Speculation on what changes NASCAR Chairman Brian France and his NASCAR “braintrust” will decide to make in the Chase to the Nextel Cup for the coming year gained momentum this past week when France spoke publicly about possible modifications to the championship format. Supposedly, any such modifications will be put off until the offseason, with an official announcement of any changes to come sometime in January 2007.
Well, I have my own recommendation to give to Brian France; leave the Chase alone! Despite thoughts to the contrary, the way NASCAR has chosen to decide the championship is a system that simply isn’t broken.
Thankfully, France has seemed to dismiss suggestions that a separate point system should be in play during the final ten races for the ten championship contenders. This concept centered around an idea that the championship eligible drivers would be awarded points for finishing positions in each of the races based on how the driver placed only in comparison to the other nine championship competitors, and no one else. Such a system would essentially establish two different races being run simultaneously, as the finishing order of the 33 cars outside the Chase would no longer have an impact on the championship.
Responding with skepticism to that plan, France simply said, "I don't think you're going to see races within a race and all that other stuff."
Good! The ten drivers did not qualify for the championship by racing just one another. Their pre-Chase performances were predicated on how they stacked up against the entire Nextel Cup field of drivers. It would not be beneficial to the fans, drivers, owners, or individual tracks that host races during the Chase to have a non-Chase competitor win the race, but receive far less attention for his exceptional performance than a Chase driver that finished only fifth…but first among the ten championship hopefuls.
Another pitfall of the “race within a race” concept would be its tendency to disrupt broadcasters’ already delicate balancing act of covering both the race as a entity unto itself against the importance of the championship contest. A different point system for Chasers would lead to TV cameras routinely focused on those championship drivers running towards the back of the race field, rather than giving drivers battling at the front of the pack their due. When three or four Chase drivers running outside the Top 20 would be as significant a story as a non-Chase driver running in the Top 5, or even leading the race, that’s a fatal flaw for a plan that shouldn’t be implemented.
Another encouraging sign from France was his dismissal of increasing the number of championship eligible contenders to more than the present ten drivers. France, when asked about the possibility of expanding the field, stated, "No, It's not on the table. We like the 10. Ten races, 10 drivers."
And ten is certainly enough! It constitutes about 25% of the full-time drivers in the series. That’s certainly an adequate percentage to assure that the deserving Champion is crowned. It was improbable that a driver outside the Top 10 and more than four hundred points behind the point leader after the first twenty-six races could have won the championship during the pre-Chase years; why make the impossible possible?
Every year, there will certainly be high quality drivers and owners who won’t qualify for championship consideration under this system. Joe Gibbs Racing and Tony Stewart, along with Roush Racing and Carl Edwards, are two of the most glaring examples of that from this year. Still, leaving those teams out is a testament to both how tough the competition is at the Cup level and what a tremendous accomplishment it is to be included in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. No matter how “good” a team you claim to be, a driver in eleventh or further back in the standings with only ten races remaining does not deserve to be eligible to win the Nextel Cup Championship.
The only injustice with the system is that a driver such as Tony Stewart, who has come alive during the Chase period, will forever be recorded as eleventh in the 2006 season’s final points tally. I do not have a remedy to this, except to say that hopefully the $1 million payout for the eleventh place position, along with a speech at the Waldorf Astoria, will take some of the sting out of not being accredited a higher finish for the season.
So, what will the future changes be? Speaking briefly before the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, France seemed to hint that there would be an increase in points awarded for wins in 2007. Currently, a winner is awarded 180 points for winning, with the second place winner collecting 170 points. However, this system still allows for the runner up to close within just 5 points of the winner, as has been the case three times this season. It’s a discrepancy that occurs because 5 point bonuses are awarded for leading the most laps. Depending on the amount of bonus points earned by a race winner, his gap between his winning effort and second place could grow, too, but only up to 20 points.
The “more points for a win” debate is not a new issue…nor is it an issue specific to the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship format. Significantly increasing the number of points for winning a Cup race is long overdue. Competitors who are legitimate contenders for winning suffer huge setbacks in points when they are inadvertently eliminated from a race through accidents that occur through no fault of their own. However, those same drivers are currently only minimally rewarded for the exceptional efforts that are required to win a race in the highly competitive world of stock car racing at the NASCAR Cup level.
Striking a balance between recognizing the value of drivers that consistently finish well and those that seem to have an affinity for either winning or recording run-of-the-mill finishes is easier said than done. Is a first and twelfth place finish better than a second and third place finish? Consistency is certainly admirable and should be rewarded, but a win, wellâ€¦ it is truly something special, too.
Hopefully, NASCAR will settle on about a fifty-point margin between first and second place as the prize for winning a race. Fifty points will go a long ways towards aiding a true championship caliber team to overcome any uncontrollable bad luck they may have experienced during the season. Fifty points given to a winner is not an amount that is insurmountable to overcome by drivers that post consistently exceptional Top 5 finishes against a driver that has a propensity towards winning races occasionally, but otherwise posting middle-of-the-road finishing results.
What else? Brian France warns, "There will be some other adjustments that we'll consider, and they'll be small, by definition, modest changes. It won't be a revelation."
It would be advisable that France and his advisers follow through with that philosophy and not introduce any “revelations” for the public to deal with. The Chase format, when adopted almost three seasons ago, was a very large adjustment for many fans that were already feeling disenfranchised by other changes that had occurred within the sport. Even now, a significant number of those longtime followers are still having difficulty digesting that change. But just because they can’t digest it doesn’t mean that’s a reason to change course.
This year's championship, like 2004, is shaping up to be another "nailbiter" – and two of those in three years under this format is a pretty good percentage. Bottom line, the Chase is providing excitement in a manner seen under the old point system just once about every fifteen years. It is, all and all, a sound playoff system that needs to be left alone.
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