The Frontstretch: Chase Overload Cuts NASCAR Storylines To Pieces by Thomas Bowles -- Monday October 26, 2009

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Chase Overload Cuts NASCAR Storylines To Pieces

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday October 26, 2009


The thought hung over Denny Hamlin like the Balloon Boy story over America before the hoax made us all want the darned thing to fly away on its own. Fresh off his third career victory – setting a new career high – at one of his two hometown tracks, Hamlin’s post-race celebration Sunday should have left him floating on cloud nine, a well-deserved center of attention for a job well done. But in the matter of a moment, his newsworthy balloon got popped with a reality check as to why anyone should care, a reporter sending a tough reminder that a certain second place finisher still has a very big leg up on the No. 11 where it “really” counts.

“Do you sometimes feel that all the attention dedicated to who’s going to win the championship takes away from the individual celebration of winning one of the 36 races?” said Monte Dutton of the Gaston Gazette in the media center, asking as politely as the question was pointed. “It seems like to me that in some ways, the Chase has become so all-powerful that in some ways it diminishes the accomplishment of an individual race win.”

To his credit, Hamlin hit back with a humbling dose of honesty, dealing with an awkward truth that the latest Grandfather Clock to his Martinsville collection brought him nothing more than a way to tell time. For his 15 Minutes of Chase fame ended not when he took the checkered flag at Martinsville, but during two straight DNFs at California and Charlotte that turned an underdog title shot into little more than a pipe dream.

And the culprit at the root of it all? Hamlin’s biggest short track rival, an unassuming man with Lowe’s colors whose monotonous bid for four straight titles has stolen the hearts of few but the resourcefulness of many in a news cycle that seems not to think about anything else.

“Good point,” Hamlin said to the awkward laughter of those who knew full well they’d get busy turning the other cheek as soon as he left. “It really is a good point, without a doubt. I mean, everyone just talks about it.”

“I’m sure on the websites tomorrow there will be 12 stories, and there will be one about how much this guy lost to Jimmie, how much this guy lost to Jimmie, how much Jimmie gained, stretched his point lead — there will be about three or four stories, and then mine will be in that little column, ‘Denny Hamlin wins at Martinsville for the second time.’”

“Y’all do it,” he continued. “You know, write something different.”

How much his audience actually agreed with that assessment, it’s hard to know for sure. But certainly, no one disagreed, at least in public – and that’s telling enough for someone that not only agrees with Monte’s question, but would be inclined take it one step further. For not only has the Chase overshadowed Denny Hamlin’s successful weekend … it’s condensed the final 10 races into a select few, predetermined storylines narrowing the focus on a series that was once about a full field of 43.

Despite beating Jimmie Johnson to the checkered flag, Denny Hamlin still figures to finish behind Johnson in the headlines this week.

Let me explain. Back before the Chase format barged into your living room, a race like Martinsville would be filled with 3, maybe 4 drivers with a realistic shot at a championship. Everyone else would have their own storylines going on, some set of realistic goals to finish the season on a high note. Maybe it was a battle to finish in the top 10 in points and earn a right to be on stage for the season-ending banquet. Or it could be sneaking into the top 5 and the hundreds of thousands more in prize money that comes with it. For drivers further down the list, fighting for 25th in points, a ride for next year, or even to keep their team’s sponsor would play a factor.

That would leave everyone – television, writers, radio – with more than enough to talk about. But now, with 12 drivers automatically assigned a chance at a championship, some of those stories all but disappear. Instead of fighting for a top 5 in points, a very successful season, Hamlin’s year becomes defined by the “championship bid that fell apart.” Instead of using a long list of top 5 finishes in the playoffs to build momentum for 2010, one restart at Lowe’s haunts Juan Pablo Montoya when the Lowe’s car motors further away. Right now, considering Jimmie Johnson’s (I’m hoping not to mention his name much more in this column) 118-point lead on the field, there are 10 other drivers with similar sob stories to share, buried amongst historic hype in a series in which more than one driver used to feel like a winner by the time the checkered flag fell at Homestead.

But it certainly doesn’t feel that way now, does it? With the Chasers comprising over a quarter of the starting field, the title and everything about it seemingly has no choice but to take center stage. So instead of these men celebrating some individual success at the end of the season, they’re all grouped together in the type of playoff where you feel like anything second or worse is a failure. It’s almost like watching the NCAA tournament where it’s the final game and the other 62 teams are in the arena … so people feel compelled to mention it. But by no means does anybody consider their presence; after all, they didn’t end up winning, did they?

In NASCAR, that feeling of failure trickles down to the 31 teams each week who didn’t qualify for the playoffs. Even if they’re not just going through the motions, a full 25 percent of the field “technically” running for the title (even though some are on the verge of being mathematically eliminated) is enough to send their stories to the sidelines. Did you know that Sunday, Jamie McMurray had his best finish of the year in sixth? That Joey Logano quietly tamed a track that’s dismal for rookies and came home 12th? Or that Bobby Labonte pulled the perfect audition for 2010 with a 13th place run – his best result since the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day?

Even amongst the Chasers, there were plenty of exciting plotlines to pursue in their own right. Ryan Newman completed a “short track sweep” – top 10s in all six races at Bristol, Martinsville, and Richmond – with a 7th-place finish. Brian Vickers bounced back from a dismal Chase to come home 11th, conquering a track that specializes in chewing up and spitting out the Team Red Bull star. But neither one sits in championship contention, so even though four straight doesn’t attain historical significance for, yes, another four weeks, they’re pushed aside for instant analysis about such a feat right now.

Fans have complained so much this season about boredom to the point of pre-scripted competition. Boring races, mystery debris cautions just to spice things up at the finish, and dominance by four cars within the same organization have been just some of their multiple complaints. But when the Chase controls our stories, keeping us from concentrating on some of the other things that keep this sport exciting, no wonder why everyone’s so upset. I mean, why celebrate history now when we can do it in four weeks? History’s not history until the season’s over … so with the title in the bag sans a Talladega wreck, can’t we take time to talk about something else?

After all, you can’t expect people to get excited about a story they’re not aware of – so why write according to the script? For as Denny Hamlin so aptly proved on Sunday afternoon, just because Jimmie Johnson’s in control of this Chase doesn’t mean everyone else has given up.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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10/26/2009 06:36 AM

Thank you and Amen! The chase has taken over racing to the point that no one and nothing else even shows up on the radar. For those of us who really don’t care who wins until the season is actually over, we are forced to see and hear nothing that isn’t related to the top 12. Has it occurred to anyone that the narrow focus may be the exact reason that TV ratings are going down?

10/26/2009 07:16 AM

Thanks for your Bowles Eye View! Now if NASCAR, the print media and the television media would get on the same train for the next few weeks..the season might end on a high note! The racing at Martinsville was pretty good..but the coverage was terrible. I heard and saw every move Jimmie made..whether he was in the pits, in 25th or in first. And then..they had to go back and show us a replay of Jimmie in 25th, the pits and first. We watched Juan..and he was pretty fun .. and we watched Denny. And that..was about it. What was going on with Ryans car? And Tonys? We got a peek here or there of Mark..if he managed to get next to Jimmie..we did get some info on Jeff’s car here and there..Brians’ car? Hey..seems Carl was in there and Greg? But hmmm..don’t know? I saw Matt there..didn’t hear too a word here or there about Jamie.and even poor miserable Junior only got a mention or two (but at this point that might be a blessing)! What about Marcos? When it comes to tv coverage it is turn the tv on and then the radio..that’s the only way you get an idea of what is happening all over the track. I for one turned the tv off right after the postrace coverage of the same 3 for me! I am looking forward to the end of the season..but my problem is Daytona 2010…As usual..are they going to start out the season touting “CHASE” till we are bored to death before the racing season is past the first race?

10/26/2009 07:30 AM

I agree with most of your assessment…I would only add one big point…that Jimmie could have easily said, ok, second is fine, I’m not gonna risk wrecking or getting more on Denny’s bad side going for the win. You know, that “points racing” that everyone despises.

Bill B
10/26/2009 07:56 AM

Prior to the chase format the championship was important, now it overshadows everything.

10/26/2009 08:11 AM

I have followed NASCAR closely since the early to mid ’80s (~20yrs old). Was a casual fan prior to that (more interested in driving my own car that watching others drive theirs). I have had a “favorite” driver for about 30 years. I know that the intensity of my fanaticism has definitey declined in the last 2-3 years. I can’t pinpoint any one cause, so here are several.
1. NASCARs dictatorial style of leadership. “Officials” should not be employees. An independent group should be enforcing rules and throwing the cautions. I simply don’t trust the powers that be.
2. The COT indirectly. I enjoyed hearing the teams whine about things such as “The Ford has got a better nose! We can’t compete”. Let them drive true makes, BUT THEY CAN’T MASSAGE THE SHEET METAL to the point that it looks like a hurricane has blown it all to the right side of the car.
3. The domination of an automaker that had to be bailed out. They got enough of my money, they ain’t getting no more! Have never owned one and never will.
4. Sterile, goody-two-shoe drivers measuring every word they speak.
5. An overly PC media that can’t wait for a driver to be “non-PC” so they can jump all over them.
6. 1.5 mile tracks. Just enough space for the entire field to be 3 car lengths apart. Not enough side by side racing.
7. Over exposure. Maybe it was better when we couldn’t get every race on TV. We didn’t realize how monotonous a race could be, because we were happy just to see one!
Well, thanks for letting me give my $2 worth. I’ll keep watching and hoping that my guy wins. I don’t build my weekend around practice, qualifying, and the race like I used to. Won’t be going to Daytona in 2010. Just not that interested. We will catch both Richmond races(30 mins. away).

10/26/2009 08:16 AM

I agree with you whole-heartedly. But I now have an assignment for you and the Frontstretch staff: My wife and I were discussing this very topic during the race (when the coverage stinks, you compromise). The subject was: “If the Chase had never been implemented, HOW CLOSE would the end resulting points tally be for the championship?” My wife is quick to point out that Jeff Gordon would be going after his seventh championship this year, but let’s not even beat that dead horse. The Chase was supposed to “make the title run closer and more exciting”. Can you or one of your cohorts that are statistic-savvy (I resist the descriptor “geek”) calculate just how close all of these championship points standings would have been under the old format, and compare it to the Chase. We are very curious.

10/26/2009 08:52 AM

That would be fun to see! I’m too lazy to do the math myself so come on Frontstretch, break out the calculator! While we’re wishing we could change history… Would Jeff be going for 7? We’ll never know because there was no Davey, Alan, or Ernie (without the injury) for the majority of Jeff’s career. Lot’s of things “coulda been”.

The Turnip!
10/26/2009 09:10 AM

Lets see if I can kinda summarize the sad state of NA$CRAP and their “points” system(s)!

First, next years starting fields are ALREADY SET, (for the first 5 races of 2010)!

Can one imagine where THIS YEARS POINTS get you an automatic starting spot in 2010?

Only in NA$CRAP!

Second, they count points for everyone for 26 races!

Then they sort out the top 12 and re-shuffle the points!

So they “honor” 12 drivers for the last ten races! BUT, my friends, ONLY 10 spots are on stage at the year end banquet!

12 into 10 does not compute! I thought twelve (12) drivers were so being honored!

And then another column on the Frontstretch, the lead column today, states the it is the “elite” 5 drivers (for some reason, hell, I don’t know!)

So, what do we have here, a points “system”, that honors 35 cars! Whoops, no, a system that honors 12 drivers? Well, no, that’s not right either, a system that honors 10 drivers? Dang, wrong again!

I’ll keep trying this thing, so now we have “the elite 5”, well, no, that is going no-where!

Now I am lost, because on TV they never talk about anyone except 3 drivers, well, four if you include the 88 car, so I guess we also honor 21st place, by some stretch!

Gee, can’t even explain the number of systems and “honorees” in NA$CRAP!

I have a suggestion, how about honoring, 1st place, 2nd place, 3rd place, 4th place, all the way to the end?

Can one say “friggin mess”?

10/26/2009 09:17 AM

Oh, to the folks who want the old points, just go to They track the current Chase points, and the “old” point system.. Just go to that site, click on “Sprint”.. In the pull down menu go to “Race Results”.. Then go to “Driver Results” for the CURRENT RACE.. Old way, Stewart in 1st place; Johnson in 2nd 80pts down; Gordon in 3rd 117pts down.. Much closer then the new crazy “Chase” points system..

Michael in SoCal
10/26/2009 11:44 AM

SCS – Your point #6 – 1.5 mile tracks. Just enough space for the entire field to be 3 car lengths apart. Not enough side by side racing. – is right on. SMI & ISC built up too many of these boring tracks, took away races from the shorter ‘heritage’ tracks where the sport grew up and where the racing was hard and tight. Now we have a plethora of mile and a half D-shaped or Qual-ovals (plus Michigan & California – 1.5 milers on steroids) where single file are the words of the day. Boring!!!

It was great seeing a short track race yesterday. We need more.

10/26/2009 12:00 PM

SCS said “1. An independent group should be enforcing rules and throwing the cautions. I simply don’t trust the powers that be.”

Nascar needs to explain to the fans cautions where the caution crews never go on the track!! Also, yesterday at Martinsville, they throw a caution for a piece of rubber, But not for a car on the front stretch untill the cars are on the front stretch?? That’s two times in the last several weeks.. Throw “cautions” for “mystry” debre, but not for cars stalled on the track?? Give me a break.. Oh, if I was not allowed to put another websites address in a comment above, sorry.. Didn’t think about that untill now..

10/26/2009 12:22 PM

I just read this on another site, ESPN to be specific, so this post might be removed.

“Wins are nice, but the goal is to win a championship.”…..
David Newton covers NASCAR for

You fans know something.. Go to ESPN, see for yourself the story written.. It’s clear why the TV coverage SUCKS from ESPN.. There idea is, it’s all the Chase.. However, there are 42 other drivers out there with fans.. How would someone like to watch a football game, and have only one team covered? That’s only 50% of the info available.. Well, when they only cover JJ it’s only 2.33% of the information available.. Yea, I did the math.. 1/43*100=2.33.. I’m a Tony Stewart fan, big time.. They didn’t bairly say anything about him, damn, he’s IN the Chase!! But no info was available.. Why was he in the 20’s ESPN?? Long time Nascar fan wants to know, during the race.. Well, that’s my 2cents.. I’m not up to dollars yet.. Lol.. Just kidden..

10/26/2009 12:40 PM

Isn’t it ironic that we now have such close competition via the COT, etc, but we don’t use the old points system anymore?

I submit that if we used the old points system with todays close competition, we’d be better off.

But I know it won’t happen and that makes me sad.

Kevin in SoCal
10/26/2009 01:43 PM

How many times in the 5 or 6 years of the Chase would the old points system be better? I remember in 2007 when Jeff Gordon ran away with it and would have clinched the title after Texas with two races remaining. Is that what you want?
Also, you cant really go by Classic standings under the Chase system, because there is no way of knowing the drivers would have raced the same and had the same finishes if we were still using the old points system.
Case in point, Jeff Gordon would NOT have won the 2004 title under the old system, as Jimmie Johnson had a huge lead during the summer and started “testing”, losing a lot of points in the process and allowing the rest of the field to catch up.
Not every championship points battle is decided by a few points. I think you all have rose-colored glasses. Just look at this year’s Trucks and Nationwide battles, both leaders have a 200+ points over second place.

10/26/2009 02:17 PM

I watched very little of the race, but at one point when I switched Over to check on the race, 11 of the first 12 spots were taken by the chase drivers and I kept seeing non-chasers get out of the way of the chasers. I switched back to football and never switched back. It’s sad. It’s rigged. Its over. Usually at this point I can’t wait for Daytona. This year I don’t care and that’s real sad. Thanks Brain Fart.

10/26/2009 03:16 PM

Post above said:
“I kept seeing non-chasers get out of the way of the chasers. I switched back to football and never switched back. It’s sad.”

Yes Sir, that is Sad as can be.

10/26/2009 03:23 PM

“How many times in the 5 or 6 years of the Chase would the old points system be better? I remember in 2007 when Jeff Gordon ran away with it and would have clinched the title after Texas with two races remaining. Is that what you want?”


Kevin in SoCal
10/26/2009 04:11 PM

Of course a Gordon fan would like that, but would you feel the same if it was a different driver?

Douglas, I like your opinions and reading your comments, but I dont like getting beat over the head with them in every post. Can you pick a different subject for a while?

Also, you mention this years points deciding who starts the first five races next year, and no other sport does that. How about the drafts, where this years finishing order determines the order they pick rookies from the draft next year? Does that count? And, assuming NASCAR is not going to change the top 35 rule, how would you change the rules to determine who gets to start the first 5 races next year and who has to qualify on time?

NA$CRAP is Dying
10/26/2009 05:40 PM

NA$CAR nowadays is like watching the same re-run over and over again. Chad tests all year, then runs away with it at the end of the year. Blah Blah Blah. He will win it this year and next year and the year after that. The same re-run playing over and over. Ratings, attendance and merchandising will continue to fall because nobody wants to watch the same crap every year. At least with the old system, if someone ran away with the title, it was almost certainly somebody different. No team was ever good enough and lucky enough to easily win the title every year the way Chad does. This in itself always kept each season interesting. All of you ¢hase lovers can continue to watch this bad re-run, but I won’t. (¢hase starts = tune out) Chad is making a mockery of NA$CAR’s crappy points system, and is helping to turn fans away. In your face Brainle$$ Fran¢e. Take this ¢hase crap and your crappy COT and the rest of your garbage and shove it where the sun don’t shine. I for one am PISSED at the current state of NA$CAR and so are most all of the fans (or former fans-except Kevin in SOCAL NA$CRAP employee). The proof is in the pudding. The numbers don’t lie. The ¢hase is a complete failure. NA$CAR is a joke in the eye’s of the sporting world. It is in complete dissarray with no real direction since the Drunk took control. In my 20+ years watching, i’ve never seen things this bad. The future doesn’t look good, i’m sad to say.

Kevin in SoCal
10/26/2009 09:44 PM

I am not a NASCAR employee, nor am I an employee of any race track. I just simply refuse to wallow in the mud and be pessimistic about things. Yes there are lots about NASCAR that I would change, but I’m not running the sport. NASCAR has handed us a lot of lemons in recent years, but there is still some lemonade left.

Richard in N.C.
10/26/2009 11:39 PM

If nothing else, the Chase has proven that the media is easily distracted and will almost always criticize NASCAR and take the easy way out. There are stories out there, important to many drivers and their fans, but effort is required.

10/27/2009 12:26 AM

It seems to me that what is happening in the Chase with JJ is the very thing that happened when Kenseth kicked everyone’s butt.Yea, I know, one win. But he did it with the Championship format in place at that time. So what’s the next cure Brian France? You worthless piece of….


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