Like a bad penny, we’re stuck with it. But even a bad penny can be polished, and that what it’s time for NASCAR to do with the Chase for the Nextel Cup… polish that bad penny until it’s shiny. It might still be bad at heart, but at least the outward show might be bearable.
When the Chase started, fans were promised tweaks and changes as it went along, to “improve” the playoff system that we never needed in the first place. So far all we have seen is adding more teams to an already over-diluted mix and a convoluted points system that was designed to reward winning, but goes so far as to possibly take the points lead away from the points leader when the playoffs start. As an added (non) bonus, it stops once the Chase starts, so winning during the playoffs is actually less important than during the regular season, when the opposite should be true.
Can a penny this bad really be polished?
Yes it can. It will never be truly fixed without eliminating it altogether, but if tweaks were made in the right places and made for the good of the sport, not just to appease a certain faction of fans, the Chase penny could at least look decent.
First of all, the number of eligible drivers should have been reduced by half, not increased to include more not-quite-good-enough drivers and teams. Once upon a time, finishing in the top 10 for the year was honor enough. It got you a front row seat at the Waldorf and a big fat bonus check. And that was enough, a huge pat on the back for a job well done, actually. But the bottom line was, if you were, say eighth in points, you had a great year, not a championship year. Now you get a free, second-chance shot at stealing a title from a team that spent all year earning it, not just going a 10-race hot streak. It reminds me of the new “progressive” baseball and soccer leagues for children, where they don’t keep score so nobody loses and everyone feels good. Please. That attitude is horrible for children, who no longer have to learn the finer points of sportsmanship, and it’s even worse for adults; crews, drivers or their fans who ought to accept a decent finish for their team for what it is, a hard-fought, outstanding season in which they outstripped 75% of the competition week in and week out.
But leave the championship for the guys who earn it for 36 weeks and cut the field to five. Realistically, heading into the last 10 races, if the points were not reset, maybe five guys usually have a shot at the title (sure, there are exceptions, such as 1992 when no less than six entered the final race with a mathematical shot), so NASCAR needs to stop rewarding better-than-average and start rewarding true excellence.
Second, the schedule needs to be revamped to add a better and more challenging group of tracks to the mix. The current mix has one superspeedway, one short track, three 1-milers and five 1.5-2-mile cookie cutters. Talladega is a horsepower track, and the cookie-cutters are all about engine durability and handling, so the teams with the best engines have a huge advantage. Sure the guys in the engine department work their butts off and deserve recognition, but adding tracks that put more emphasis on driving and adjustments would enhance the competition and ensure an exciting championship battle. Also, Chase tracks should be required to install lights or lose their date to avoid finishes like we saw at Kansas when a rain delay pushed the race into near darkness. (Of course, actually starting the races at a decent hour would also help.)
As I see it, the Chase schedule should look like this: New Hampshire (because for all its detractors, NHIS produces decent racing and forces drivers to drive hard and teams to constantly adjust on the cars), Dover, Watkins Glen (a road course demands versatility and skill), Richmond, Charlotte (home track), Martinsville, Las Vegas (the new layout is much better than Texas), Phoenix, Kansas and Daytona (which is much more a handling/driving track than Talladega). That would shift the ration to one superspeedway, one road course, two short tracks, two flat-milers, one banked-mile oval and three 1.5-mile tracks that are distinctly different. A greater variety of tracks would put a greater emphasis on teamwork and driving rather than horsepower, and durability would still be an important factor. It would be a truer, more interesting test of a champion.
Finally, the “seeding” system needs to go. Not only does it have to potential to take away a points lead that was held virtually all season (as it did this year), but as also happened, has the potential to hand the lead to a team that was not even close in points. The emphasis should be on winning in the Chase, not the regular season. Sure, hand out the extra points for the win, but only if they are awarded at the time of the win and help get a driver in the Chase, not to determine his placing with the point reset. Then, because one major problem with the Chase is some teams playing it safe rather than going all out for the win every week, give a larger bonus to the winner of a Chase race, Chaser or not. Putting more importance on winning in the Chase would force all the teams to go for the win, not just a few who feel they can risk it.
The Chase is in need of some serious polishing to make it at least look attractive. By eliminating teams that aren’t of championship caliber in that year anyway, so that competition at the top is even tighter, revamping the schedule to make versatility and adaptability of more importance, and rethinking where the emphasis on winning really belongs, the bad penny might at least look its best. Since it’s going to keep coming back anyway, no matter what a ridiculous mistake it as from the start, it might as well be as polished and shiny as possible. At least then, someone might want it.