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Thompson in Turn 5: Jack Roush’s Ideas to Revamp Chase Aside, Let’s Give Fans a Break

Whether Jimmie Johnson, with a seemingly insurmountable 183-point lead in the Chase to the Cup, actually closes the deal this season is yet to be decided. However, many fans and others in the NASCAR community are already conceding the championship to him. The Hendrick Motorsports driver’s string of seven top-10 finishes in seven Chase races has taken a lot of the suspense out of the new format, which was designed to increase interest and, in return, increase gate numbers and broadcast ratings as the race season competes for viewers with college and professional football. Without the suspense of a hotly-contested points race to keep fans on the edge of their couches, many have begun tuning out and switching gears towards football – all you need is a quick look at the ratings for proof.

With that in mind, there now is a growing belief that the Sprint Cup Chase format should be tweaked to further attempt to manufacture or engineer guaranteed three-way championship battles down to the last lap of the last race. Still others propose doing away with the controversial format altogether, using this year’s dominance by Johnson as justification.

Mega-team owner Jack Roush believes he has an idea on how to improve the fan appeal of the 10-race points format. “…It would be my suggestion as NASCAR looks at how to make this [Chase] more exciting, [that] every team had an opportunity to throw out one race and be able to just count nine of the 10,” he explained this past week. “That means you could have a mulligan, and you could be able to come back from it.”

For instance, Roush Fenway drivers are presently second (Carl Edwards), third (Greg Biffle) and ninth (Matt Kenseth) in the driver championship points battle. But perhaps one or more of his wheelmen might want to throw out their result at Talladega, thanks to an accident triggered when Edwards became overly-aggressive in bumping teammate Biffle. That caused Biffle to spin and collected both Edwards and Kenseth. The incident left all three in shambles, as they scored uncompetitive 24th, 26th and 29th-place race finishes, respectfully.

Roush has been around NASCAR for a while, and had to know that such a suggestion coming now would be questioned as to its sincerity. As things stand, any one of Roush’s three Chase-eligible drivers would stand to benefit more than Johnson by throwing out their poorest Chase performance.

And, what the heck… why would Johnson want to throw out his worst Chase finish? His poorest efforts during the championship run remain a ninth at Talladega.

Still, give Jack Roush the benefit of the doubt. He certainly has enough equity invested in the Cup Series to make one believe that his idea is an earnest attempt to bolster the sport. And if nothing else, the legendary Ford man has as much right to his opinion as anyone else.

For that matter, it isn’t the only variation on the 10-race championship format that would meet that concern. Some have even suggested having one or more eligible drivers eliminated from championship contention following each Chase event. Those still in the hunt for the title would all have their points reset, with the driver finishing lowest in the next race eliminated in turn.

It is difficult to argue that each of these contrived systems would aid in prolonging determining who, in fact, will win the season’s championship; but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re gimmicks. Their intentions would probably be more appropriate if one were developing a TV game show where the object is to keep the audience glued to their screens to the last commercial – on edge and in anticipation of knowing who wins. Lightning rounds, spin the wheel, bankrupt, double points, sudden death, free passes…

It’s time to stop the madness!

Opponents labeled the inaugural 2004 10-team, 10-race Chase nothing more than an attempt to boost attendance and ratings. That claim could not be more accurate. NASCAR needed something to help them minimize the decrease in fan interest over a long season, particularly as football returned to provide fresh entertainment for viewers.

It was a bold business decision by Brian France and his top executives, a dramatic change that would rankle some in the racing community but was expected to gain general acceptance in time. And, more importantly, it was designed to prevent a repeat of the 2003 season, in which Roush driver Kenseth recorded 25 top-10 finishes – but only one win – in building an almost insurmountable 436-point lead following the 28th race of the season. Kenseth continued to post mostly uninspiring but solid finishes through out the final eight races of the 2003 schedule, officially clinching the championship title in anti-climatic fashion at Rockingham with still one event left on the then-Winston Cup schedule.

Would the Chase be the missing piece of the puzzle that would make certain that last race heroics would determine future NASCAR championships? Of course not, nor was that ever the stated goal. In 2004, the then 10-driver championship playoff would be determined over the final 10 races starting with a separation of 45 points between the first- and 10th-place drivers in points after race 26. The resetting of points, as controversial as it was, would be the “hook” to encourage late season interest in the sport. No one for a minute failed to understand that a driver could still dominate and handily win the championship over their rivals, as Johnson is now demonstrating.

How much the modification of the championship points system has helped or hurt NASCAR’s bottom line is difficult to prove. Certainly, the first four Chase-formatted championship contests have been more competitive than Kenseth’s 2003 run that gave impetus to the format change in the first place. Logic would suggest that there were a number of fans still tuning in the past four seasons curious to see who, ultimately, the champion would be. Additionally, even with Johnson’s command in points this season, folks were not predicting a championship for any driver after race 30 of 36.

NASCAR’s implementation of the radical playoff system has been a tough pill for many to swallow. The new format inarguably manipulated the natural course of the points system and allows for champions to be crowned that did not earn the highest points totals over a full 36-race schedule.

Yet, despite a rash of big changes that have occurred in recent history, not just to the championship points but including unpopular track closings, schedule realignments and the unpopular introduction of the CoT, fans have remained loyal.

However, Jack Roush and anyone else promoting further gimmicks to the series that remove it even further from its roots should understand that people may very well, if they haven’t already, reach their limit and abandon the sport altogether at the first sign of such stuff.

A Mulligan! Don’t they have them in golf?

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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