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Happy Hour: Networks Prop Up The Chase; Real Fans Reject It

In four years of the worst playoff system in recent history to be forced down sports fans’ throats, I still haven’t seen or heard anything resembling a viable argument in favor of the Chase, even from professionals who write about NASCAR for a living.

Last week, Terry Blount of ESPN and our own Vito Pugliese took opposite tacks discussing the Chase and the effect it will have on Kyle Busch’s substantial points advantage. Pugliese decried the idea that Busch would lose what is currently a 700-plus point lead over barely qualifying teammate Denny Hamlin, while Blount cheered the prospect that other drivers will now have a chance to overtake Busch once NASCAR wipes out his points lead.

Now, race fans, which of these two writers works for an independent website, and which one works for the network that is televising the last 10 races? In other words, which one is genuinely a fan at heart?

If you are a devoted sports fan, if you think the best man or woman should win, if you believe that the integrity of the outcome in any sport should be respected and preserved, if you think Bart Giamatti was right to expel Pete Rose from baseball, if at the very least you recognize that professional wrestling really isn’t a sport, then you cannot reasonably defend the Chase for the Sprint Cup on competition grounds. Your sports fan’s conscience shouldn’t allow it. It’s like a lifelong baseball fan welcoming the preponderance of steroids.

Because when you get right down to it, the Chase does one thing and one thing only: it takes points away from drivers. Points that were earned the only way points should ever be earned in motorsports: on the racetrack.

I picked out the three best arguments that are generally made by other motorsports writers and casual fans, all of which are equally weak.

Most common and most annoying of Chase defenses is an argument that is made by an awful lot of people who cover this sport: it’s a good thing that NASCAR made the last few races more interesting.

It takes a long time to type a response to that with one hand while holding one’s nose at the idea that racing… and sports in general… is more about the show and the hype than about the excellence and hard work. Firstly, if a motorsports writer thinks racing is boring and needs a contrived playoff format, then maybe he should be questioning his choice of vocation. Secondly, has the Chase made the championship battle more interesting? The ratings certainly don’t show it, and we haven’t yet had a classic finish that we’ll be talking about for years.

Take the last four season finales. Having five drivers who could win it in 2004 might have been interesting, but let’s not forget that that season would have still been decided at Homestead between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon anyway, and it wouldn’t have been because they were running roughshod over the rest of the field like they did last year. In 2005, Tony Stewart needed only a mediocre finish at Miami to take the Cup, as did Johnson in both of the last two years. The Homestead race was supposed to be the big payoff, not the race where you only tuned in to see if the points leader might DNF.

Chase supporters touting more excitement don’t often mention what has happened to the Bristol night race. That event used to be one of the highlights of the NASCAR season (remember?) filled with high-intensity pushing and shoving that participants and spectators would often remember for a long time. It has since become a televised sleeping pill, less watchable with each succeeding year. What was the most memorable moment from the last three Bristol night races? The only thing that comes to this columnist’s mind is Michael Waltrip holding up leader Kasey Kahne while two laps down. There’s a classic Bristol moment… right there with Gordon’s bump and run on Rusty!

It is actually ironic that the Bristol night race was infinitely better when it had less importance and wasn’t just before the playoffs. Now drivers are either protecting their spot in or near the Chase, or avoiding risking a wreck with another driver protecting their spot. Is this a formula for great short track racing?

Then there’s the notion that adding a playoff simply makes NASCAR “like other sports.” Besides that there is a playoff now, how is that the case?

In what other sport do non-playoff teams participate in the playoff events? What sport divides their season, cuts off the last third, resets the won-lost records of the better teams to 0-0 and then resumes the action? There is zero similarity between NASCAR’s playoff format and that of any other sport. At least in football and hockey, the better teams get a reward – home advantage. How about letting the points leader pick two or three of the venues where the last 10 races will be?

And the last argument more or less admits that the playoff system is flawed: “The best teams step up when it counts!”

The best teams should have to prove that they’re the best over a period of 36 races, not 10. Taking that concept to its logical conclusion, the golfer who breaks par over 18 holes is not as good as the golfer who shoots 10 over for the course but wins the last five holes, “stepping up when it counts.” Absurd as that may sound, it is exactly the logic of the Chase.

Kyle Busch will probably cruise into the playoffs with a hefty lead, every point of which was earned on the racetrack by the sweat of his team and pit crew, and through his own spectacular… and exciting… performance. That lead will be instantaneously wiped out as if he and his team didn’t even show up in two of the races. If he then gets caught in a big wreck at Talladega because Michael McDowell got loose, it could cost him the title. That would be a sports travesty, the blame for which would fall at the feet of NASCAR… and continue to be one of the causes of the sport going from nearly eclipsing the NFL in popularity to increasingly becoming a sports laughingstock in just five short years.

Most of NASCAR’s hardcore fans aren’t buying the Chase. A lot of them are Southerners and have spent time on farms. They recognize the smell of bulls**t.

The Chase was started so that Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and other popular drivers would be in the hunt for a title in more races. After the three most popular drivers in the sport all unexpectedly came up short of the playoffs in different seasons, it was expanded to 12 drivers. Could it be more blatant that NASCAR was trying to ensure a playoff show featuring Junior, Gordon and Stewart? With Junior’s failure to make the Chase last year, it backfired severely. You know the possible expansion of the Chase to 15 drivers crossed their minds after the dismal ratings performance towards the end of 2007.

With this kind of governance, why does NASCAR get so uptight when they’re compared to the WWE? They’ve deliberately designed a playoff format to keep the more popular drivers in the show. If NASCAR doesn’t respect the virtue of the competition, dedication and excellence in the sport, for better or for worse, why should fans?

Some folks assert that like it or not, the Chase is here to stay. I’m not sure about that. We’re not talking about a sport that respects any kind of tradition, no matter how little it’s been sanctified. It took NASCAR exactly one year to ditch the idea of impound races. Does anyone doubt that if it were Earnhardt Jr. who was arguably denied two championships from the Chase format that it would still be in place? We’ll never know – it’s fairly certain that it wouldn’t happen twice.

And because even Earnhardt Jr.’s fans know that, the Chase – and the mentality of a sport that implements a contrived playoff without considering the effects – has cost NASCAR a ton of respect as a sport with fans.

No matter how much some reporters try to suggest otherwise.

Special Edition of Kurt’s “Short” – Bet On Chevrolet!

I run a NASCAR fantasy league for some family members and buddies, and the one thing that has made me a winner for the last couple of seasons is picking Chevrolets for my team. After NASCAR’s latest foray into IROCisizing the Nationwide Series, I now realize why.

Remember when Bill Elliott was told by Bill France Jr. that his Ford wasn’t going to stink up the show? Chevrolet driver Gordon was given no such admonishment… and if anyone stunk up the show it was Gordon.

When Jack Roush placed five Fords in the Chase in 2005 (thanks partly to NASCAR’s “money-saving” rule changes), NASCAR instituted a maximum number of cars rule, which only affected the one remaining successful Ford team owner. After Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevrolets won half of the races in 2007, NASCAR of course stepped up to the plate, doing absolutely nothing to slow down the team for whom the most popular driver would be running in 2008.

Now a Joe Gibbs Toyota has been wiping up the floor with the other cars in the Nationwide Series, and NASCAR actually had to point out the unfair advantage of a car that hasn’t won all season for an excuse to slow the No. 20 down! And it’s been proven once again, other manufacturers are welcome to participate and spend their money, just not to win.

And all this time I thought Dale Earnhardt was just a great driver.

Hey Mr. Stewart, I know it gets you into trouble, but I can’t get fined for it and it won’t bother me if I’m no longer allowed at NASCAR events. So I’ll say it for ya:

NASCAR IS LIKE THE WWE!
NASCAR IS LIKE THE WWE!
NASCAR IS LIKE THE WWE!
WWE! WWE! WWE!

Nyuk nyuk nyuk!

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