The Chase for the Sprint Cup has been called “controversial” and “unpopular with some fans”, which are PC phrases for “a lot of people hate it.” In its fifth year, with ratings declining yet again as we close in on another likely lackluster finish to the season, we have reached the point where the Chase isn’t even succeeding where it was intended to succeed.
Granted, as I discussed a couple of columns ago, Jimmie Johnson‘s domination doesn’t make for high ratings for this sport. That isn’t a knock on Johnson and his gang at all… it is to the No. 48 team’s enormous credit that they have, for the most part, stunk up the show in an era where NASCAR is attempting everything possible to turn the series into IROC. (Columnist’s caveat: the IROC series is now defunct.)
Johnson just doesn’t inspire a reaction like Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch or Tony Stewart. Should Johnson be dominating right now without a Chase, chances are the ratings wouldn’t be much better than they currently are.
I’m not going to dwell on the irony that the title race would actually be closer without the Chase right now, although it is significant. As is often said, the rules are what they are and I’ve expounded plenty on what might have been.
What I am questioning, though, is how a playoff format whose main goal was “more excitement” – a format that punishes performing drivers and teams unfairly and yet is justified in the name of more excitement, a format that has forsaken what had been a perfectly acceptable system for determining a NASCAR champion for more excitement – has produced, in four out of five years of its existence, some of the dullest title runs in recent memory?
One answer is that, in actuality, 10 races is a lot. And for all of the blather about how a team can build up an insurmountable lead in 32 races, we’re now finding out that a team can build up a pretty large lead in seven races, too. A team can build a big lead in four races. Get hot at the right time, and you can make the other teams look silly out there for a short while.
Another thing that comes to mind is the length of the season. This wasn’t a problem not very long ago, when NASCAR was less popular than it is today and had a proud reputation for appealing to rednecks. But with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s recent diatribe about the season being too long, it bears examination. I won’t delve too far into it (I don’t want to tread on Amy’s turf this week) but I wonder how much of an effect the Chase has had on the perception of season length.
NASCAR’s regular season now takes up 26 weekends, eight more than the NFL that Junior cited. Add the All-Star Race and the Domestic Beer Shootout and now there are seven months of auto racing before the playoffs even start. Certainly, that will not leave an average fan hungry for more. Then the sport takes yet another two-and-a-half months to determine a champion.
I submit that without a two-and-a-half month long playoff, the length of the season would not be as much of an issue. Baseball crowns its champion in seven months. The NFL is done in less than six, and that’s with a week or two of hype leading up to the championship game. Both sports’ playoff systems are flawed in their own way – no self-respecting sport should allow a wildcard, or as I call it, a “team that wasn’t all that good but made the playoffs anyway because more playoffs mean more money” – but at least they don’t take an extra two-and-a-half months to determine their champions.
My buddy Danny Peters has defended that NASCAR allows 10 races in its playoff and makes the case that it’s better than a baseball team possibly being out of it in three games after dominating all year. He has a point. But we are talking about excitement here, which was and remains the main argument put forth in favor of the Chase. Instead, a 10-race, two-and-a-half month playoff helps reinforce the idea that NASCAR’s season is too long.
But we know, of course, that NASCAR will not shorten the season. Go to a meeting with Mike Helton, Bruton Smith and Brian France and suggest that the season be shortened four races and that they should give up the millions in revenue brought in by holding dual events in Fontana, Texas, Michigan and Atlanta. Ha ha. So what are we left with?
NASCAR has, of course, dug in their heels with the Chase. It isn’t going away. But the ratings and attendance show that not only has it not succeeded in grabbing the attention of casual fans, it’s helped contribute to the egress of a few loyal ones. They have even reached the point where the star whose last name was synonymous with the love of auto racing is now saying that the season is too long.
The Chase was a big risk, especially when NASCAR repeatedly polled its fans on its website about it and was repeatedly rebuked, generally by 3-1 margins, until they simply stopped asking and proclaimed it a success. There is no way that NASCAR could not have not known that a large contingent of fans would be unhappy with a contrived perversion of the points system – so the only logical assumption for going ahead with it anyway was the belief that people would come around when 3-4 drivers could still win the title at Homestead every season.
That took guts, I’ll give them that. After five years, perhaps four of which have seen one driver build a commanding lead with one race to go, it turns out that the risk NASCAR took has backfired. The unhappy fan is still unhappy, the casual fan is still just casual, and neither is bothering to tune in for a likely humdrum finale to a nine and a half month season.
There is, of course, the Junior factor – but even with Junior out of the title chase, I can’t help but think that if Carl Edwards and/or Jeff Burton had a realistic chance of winning it by Homestead, there might be some curiosity. If Jimmie has a poor finish in Phoenix, we’ll see if that holds up. But in at least three out of five seasons that has not been the case. The Miami race has often been an unexciting parade with everyone staying completely clear of the points leader, sometimes racing in three three-wide rows to stay behind him, adding further to the smell factor.
So I politely ask you a two-part question, Chase supporters: first, has the Chase made the end of the season more exciting for you, and are you pumped for Homestead? Be honest. And second, where are all of those casual fans that wouldn’t start watching NASCAR until there was a playoff?
The ratings sure aren’t revealing them.
- Happy Hour salutes Busch (remember him?) for his $100,000 donation to Sam Ard. I’m a little amused that some have said “well, he’s still a punk, but that was a nice thing to do.” Can’t this kid get a break?
- OK, with DEI and Ganassi possibly merging, take a minute and form a picture in your head of Teresa and Chip meeting to decide who will call the shots.
- Gordon is currently fifth in the standings while Earnhardt Jr. is 11th. Has anyone pointed out that Junior would be ahead of Gordon without the Chase? NASCAR is so much less fun now that they’re teammates.
- David Gilliland didn’t help his cause at Texas if he is looking for a ride next year. According to a crew member for Juan Pablo Montoya, lots of people have had problems with Gilliland not letting other drivers pass him. I’ve never understood why people get so upset about that. Isn’t this racing?
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