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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Chase “Excitement” Nothing But Smoke & Mirrors

I have to laugh. Well, either that or cry, and laughing isn’t as messy.

In 2004, NASCAR attempted to become the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the NHL all in one. Well, maybe not the NHL. There’s no ice, and fighting is still banned, but NASCAR added a playoff system to make the sport “more exciting” after a lackluster 2003 points race that featured Matt Kenseth running away with the last Winston Cup trophy on the strength of one win and a nauseatingly-consistent season. Brian France was trying to make a name for himself (He’s now made several, none of them flattering.) and so the Chase was born.

NASCAR flaunted its new playoff system despite the obvious flaws. (NASCAR is not the NFL, NBA or any other sport that needs single-elimination games or series to decide a champion, in case nobody noticed.) It would make the racing closer, NASCAR said. Fans would like it better, NASCAR said, continuing their belief that they can, in fact, read the minds of the faithful. What happened instead was anything but exciting. The first Chase produced a “champion” who did little more than prove the adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, winning it all on the basis of 10 races, despite a thoroughly mediocre 26 to open the season. Kurt Busch had just 11 top-10 finishes in 26 races to open the season, while would-be champ Jeff Gordon had 18 top 10s in the same stretch. Busch had nine top 10s in the Chase; Gordon had seven. And in an ironic twist where the Chase was supposed to emphasize winning over consistency, Busch’s three wins trumped Gordon’s six. Oops. A similar situation is brewing this year, with a resurgent Jimmie Johnson peaking now, despite the fact that Kyle Busch has eight wins and has been remarkably consistent. Frankly, Busch deserves the title.

Not only does the system not work, it doesn’t make racing more exciting to those who truly understand the sport. While it may appeal to the generation of attention span-challenged fans produced by sitcoms, video games and instant gratification, there is little appeal to the fans who never wanted more than for the season’s best to be the season’s best.

For one thing, the Chase takes the excitement out of the first 26 races. Drivers in the coveted 12 spots play it safe, racing for points rather than bulldogging for wins-because they all know that all they have to do is get in and they’ll be handed a boatload of points that they did not earn to close the points race up in the same way a phantom debris caution closes up the field when someone is running away with a single race. So for 26 races, teams are constantly told to look at the big picture and as a result, most of them race like their grandmas most weeks. It’s not fun to watch and it has ruined what was once the most exciting race of the year (the night race at Bristol in August) because the top drivers in the sport are so afraid of the points hit a wreck might cause that they barely race. The drivers who built the sport must be horrified at what it has become with this system. And the point stroking barely changes in the Chase itself.

MCLAUGHLIN: NASCAR NATION LETS OUT A COLLECTIVE YAWN

Think of it this way: not only has the Chase produced two champions in four years who would not have been holding the trophy had the whole year mattered, but it also has deprived fans of one of the closest points battles in history. In 2006, Johnson beat Kenseth to the title by 56 points. Under the old system, the margin was just eight. Sure, Chase proponents can argue that both Johnson and runner-up Kenseth would have raced differently in the final races, but the fact remains that had the margin been closer, the racing we would have been treated to would have been aggressive and the final race of the season less conservatively run on their parts. Manufactured excitement can rarely beat the real thing.

Not to mention, the Chase system has twice robbed Gordon of the title. Had Gordon won those two championships, he would be sitting just one shy of the Holy Grail, the all-time mark of seven championships currently held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt was Gordon’s biggest rival in his early days, and Gordon would have been racing for number seven this year. If you think Johnson and Kenseth would have raced differently in 2006, you’d better believe Gordon would have approached 2008 differently with a seventh title on the other side. Gordon racing for a seventh title would have made the title hunt exciting every year-no fake excitement needed. It would have also been fitting; the best driver in each of two generations of NASCAR racers has seven titles. Gordon would have carried that tradition into the next generation.

NASCAR never needed the Chase. They needed a few tweaks to the points system, but they never needed this, and most longtime fans never wanted it. It’s another example of NASCAR catering to the wealthy bandwagon fans who expect instant gratification in everything. The Chase is like E-Z Cheeze-it’s instant gratification-none of that tedious slicing needed when you have a handy spray can-but there is no substance, no real value in what’s inside. (Incidentally, spray cheese was invented by Harley Earl, the same man whose name graces the Daytona 500 trophy.) There is less validity in a Chase title won in less than a third of the races in the season than there is in a title in which every race, from Daytona to Homestead, forces drivers to race their wheels off, every lap of every race. It’s not exciting, it’s just a big fake.

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