I could cry. Or barf. Or throw things. Or something. OK, OK, I know, NASCAR listens to nobody and cares about no one… but this is crazy. Knowing changes to the Chase for the Nextel Cup were coming did nothing to soften the blow of the actual news when it happened late Thursday afternoon.
Although specifics have yet to be released, this much is clear: NASCAR Vice President of Corporate Communications Jim Hunter confirmed that the sanctioning body will award more points for winning a race and that more drivers will be in the Chase, changes that I find clearly unnecessary.
Both are bad ideas, but at least the points I can live with. Apparently, the era where consistency and running near the front every week were the true measure of a champion is over. I don’t think that’s a great direction to go in, because plenty of drivers can win a few times a year and be inconsistent across the board the rest of the time. Take Kasey Kahne. Kahne won six times this year, more than any other driver. But when push came to shove, he wasn’t able to seal the deal by running up front week in and week out. He finished about where he should have when all was said and done, towards the back half of the top 10 in points. He had a great year, but he also failed to finish almost as many times as he won (five DNFs). That’s a good year, but not a great year… certainly not a championship-caliber year, either.
And that’s where adding more drivers to the Chase makes no sense. As it is, in the three years that the Chase has determined the title, there have been about seven or eight teams each year that, while having excellent years, did not have championship-caliber years. That includes, interestingly enough, 2004 champ Kurt Busch. To his and his team’s credit, Busch used the points reset to the ultimate advantage; but, with his inconsistency during the regular season, he never should have had a shot at the title in the first place. Adding more drivers who don’t deserve a championship will do nothing to make the sport more exciting – instead doing everything to detract from NASCAR’s waning credibility.
Sure, other sports have wild-card teams, and yes, those teams sometimes win championships. But the Chase format is almost the opposite of this. Instead of several legitimate contenders and a couple of wild cards who were no worse than second in their respective divisions, the Chase pits a couple of legitimate contenders against seven or eight wild cards who probably had little shot of winning any other way. Adding more of these teams is not a solution – it’s an insult to fans and teams to reward mediocrity with a shot at title contention come Homestead.
NASCAR Chairman Brian France said last year that the Chase was about “showcasing the skills” of the top drivers in the sport. It has done that, albeit sometimes artificially, during its three years of existence, when the question of whether artificial was necessary at the time never got a true answer. In the end, NASCAR is going to have to make up its mind on this system – either showcase only the top drivers who battle for the title like they did as recently as 2003, or reset the points among all of the Top 35 teams and let them all race for it in a no-holds-barred playoff. But don’t reward in-between mediocrity – even mediocrity mixed with flashes of absolute brilliance (see Tony Stewart, 2006) with a champion’s trophy. In the end, all that can possibly do is tarnish that trophy, along with the title that goes with it. And not one of NASCAR’s past champions, present fans, or future contenders deserves that.