NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: Waving the White Flag of Surrender… Before It’s Too Late

Every few months, Brian France feels it behooves him to address the state of the sport. Such press conferences tend to involve a lot of disinformation, misinformation, long words used incorrectly, and non-existent words being formed, as well as much waving of hands and bright red-faced zealotry comparable to a holy roller seeing the first bag of rattlesnakes entering the sanctuary. The assembled press watches, nods, duly takes notes and wonders all over again how this moron became head of NASCAR.

But what was surprising about the “State of the Sport” speech this weekend at Daytona is that Brian France, his very own self, admitted it might be time to modify the Chase format. The All-Singing, All-Dancing Chase was purportedly one of France’s very own ideas to better the sport, occurring shortly after realignment and “starting new traditions” like the Labor Day date at Fontana which was very short-lived by the standards of “traditions.” It had to be humbling for France to admit if this Chase dog isn’t exactly one that won’t hunt, it’s flushing out robins and not the pheasants we’re after.

France might not have had much choice but to offer a thinly veiled mea culpa. (He is, after all, the most culpable guy ever to hold his job title.) NASCAR is about to end its relationship for 2010 with a second broadcast partner enduring slumping TV ratings for yet another year, especially in key demographics. Attendance at some tracks is off – and off significantly – and again that’s become an annual trend, not an aberration brought on by poor weather. There was once a time NASCAR proclaimed itself “the fastest growing sport in America” and claimed it ranked second only to the NFL in TV ratings. Nowadays, they regularly use such excuses as the Winter Olympics, any golf match Tiger plays in, no matter how poorly, or even competition from World Cup matches as excuses for poor TV ratings. The World Cup? I know about as many international soccer fans as I do Hindu dwarves, which is to say precisely none. Yeah, I’m a hick from the sticks, but I do in fact know people from the bright lights of the big city, where they have electrical power and indoor plumbing.

NASCAR is infamous for floating trial balloons to see how fans and the media warm to new ideas (usually quite poorly). Having announced the Chase might need a face lift (and, in fact, I feel not only will that dog not hunt, it won’t even get out of the truck), the first trial balloon I see floating above the cordite-scented clouds is for 15 drivers to be included in the Chase. After two races five drivers, presumably those lowest in the points at that juncture, would be eliminated. Two races, hence another five drivers would be cut and have their torches extinguished for the season. Two races after that, we’d be left with just three contestants for the title. I don’t know if they’d reset those three contestants’ points totals back to zero in an attempt to make it exciting or what, but I don’t like the idea however it’s framed.

I don’t know every breed of dog, their diets or the size of their droppings, but I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting a hot, steaming pile of dog poop on the back lawn before stepping in it barefoot. There’s no question the proposed system is too complicated for casual fans and non-fans who might be tuning in to see what the fuss is about.

If the Chase-style format must remain (and I’ll argue it should not until I am blue in the face and need a smoke and a beer) we need to simplify it. The Chase should be cut back to nine races, with 10 drivers competing for the top spot. 10 is a simple number to understand. At the culmination of each race, the lowest-finishing driver of those remaining is eliminated, but gets some lovely parting gifts. That’s simple to understand. When we come to the season finale, there would be two men (or people, if by some miracle Danica Patrick ever gets this door-slammer stuff figured out) left standing. Traditional sports fans are used to this finale; two contestants fighting it out for the big prize. Everyone else is background noise out there. Sure, a driver might be champion and finish 15th, but a Super bowl-winning NFL team can only mathematically score a single safety to win the game.

Some will say I have taken leave of my senses. (That happened a long time ago, and I’ve never missed them). One bad race, possibly not of his own making, shouldn’t erase a triumphant season for the fellow who has won the most races. Why not? As I am constantly reminded after my tirades about the Chase, an NFL team can win every regular season game and be eliminated in a contest against the winner of the Wild Card game that perhaps finished with less than a .500 season average. You remember what our friend Forrest Gump said about stuff happening….

Frankly, I am perplexed by so many people, writers and fans, accepting the Chase as fait accompli. I read today where some fool said that we cannot go back to the old points system because it was too boring, and drivers could win the title with three races left to run. So what? In fact, the last two seasons, if the points race for the Cup title had been run under the old system, the end result would have been a closer, more competitive battle for top honors. Under the old system, all the season’s races counted equally, which could help sell some tickets again… and not just to the final 10 races. The fact is, the traditional fan who is the backbone of the sport has embraced the Chase as if it’s a cactus. And those traditional fans are the ones who keep the lights on at the racetracks, be it Houston Hollow or Daytona Beach.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the Robert Frost poem about the road less taken. NASCAR didn’t need to completely overhaul the points system. They needed to take the road less taken and award more points for a race win. I’ve long been a proponent of an even 500 points for a race win. A top-five finish ought to pay significantly more points than a top 10, and a top-10 finish should pay a bunch more points than a finish in the top 20. Any finish outside the top 20 ought to awarded zero points, which would allow Chase contenders an occasional Mulligan and negate the incentive for start-and-parkers. I doubt there would be too many seasons in which the top four or five drivers would enter the final event of the year out of contention with a potential 500-point swing. And if they did, hey fans revere and not revile the undefeated 1972 champion Miami Dolphins.

Remember the five and five spoiler rules? Remember Labor Day races at Fontana? Remember “NASCAR’s Night In Hollywood?” Remember the 1973 points system that awarded laps completed? Every once in a while, NASCAR needs to admit they have well and truly screwed the pooch, apologize to the fans, scrap an idea completely and get on down the highway. It’s about time they started to do so now. For when NASCAR history is written, if there’s anyone left who cares to document the debacle, the Chase system is going to go down as the single worst idea ever to infest the sport.

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