Mike Neff · Friday January 31, 2014
After the rumor was posted last week NASCAR was considering making a radical change to the Chase – in particular, having one race settle the final outcome of the entire Sprint Cup season – most of the fans who commented about the idea were staunchly against it. The details weren’t available, beyond some bare bones basics (i.e. – 16 drivers entered into the “new” playoff system) so the assumptions that were made ran the gamut. One thing was abundantly clear, though; enough was enough and making another change to the Chase was the last straw. The fan base was ready to abandon ship like so many rats.
However, a strange thing happened on the way to the scuttling. Brian France took to the podium at the Sprint NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway Thursday and detailed a plan that took care of all of the points but one that fans have disliked about the Chase system. The only objection to the playoffs that isn’t answered is for those people who want to see a full-season champion. NASCAR’s title is still based on the final 10 races of the season and, for now, that is not going to change.
However, among the questions that have now been answered positively include making winning a priority. Up to 16 winners in the first 26 races of the season will be automatically entered in the Chase unless the point leader after Richmond doesn’t have a win. Then, only 15 will be in and the 16th spot will be rewarded to the point leader. Fans have repeatedly voiced concern that drivers spend all of their time point racing and little to no time focusing on winning. Now, winning a race will all but guarantee a shot at the title. People will be encouraged to take chances, gamble on fuel, stretch tires, and push themselves beyond limits to attempt to grab the win that will lock them in. The new rules have not ended point racing, but they have given a much easier way to make it into the Chase than knocking out top-10 finishes.
Drivers, especially in recent years are afraid to go for wins in the Chase because one bad finish can ruin their chances at a title. These adjustments should go a long way towards changing their postseason thinking. Now, drivers are in control of their own destiny and can dig out of any hole except a poor finish at the end of a segment in which they don’t have a win. A bad finish in the first or second race of a segment, or even both races, can be overcome by a victory in the last that moves them on directly into the next round. No longer does a blown tire or a wreck not of one’s own doing instantly doom the title-winning chances of a driver. Racers and their teams now hold their destiny in their own hands, not the lines in the scoring section of the rulebook.
Fans have also wanted to see an even simpler way to crown a champion. The final race of the Chase cannot be any simpler. There’s no bonus points, so trying to lead the most laps won’t make a difference. The simple fact is, if you are the highest-finishing of the four drivers eligible for the title, you win. No graphics for points as they run now. No laps led boards. Four drivers, one race: finish in front of the other three and you are the winner.
Finally, fans have told NASCAR that they wanted to see more drivers with a shot at the title. The field has been expanded to 16 drivers. Well, that is more than half of the group who attempted to run the full 36-race schedule last season. While some might view that as too many, others have asked to see more variety in the title hunt and NASCAR has responded.
The elimination aspect of this bracket style “playoff” is going to provide Richmond-like excitement four times over the final 10 races. Drivers will be able to advance by being the best over a three-race segment without a win. If they are able to win a race, they don’t have to worry about the points and can tweak their cars, test some new setups, or simply go for a second win to break the spirit of their competitors.
As for the racers themselves, they’ll have to be up on the wheel from the beginning of the Chase until the end. Points will be reset for each segment, so drivers cannot rest on their success for long before they are back with the rest of the teams who have advanced to the next segment. At the end of the Chase, the Champion will truly be the driver who performed best when the chips were down. No longer does the driver who can pile up top-5 finishes win the title automatically. They have to go for the win or risk being left behind.
There is no doubt that situations could arise where a driver who deserves the title runs into bad luck at Homestead or a rough three races in the middle of the Chase while winning six or seven events. It could happen with the current points as well. Any scenario that skews a finish in the Chase to someone with fewer points scored or wins can happen in any point system. However, more than likely, this system is going to provide a driver who pushes the envelope and does all he or she can to finish at the front with the Sprint Cup.
For fans who are going to leave the sport behind because “they are done,” well, there isn’t much you can do to keep them around. However, for the fans who are willing to have an open mind, they just might see a title run that is fairer and more exciting than what we’ve seen for the last ten years.
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