The Frontstretch: Decision 2010: Is a 3-Way Championship Fight Enough to Save NASCAR's Chase? by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday November 3, 2010

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Decision 2010: Is a 3-Way Championship Fight Enough to Save NASCAR's Chase?

Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday November 3, 2010

 

There has been a lot of talk about “change” the last two years — and 12 months — but the anti-incumbent mood is not stronger anywhere in 2010 than Daytona Beach, Florida. That’s right; even with the political landscape having shifted dramatically last night, the ballot issue I’m talking about is not tax cuts nor health insurance, but rather the much-maligned Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. The $4.8 billion dollar boondoggle that was supposed to have propelled stock car racing to NFL stature has instead slowly backslid into a double-dip depression, with ratings and attendance down more so than other sports have experienced.

A.J. Allmendinger endured a spectacular crash at the end of this past Sunday’s race, but it did little to spice up what was a tame 500-miler.

Those Nielsen numbers are consistently dropping 10-20 percent across the board, pairing with attendance losses that match them at virtually every track on the schedule. Even the better races, including one of the most anticipated superspeedway spectaculars of the season at Talladega, have seen a notable decline.

Further evidence of a burgeoning revolution are the comments and postings on virtually any racing-related forum, website, blog, or Tweet. I have received my own share of email from fans that have had it up to here (I have my hand in a salute gesture at about eye level right now) with what “their” sport has sullied itself to.

This atmosphere accompanied Sunday’s AMP Energy Juice 500, which was not exactly the haunted wild card wreckfest it was purported to be. Yes, Jeff Burton was eliminated, as was fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the result of some overenthusiastic bump-drafting through Turn 4 by the latter. What resulted was a photo finish of sorts, resorting to scoring loops, video, and timing to determine which RCR car was the actual winner of the event. As luck would have it, the No. 33 Chevrolet of Clint Bowyer was deemed the victor, and the crowd went … mild.

Perhaps it was because nobody really knew when the race had actually ended, or what became of A.J. Allmendinger, who appeared to either sit down or fall down next to the ambulance after exiting his inverted No. 43 Ford Fusion. Perhaps it was the convoluted TV coverage; forgive ESPN for being as completely in the dark as the rest of us, but then remember that CBS was able to cover races better 25 years ago with three cameras. The gaffes added up to an overall feeling of confusion rather than satisfaction over an event that had a near-record 87 lead changes, 26 leaders, and enough side-by-side racing to fill a decade of competition at Fontana.

Yes, Talladega has been one of NASCAR’s signature tracks since its inaugural event in 1969, but try telling that to fans who stayed home to the tune of a 14 percent decline at the turnstiles. With ratings and attendance down for the track that virtually guarantees you’ll make it on your local news if you sit near the fence on the frontstretch, it does not bode well for continued viability of the Chase format if a 2.66-mile track pulls in 35 percent less people than it did just a few years ago.

Even a photo finish between Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer and 87 lead changes weren’t enough to keep fans tuning in at Talladega – TV ratings for the race were off nearly 25 percent from last year.

Fan polling and sentiment will support this preaching to the choir sermon from my seat here in western Michigan, but there is something far beyond wrong with this picture. The plot thickens when there is a collective shrug of the shoulders offered by many fans for a title battle that tightened following the race; we’re now down to a trio of teams separated by a scant 38 points with three races left.

What makes it doubly bad for NASCAR and Chase proponents is that if there was going to be one year that the playoff may have gotten it right, it should have been 2010. After all, the three drivers vying for the title are in effect the “right” ones contesting for the championship. Kevin Harvick led the point standings for virtually the entire regular season, while Denny Hamlin rebounded from knee surgery and nagging doubts regarding the wisdom of his decision to get cut open – and then get back into a car that would be involved in an accident in his first race back. Then there is Jimmie Johnson, the much-maligned four-time champ who is criticized either because he seems boring or because his team has figured out best how to work a convoluted points reset system to his advantage.

Rusty Wallace once likened Dale Earnhardt to a John Deere tractor who “just keeps puttin’ along” during his 1993 title run. Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe’s team, which year after year has remained largely intact, operates in much the same fashion, with Glock-like reliability. Much like the fabled Austrian plastic-pistol, it isn’t terribly exciting, does its job with mind-numbing repetition, and does so rarely flubbing an assignment.

When they do, it’s tap-rack-reassess, and fixed either that race or the next.

Three different drivers, three compelling storylines that would drive the off-track conversation as little as five years ago. But what has become glaringly clear is that while the Chase does provide some talking points and opportunity for discussion and prognostication, it still fails to resonate with fans — both the grizzled old diehards, or Fantasy Football Guy, who has just smashed his laptop and changed channels when the Detroit Lions defense has scored a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining against the Washington Redskins.

A number of different NASCAR avenues are at a crossroads. Chief among them is how to decide the champion of the premier series, and moreover, how to make it relevant so that people are interested again.

Where to begin? If the sport’s winningest driver is barely hanging on even in name only, then there stands to be some irrecoverable harm done to the sport. The 43-car field that has been a mainstay of competition is now bearing whispers that it should be curtailed – perhaps to the 36- to 40-car fields that were once the limit during the early 1990s. That may not be such a bad idea. It would discourage the start and park teams from showing up, but then again, how much air time does somebody running 38th get anyway?

The basic laws of economics dictate the answer nobody seems to want to accept: scarcity of product equals increased demand. Cut out a few dates, reduce the cost for teams to compete, and make people hungry for it again.

With the oversaturation in the marketplace of everything NASCAR following the 2001 network and Western expansion, the curiosity of the traveling speed circus was replaced with familiarity, and with the advent of the Chase, has in part bred contempt. The dead horse that the not-so-silent majority has been beating has not quite yielded the windfall of results that many had hoped. There have been cracks in the armor of the obstinate; normal start times, rejection of the wing, and muscle cars now making up half the field of the once-proud Nationwide Series.

The people have spoken, but has NASCAR listened in time? The data suggests that the main issue of contention is that the championship system does not need to be kicked off at the most sparsely attended superspeedway next to the third-most populated city in the United States, but instead, repealed entirely. Viewership and attendance of the final three races should serve as a final referendum on NASCAR’s six-year redistributive championship experiment gone awry.

Will NASCAR heed to the actions of the fans that have spoken louder than a 43-car field ever would, or continue to do things its own way, stumbling down the same path that each political party finds itself doing the same way every eight years or so?

In the arena of sports and entertainment, fans vote with their wallets, ticket stubs, and remotes. The early returns this year were not promising, and in the eleventh hour of this cycle, it’s not looking pretty. That’s kind of a shame, as the three candidates for the 2010 championship have all run respectable races and gone about their quest in decidedly different manners.

Hopefully out of deference to these drivers and teams, there will be more than a few people who stick around to see how this one pans out. But at this point… no guarantees.

Contact Vito Pugliese

Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
FREE FRONTSTRETCH NEWSLETTER! SENT RIGHT TO YOUR EMAIL INBOX! CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP
Did You Notice? … How To Make People Race, A Sponsor’s Decade-Long Despair And Hendrick’s Ace Card
Beyond the Cockpit: Casey Mears On The Hardest Thing He’s Ever Done
Mirror Driving: Shortened Fields, New Car Blues, And Crying Over Kyle?
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Talladega-2
Top 10 NASCAR Political Donations
Frontstretch Foto Funnies! Talladega, October 2010
Carey And Coffey: Stock Cars In NASCAR … Could It Be?

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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Jacob
11/03/2010 05:42 AM
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Well said, Vito. I don’t think na$car cares how eloquently it is stated. They said the chase is right, good, and proper. brian france is not one to consider admitting that he is wrong.

Sherri T
11/03/2010 09:39 AM
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Well said Vito! (I’ve always wanted to know someone named Vito.) I love racing and I used to love NASCAR, but ever since the Chase made a mockery of what a championship is supposed to be (discovering who the best, most consistent driver-team of the year is) I’ve been losing my interest.

It hasn’t helped that the talented driver that I like most has been shafted a couple of times because of that stupid chase format!

I like that ESPN seems to be getting the message to give us wider shots so we can actually watch RACING and some of the changes to the car have improved things, the Chase is the problem that needs addressing most!

NASCAR is not a stick and ball sport. NASCAR shouldn’t be stuffed into that play-off model either! Look at the Nationwide series! They don’t have a chase and they’ve had some really great battles for the championship (we won’t get into the whole discussion of whether the Sprint Cup guys should be there because that’s another rant).

Bottom line? I agree with all you’ve said and from one Western-Michigander to another, keep up the great work!

Kevin in SoCal
11/03/2010 01:11 PM
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Vito said: “enough side-by-side racing to fill a decade of competition at Fontana.”

Was that really necessary, or are you just seeing if I’m still paying attention?

Sherri, pass me some of what you’re smoking while watching the AAA series. There hasnt been a close battle in the Nationwide series since it was Martin Truex vs Kyle Busch. Since 2006, the Nationwide series title has been a yawn-inducing runaway every year.

Craig
11/03/2010 01:27 PM
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I agree with everything you said. I just hope at the least they leave the Chase alone and don’t give us something crazier like the proposed “elimination chase”. The biggest problem people have with Chase is that it sacrifices fairness for artificial excitement. NASCAR needs to sit down with its teams and drivers (much like the original smoke filled room that created the sport) and decide what a Cup Champion should look like, and then devise a system that can best achieve that result. Most NASCAR fans believe that it’s the traditional cumulative points system with a new driver point system that rewards winning more.

A team sport playoff doesn’t work for auto racing unless your totally willing to separate the playoff drivers from everyone else. In team sports, playoffs are one on one. In the Super Bowl last year Peyton Manning didn’t have to worry about a Vikings linebacker jumping out of the crowd and tackling him. But, the equivalent can happen in NASCAR (see Busch and Reuterman at Kansas). I hope the drop in ratings and attendance means NASCAR is ready to listen.

Brian France Sucks
11/03/2010 08:08 PM
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5 simple steps to fix NA$CAR w/o eliminating the Chase (let’s face it, the idiot in charge will not eliminate it):

1)*Provide better racing*
Give Rockingham and Wilkesboro 1 date back, give Iowa 1 date, and restore Darlington’s other date.

2) * Eliminate tracks with poor racing * Eliminate 1 race from Pocono, Texas, Michigan, and can Fontana altogether

3) Award 25 bonus points for each win

4) Run more Saturday night races during NFL season

5) One road course in the Chase (Watkins Glen in fall foliage would be very cool)

1) My main reason here is these tracks are FAR superior in terms of racing action. The main reason they were dropped was because the idiots doing the scheduling couldn’t fathom that watching races in February or late October at said venues was rough at times. And Iowa looks to be a great track, and is in prime racing country.

2) There are too many boring races on the schedule. Pocono is horrid, Michigan/Fontana are only exciting on restarts and when fuel is an issue, and there are too many 1.5’s on the schedule.

3) More bonus pts for winning will quiet the ADD crowd.

4) Recreate the local short-track feel, and only compete against a few college football games.

5) The Chase needs a road course to be relevant.

DoninAjax
11/03/2010 10:11 PM
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The fat lady is warming up.

phil h
11/04/2010 12:58 AM
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speaking of eliminating race tracks! There is no track on the schedule worse than Indianapolis!A flat,one groove racing facility meant for nothing but open wheel skeeters!!I’d drop it like a rock!

24Crazy
11/04/2010 02:13 PM
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Michigan has great side by side racing throughout the field, They just don’t show it on TV. I know ‘cause I have been there……As far as the ratings and attendance go…Can the “chase” and put the STOCK back in stock car racing and the fans will return…

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