Cutting points off at say 30th place would keep wrecked cars from having to drive around at reduced speeds, but again, the Frances don’t seem to want to think about that one unfortunately. Then for the championship – since it is obvious that the Frances will never go back to the original system – use a format similar to the one that golf is using currently. After 26 races, allow the top 10 in points who have race wins to be in the ‘Chase’. In order to keep the first 26 races important to the overall championship, divide the point total of each driver in the chase in half and then add 5000. That way, a driver who has worked to build up a lead in points over the first 26 would still get some benefit from that and the guy in 10th might still have a shot at winning if he has a stellar last 10 races. Eliminate the 3 with the lowest point totals after 3 races and eliminate 3 more after 6 races, leaving the top 4 points totals to race for the championship over the last 4 races. It is not perfect, but it does at least insure that the champion has won at least one race and that they have had a reasonably consistent year as well. And it seems to me that the changed point system would force drivers to shoot for top fives at a minimum….after they have that required win at least. Better racing and a champion who has shown over the course of the year that they deserved to win. What am I thinking??!!??

Paul
09/11/2008 02:38 PM
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I always figure to hell with the casual fan. Racing is an all or nothing sport, and people that are attracted to that aspect of it are likely to be all or nothing people. Hardcore fans, or, well…not fans.

I was only 17 when Brian destroyed the 36 week slugfest we usually used to crown our champion, but I was shocked and pissed off when it happened. I’ve been watching NASCAR since I was 5 and loved it dearly. But now when I look at everything going amiss, if I really think about it all and what it once was, I feel physically ill. It hurts.

I loved racing more than anything, and I want it back.

Jerry W
09/11/2008 03:14 PM
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RIGHT ON! WAKE UP NASCAR!

Patrick
09/11/2008 03:18 PM
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It is now football season and racing has ended for me even though I have season tickets for Richmond and Joliet. The chase does nothing for the sport. The same cars will be upfront as usual because if one of the “chasers” get wrecked someone will get called to the trailer. The new car also leads to boring races.

itsborken
09/11/2008 07:27 PM
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Hey, Cartman doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse. Seriously.

Mike
09/12/2008 12:53 PM
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John said: have three or four marquee “endurance” events—the Daytona 500, the Coke 600, the Southern 500, and I guess the Brickyard 400.

The traditionalist in me says it should be the DieHard 500 at Talladega, instead of the Brickyard – like it was back in the ‘Winston Million’ days… When a million dollars was a lot of money to these teams!

Kevin in SoCal
09/12/2008 01:13 PM
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I have an idea for the Chase, and of course it fits in with the MLB and NFL playoff system. Lets force the drivers to be in the top ten in the points, but 11th and 12th in the Chase are reserved for “wild cards” that won during the year but arent in the top ten. This way Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne would be 11th and 12th, but Matt Kenseth would not have made it. The 11th and 12th place drivers would not be seeded by wins, but remain at the bottom with no bonus points for wins.

Señor Obvious
09/12/2008 03:51 PM
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Kevin, with common since like that, I am proud to call you Hermano! That’s the best idea I’ve heard yet for the Chase.

California Speedway still bites though. Sorry.