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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: “NASCAR” Nation Lets Out a Collective Yawn

After all the hoopla and hype, the combatants for this year’s 10-race Chase, the fifth iteration of this championship format, are finally decided. Undoubtedly, some fans of these 12 drivers are charged up and anxious to see how their boys will do in the next 10 races, or if anyone can knock Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards from the lofty summit perches they have enjoyed to date this season. For loyal stock car fans, this is the championship format we have, for better or worse, and we’re stuck with it – even if a lot of us don’t like it.

I’ve written pages upon pages of prose dealing with my dislike of the artificially contrived championship Chase format, and I won’t repeat myself here. (Yeah, yeah, I probably will next week.) But ultimately, the primary goal of the Chase – to lure casual fans of stock car racing formats and even non-racing fans to the sport for the 10 final races, using a postseason-style championship format – has failed. Unlike the World Series, which annually draws casual fans and non-fans who might not have watched a regular-season MLB game all year, the Chase just hasn’t caught the public at large’s imagination. Brian France and his minions will do everything in their power to parade the 12 Chasers in major media outlets this week, but by and large, the American public will give out a collective yawn and surf over to SportsCenter to see who won this week’s NFL games.

Why? Admittedly this is a tough time of year to draw attention in the sport’s arena. The juggernaut of the NFL has resumed play, the college football season began weeks ago, and series of games that will decide this year’s World Series is in progress. With all that going on, your typical sportscaster has about four and a half minutes to fill on the six and 11 o’clock news before cutting to commercial, or to the weatherman getting frantic about the latest tropical storm. If they show highlights of the local football team, a local baseball team that has some outside chance at entering postseason play, and a couple of local college football highlights here in the Northeast, there might be a few dead seconds left to announce that Busch won a stock car race at some far-flung hamlet that few folks could locate on a map for a cash prize named Loudon.

The Chase was intended to muscle its way into the fall parade of sports highlights, but by and large it has failed. That might not be fair. Even in an era of declining attendance, more fans muscle into some stock car races than attend even the Super Bowl. Down in the Southeast, things are notably better – stock car racing is given some serious airtime and attention – but NASCAR has made it no secret that they don’t want to be seen as a “regional Bubba” sport. Rather than being a big fish in a small pond, they’ve let themselves become a small fish in a big pond. Stock car racing is a tough sell in some markets where the leading newspapers’ arrivals predated the invention of the automobile, and some of those papers’ editors seem unconvinced this automobile fad is going to amount to much more than a source of global warming.

Other challenges face NASCAR as they try to draw casual and non-fans to their ranks. First and foremost is the racing this season in general has been substandard (I’m being kind) thanks in large parts to the Car of Horror. Yeah, there have been some good races this year, as there are every year, but if a casual fan tuned into Fontana a few weeks ago because nothing else was on that night, after 50 laps they were channel surfing away seeking a more palatable fare. If you do indeed lure those casual and non-fans to the table, you need to grab them by the throat with the action and convert them to the fold. In today’s MTV and text message-driven society, folks have short attention spans. NASCAR might have five minutes to get a thumbs up or a thumbs down from those folks, and with most drivers just cruising until the last handful of laps, we have a serious problem on our hands.

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Another challenge facing NASCAR is the difficulty of casual fans to understand what’s going on. Our sport is somewhat unique in that two teams don’t pair off against one another. All 43 teams compete against each other weekly. One driver wins; 42 lose. Leaving Richmond, there are five drivers going for a championship that have yet to win a race. That’s not possible in most sports… and it shouldn’t be in ours. Winning a points-paying race should be a prerequisite for Chase contention, period. Etch it in granite. Book ’em Dano.

Then, there’s the regular season points system that confuses even some fairly loyal fans. A driver gets 185 points for winning. Huh? Why 185? The guy who finishes second gets five points less. Wow, that’s not much of a bonus for winning. At the end of the season, the NFL looks at how many wins and losses a team has. They don’t add up the points scored by a team, including points scored in losses, to decide which teams make the playoffs. If you won 12 games and lost six by a close margin, the other team that won 13 games and lost five by huge margins gets in. Our points system needs to be overhauled – and the change is long overdue. There needs to be a huge points award for winning and top-five finishing… not consistent cruising.

The schedule is another handicap NASCAR faces. With the Chase about to begin, you’d think NASCAR would want to put their best foot forward. Instead, the Chase begins at Loudon, a racetrack that has consistently proven to provide substandard racing since it became a blot on our schedule. Any fan drawn to checkout the start of the Chase by Jeff Gordon appearing on Regis and Kelly this week is going to be lapsing into a coma 20 minutes into a race.

It’s too bad the powers that be won’t kick off the Chase in Darlington. Darlington is a track with unmatched tradition and a habit of producing great racing. It’s a testament to who we are as NASCAR fans; proudly unashamed of our Southeastern roots and our hardscrabble nature. We’re different than stick and ball sports, and we like it that way. Yes, a race at Darlington could turn into a real snoozer too, but if I’m betting my paycheck on Darlington or Loudon producing an exciting race, I’ve got my money on the Lady in Black and her nearly 60-year history.

Another thing non-fans (and I’ve reached a point in my life most of my fans are either non-fans or ex-fans) simply can’t get their minds around is how a winning driver in NASCAR can be caught cheating and still be allowed to keep the win. It’s a black eye for our sport, and I’ve grown tired of trying to defend the principle. Likewise, I can understand how some of these mystery debris cautions thrown when a race gets too boring have convinced some non-fans that NASCAR racing is “pro-wrassling on wheels.”

But the most frequent complaint I get from newer or non-fans is that the races are simply too long. I’m an old-timer – 500-mile races are fine by me, as long as they take place at venues like Darlington. 400 miles at Fontana is way too long, even for me. I think I could endure a 40-lap race there without having to use a tongue depressor to prop open my mouth so I don’t drown in my own saliva. So, maybe it’s time that NASCAR follow the Formula 1 folks’ lead and simply decide each race will be three hours long. If circumstances dictate that the full race length is unattainable, then a caution will be thrown, the pits opened and the cars lined back up for a 10-lap shootout at any track other than the road courses.

My final bit of advice for my buddies at NASCAR (who are constantly calling me asking for my input, of course) to attract newer fans to our playoffs is to institute an “elimination” rule. The Super Bowl is obviously the Granddaddy of the championship deciding events based on TV ratings. The NFL playoff games draw big numbers and fan interest as well, because after each game, one team will be eliminated from competition. It doesn’t matter if that team wins by a little or wins by a lot – if they lose, they’re done. That adds an element of suspense. So here’s how I see it. 10 drivers make the Chase. They all get to warm up in the first race to get over the jitters. After that each week the lowest finishing title contender is eliminated. Drivers who win a race in the Chase are exempt from being eliminated during the Chase afterwards. At the final race of the season the two remaining drivers who haven’t been the low finisher and any driver who won a race prior to being eliminated start the season finale… and the highest finishing driver among them is the new champion. Is it fair? Not completely. Was it fair when the New England Patriots lost the Super Bowl despite an unbeaten regular season? But it is high drama, and starting from week one, every title contender is going to be going Hell’s bells trying to win races to stave off the possibility of elimination after a wreck or a blown engine.

Meanwhile, to build interest in the Chase, I’d use the off week between the regular season and the Chase to highlight the 10 unique drivers in different media outlets. For instance, given his love of rock and roll and his lifestyle, have Dale Earnhardt Jr. do a week of appearances on MTV and VH1. A driver who is an avid hunter or fisherman might do programs with the Outdoor Network. A driver who collects and restores old cars might show up on SPEED. A driver like Gordon with more upscale tastes might be on the Fine Living or Gourmet Channel. And of course, Tony Stewart could be on the Beer-Swilling Doughnut Munching Neanderthal Network – I think it goes by the name of Spike. Or perhaps he could do a voice appearance on South Park as Cartman’s long lost twin brother. The goal is to have people who might not have an interest in racing decide, “Hey, I like this guy. He and I have a lot in common. I’m going to watch this NASCAR postseason and pull for him.” Whatever works.

Obviously, I am not a fan of the Chase. I am proud to be the first writer (at least that I am aware of) that condemned it as ludicrous and borderline blasphemous. I like the old points system, and if NASCAR were to show the wisdom to readopt it, I’d be euphoric. From where I sit, the majority of traditional fans still despise the system, and the majority of casual or non-fans could care less about the Chase. If there must be a “postseason” in NASCAR… do it right.

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