Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday October 13, 2010
The NASCAR Chase format is about as polarizing as things come these days. Think Kyle Busch driving Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, and you get the idea. Originally envisioned as the vehicle that would help NASCAR keep pace with the NFL during the fall months by preventing the championship snoozefests of 2000 and 2003, it has also had the unintended consequence of alienating longtime fans, failing to capture the imagination of the uninitiated, and producing the same champion for the last four years.
As a counterpoint to all of the carping and moaning this year regarding the futility of the Chase has been the common refrain that “this will be the closest championship fight in history!” Never before has a field been so close to produce such close racing and a title battle that will be chock full of – wait for it – DRAMA. There is enough ammunition for either side to go each way in this discussion and with it, there are a number of Chase myths and truths for each side to hang their hat on.
Myth or Fact: Replacing Auto Club Speedway with Chicagoland will improve the Chase
File this one under picking the leper with the most fingers. After years of producing the kind of parades witnessed only on Thanksgiving Day or prior to the Rose Bowl, Auto Club Speedway in its swan song of hosting two Sprint Cup events finally produced some decent racing – albeit a bit contrived after throwing a caution for what looked like a water bottle on the backstretch. While Loudon will remain a Chase track, the series is trading concrete for corruption, ditching SoCal for the Windy City instead.
The thinking is that by shuffling some dates and starting off in a new major market, it will help engender more support and excitement for NASCAR’s 10-week playoff. Right. Just hope the Bears aren’t playing at home that weekend, or that the true sign of the apocalypse hasn’t reared its head: the Cubs making a run towards the postseason. And I am not going to include the White Sox in the discussion, since as a Tigers fan, that is not an option I am willing to entertain. Ever.
If Chicagoland couldn’t get 68,000 people out to the track on a Saturday night in the middle of summer, what do they think is going to happen on one of the last few good weekends of the year? Memo to Daytona Beach: This isn’t Daytona Beach. We get five months of decent weather a year up around these parts – tops – and playing chicken with the NFL in the kielbasa capital of North America is not going to win the hearts of the natives.
Fact or Myth: Rotating tracks will help spur Chase interest
Since 2003, the title of the Cup championship trophy has gone by three different names under three different points systems, at the same tracks over and over – save for Rockingham, Darlington and Atlanta (moment of silence, please). Just as it sometimes helps to get some new blood in the booth, mixing up the tracks the championship is decided on could generate some new enthusiasm or potentially change the outcome.
I’ve always been of the opinion this move would be a positive, if simply to change up the landscape and spark some interest for many longtime tracks that are largely removed from deciding a champion with the new format. Pocono, Michigan, Darlington, and Daytona have all had their say by the time the teams get to Richmond in September. By then, all but a couple of spots in the top 12 have already been decided. There still is no road course race in the Chase, despite the popularly held belief that a true champion excels on all tracks, not just 1.5-mile ovals and a roll of the dice at Talladega. Besides, how cool would Watkins Glen look this weekend, trees ablaze in yellow and orange providing a vivid backdrop to the blue Armco and ribbon of asphalt in upstate New York?
Many also cite the current track schedule as the real reason Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team have managed to win four consecutive championships in an era that is largely regarded as the closest and most competitive in history. This theory is bunk if I’ve ever heard it. Not sure if you haven’t noticed, but every track is pretty much J.J. and company’s best tracks. Four wins in Las Vegas, three at Indy, and a pair at Pocono for non-Chase venues, while he manages to win at Charlotte, Dover, and Martinsville no matter what time of year it is.
Still think that replacing Auto Club with Chicago is going to have much of an impact on hamstringing the No. 48? The last four races at Chicago, they’ve led 247 laps, so it’s only a matter of time before he scratches that one off the list, too.
Fact or Myth: An elimination-style format is what is needed to save the Chase
If there has been a recurring theme among those opining on how to make the Chase work, is that an elimination round is what is needed to create more excitement and – wait for it – DRAMA. After all, it works for the NCAA in basketball, so why wouldn’t it work here? The three lowest-ranked drivers after two races would be dropped from contention and more drivers would be eliminated until you got down to five that would decide the title among themselves. At that point, another possible resetting of the points (again) would set the stage for that “Game Seven Moment” that a certain luminary of the sport longs for.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this one and what my take is going to be.
To make this work, it is believed the field would be expanded to 15 drivers, which at that point I say, why not make it 30, give everybody a participant trophy and some orange slices and call it a day. Some say it is to give more exposure to more teams that feel left out in the cold this time of year after not making the Chase. Others contend it is to ensure that the sport’s most popular driver who hasn’t won in two years is also included in the mix. Truth be told, even under those lax standards for championship contender status, a driver would not be in the mix or even remotely in the conversation.
I’m still having trouble coming to grips on how being over 400 points out of the lead, or sitting in 11th place with 10 races left, somehow conveys an air of championship material.
After the mutual meltdown following the ratings dive after Kansas, everybody was clamoring for answers of what was wrong and what was needed to fix what has been broken for over six years. The best that we can hope for is some good racing in the interim until some meaningful changes are made.
Until that time, the notion that the Chase format was one that was going to work and help NASCAR compete with the NFL and MLB during the heart of their seasons will remain little more than a myth. And that’s a fact.
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