Being the rabid college basketball fan I am, there are no better four days in sports than the opening weekend of the NCAA College Basketball Tournament. The hype, passion, upsets and drama are second to none in my book. Each team knows when it takes the court it's do or die â€” win or go home. And never, ever take another team for granted.
In the course of filling out my bracket for this year's tourney, somewhere deep in the Midwest Region around the Notre Dame/Winthrop matchup, I got to thinking. Why, I asked myself, would a sport like NASCAR not watch, learn and capitalize on the marketing potential of an event such as this? If the sanctioning body is so bound and determined to give a television audience a breathtaking (albeit engineered) playoff-type conclusion to its season, couldn't it do a little better than a drawn out 10-week marathon?
So I came up with (yet another) reformatted Chase.
Of course, I wouldn't abandon the spirit of NASCAR's almighty Chase â€” just tweak it a bit in hopes that some of the intrigue associated with the NCAA Tourney transfers over; intrigue that I believe is currently lacking in the Chase.
Part of the NCAA's drawing power is that the tournament is three weekends of can't-miss TV. People call in sick for work and break up with their girlfriends to assure they will not miss one second of high drama. The Chase does not have that. You can miss Dover, check the standings, read the headlines on Monday and catch back up at Kansas the following weekend. So shorten the Chase to five events. Force fans â€” diehards and casuals alike â€” to watch every short second of it. This also eliminates the mulligans we have learned every team is afforded. Like the NCAA tourney, you miss the setup once, you're pretty well finished. That's the sort of playoff drama that America craves.
NCAA teams are awarded 34 automatic bids into the field by virtue of winning their conference tournament, while the NCAA Selection Committee hands out 31 at-large bids. The same principle will apply to our new Chase. The top 10 drivers in the point standings at the end of race No. 31 are given at-large bids, much like the top 25 basketball teams in the country. Additionally, any full-time driver (road course ringers need not apply) who has won at least one race is given an automatic bid. We could have a 16-team Chase or a 10-team Chase; it will vary from year to year.
At this point, the TV audience NASCAR craves will believe the most fitting participants have earned inclusion into a playoff stretch that is short enough to ensure everyone interested will watch, but long enough that the 14th-seeded driver has a realistic chance to make up the ground needed to play Cinderella and win the thing.
I'm keeping the point system the same. Anytime a discussion centers around points and the Chase, it requires a column all its own. Moreover, I'm not interested in covering the minutia of whether a driver is awarded 5, 10 or 100 extra points for a win at this point.
Now all that's left is to discuss is which five venues will comprise the new-and-improved Chase. My vote, which does not take track ownership or regional bias into account (only pure, high-octane, white knuckle stock car entertainment â€” which is the most important factor to a true race fan) is Darlington, Talladega, Martinsville, Phoenix and Lowe's, in that order. It's a nice mix of short, intermediate, flat and plate tracks. Of course, SMI, Dover Motorsports, Inc., and the Bahre's will all lob some lawsuits NASCAR's way because they've had Chase events stripped from their tracks, so that playoff lineup will never work. The point here, though, is to outline the parameters, not solve all of the logistics in one swoop.
Five tracks that lend themselves to exciting racing, deserving drivers and a playoff atmosphere that draws from the emotion of the NCAA Tournament, but is unique unto itself.
The Road to the Final Five. Kind of catchy, huh?
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