Editor’s Note: Kurt Smith is STILL on vacation, acting like we overwork him or something. (We do but that’s moot.) Still, he spent some of that boundless energy offering up some suggestions for NASCAR’s not always well-received playoff…
As anyone who reads Happy Hour (and thanks, by the way) knows, I’ve long been an outspoken opponent of the Chase. NASCAR’s idea to reset the points before the last 10 races has always struck me as unfair, contrived and disingenuous.
And I’ve stated numerous problems with it in past articles, from the impact of a DNF in the last 10 races to the inclusion of a plate race. I could do it all day.
But I got to thinking the night before I went on vacation. If we have to have a Chase, if we must have a playoff to compete with other sports (which as we now know isn’t the case), how could it be done fairly and still generate excitement? The solutions, unfortunately, involve changes that will never be made, but nonetheless I will suggest them.
The first order of business is an obvious one. We talk all the time about what constitutes a playoff driver. What is not as often talked about is what should happen to drivers that aren’t. Quite simply, they shouldn’t be out there.
Having mediocre drivers in Chase races is the very antithesis of playoffs. Imagine if the NFL playoffs operated like this. The Patriots would still have to play the Lions. The Steelers would have to take on the Saints. The playoffs are supposed to be about eliminating those that were not good enough, and now it’s down to great teams only, which makes playoff battles so exciting in other sports. In NASCAR, the playoffs begin and we are still seeing start-and-parkers run two laps before exiting the race due to a vibration. Think about that. A driver whose car couldn’t last three laps participated in a playoff race.
If the Chase races were just 12 drivers in each battle, you would know when you sat down to watch a playoff race that you were seeing the best of the best duel each other. Carl Edwards wouldn’t have to fight through a field and pass Scott Speed, Elliott Sadler and David Stremme before he’d have a shot to duke it out with Jeff Gordon.
And that’s not even counting the non-Chase drivers who take out the Chase drivers and end their championship hopes… something that has been happening since the very first Chase race in 2004, where Robby Gordon’s angry response to Greg Biffle cost Tony Stewart a shot at the title. Imagine the Nationals winning two out of three against the Phillies and taking them out of the playoffs.
And with only 12 drivers, assuming the same points system, drivers could finish 12th at worst and still score 127 points, making a DNF far less costly. The cream would more likely rise to the top if DNFs weren’t so damaging. Kyle Busch certainly and deservedly would have been in the thick of it towards the end in 2008 instead of being all but eliminated after two races. It still wouldn’t quite be fair, but it’s better than a points leader after 26 races scoring 64 points because of a lugnut and immediately being virtually out of it.
The second element necessary for a fair playoff is a home field advantage of some kind. But since drivers don’t have home fields, perhaps a driver could choose a venue or two for a Chase race, based on how well he did during the regular season.
This, of course, could not be done. Hey, NASCAR isn’t much like those stick-and-ball sports, is it?
NASCAR rewards wins only slightly going into a Chase, while running well week in and week out to lead the points standings counts for nothing except clinching a spot early, which means little especially when teams are no longer allowed to test. In the past I have suggested that teams locked in take a couple of weeks off to recharge and possibly test at a track where they are weak. I’m not sure why no one has taken advantage of that yet. It seems like it would be better than going through all of the hassles of racing the car in the slight hope of gaining 10 points.
There has to be something, some sort of advantage for being better during the regular season. It might be fairer to rank drivers 50 points apart by points standing, but that would also demonstrate more clearly the folly of having a Chase in the first place.
So how about giving the points leader at the end of 26 races choice of pit stalls throughout the Chase? Or the pole position in each race? (Remember I’m working on only the last 12 drivers racing in the last 10.) How about each race starts with the standings after 26 races determining the starting order? Replace the qualifying with another practice and let teams have time to bring their best car out there.
Another thing that needs to define a playoff is a completely diversified variety of tracks. Here is my list of places where you have to excel to be the NASCAR Cup champ – Bristol, Pocono, Michigan, Dover, Watkins Glen, Martinsville, Darlington, Indianapolis, Richmond and Phoenix. Just one speedway. Not necessarily in that order and no plate tracks, for heaven’s sake.
NASCAR’s schedule currently is dominated by aero tracks… and that includes in the Chase, with five of the 10 races coming at 1.5-2-mile speedways and another at Talladega where aero package and luck matter more than anything. Let’s at least make the playoffs the time where we separate the men from the boys behind the wheel, not a time where half the races are won by car setup.
Wouldn’t it be more exciting if each round of the Chase took place at a fan favorite track with a history of great races and a unique layout? Why on earth isn’t Bristol in the Chase? Or Darlington? To be sure, there are three tracks in the Chase that truly test a driver’s skills… Dover, Phoenix and Martinsville. But playoffs or not, Texas is Texas.
There you have it. With these suggestions, it might be a little more exciting… and a little more rewarding of regular season performance. It’s not perfect, but by definition, a racing playoff can’t be.
Finally, if nothing else, have a prize for the end-of-season champion, the points leader after the first 26 races. I’m talking a genuine, bona fide prize with a trophy and money and a pretty girl in the photo attached to it. Something that gets recorded in the record books. Being the best for 26 races is tougher than being the best for 10… at least when you’re racing against the same guys every week. While I’m at it, have a prize for most regular season wins too.
Other sports don’t do that, you say?