NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Changing the Chase Will Only Delegitimize it More

One of my favorite movies of all time is Office Space.

What makes that movie so great is that anyone who has ever worked in a corporate office can completely relate to everything in it, from sadistic micromanagers to egomaniacal consultants. There truly are many bosses like Lumbergh in the world. The movie demonstrates perfectly what few managers in the world seem to grasp — that 99% of the time, people can get by just fine without their relentless intervention.

Brian France inherited a gold mine with NASCAR. You all know the story. All he had to do was leave it alone. Maybe make small adjustments here and there like addressing safety issues, but there was zero need to turn the sport upside down.

His brainchild, the mark for which he will be remembered in his tenure as NASCAR’s big cheese (“big cheese” is an appropriate euphemism when discussing the Chase), is a wildly unpopular playoff format that turned the championship race upside down. Bill Jr. even told him the idea was nuts. Many fans still agree. Already this ill-considered playoff idea has been changed twice in blatant attempts to keep from excluding popular drivers, and France has recently indicated that they are going to muck with it some more.

Among the changes France said NASCAR is “carefully considering” — and when NASCAR’s CEO says they’re “carefully considering” something, we know they’re doing anything but carefully considering it — are: requiring a win to be eligible for the playoffs; adding a road course to the Chase; revolving the venues where Chase races take place; and having an elimination.

Some careful consideration — actually, casual consideration is sufficient — reveals why none of these tweaks will add legitimacy to an obviously contrived playoff.

I don’t know whether requiring a win would mean that a win automatically enters a driver into the playoffs, but let’s assume it does not. As of this moment, requiring a win to get into the Chase would mean that Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton would be excluded — in fact, only six drivers would battle for the championship. It’s entirely possible for those three, along with Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards to remain winless over the next eight races. Imagine a 43-car field with just six drivers who have a shot at the title from Loudon forward. How ridiculous would that look?

OK, so change it so that a win automatically qualifies a driver, while winless drivers are out. That puts Ryan Newman, currently 15th in the standings, and Jamie McMurray, currently 19th, in the playoffs; while Gordon, currently second, is out. And Marcos Ambrose could sneak his way in with a win at Watkins Glen. Somehow that doesn’t sound like a system that pits the best against the best.

Adding a road course to the Chase would be a fair challenge and would demand that a driver master all of the essential skills to win the championship. But road-course races are such a different animal that often times, like the plate races, drivers can run well all day and get taken out by a less experienced driver. Happens all the time. Look at the best drivers’ road-course finishes and, like the plate races, you will find a lot of DNFs. Possibly lethal in a 10-race sprint, and we already have that problem with a plate race in the playoffs. It might work if only the Chase drivers participated in the event, but that is never going to happen.

As for revolving the Chase venues, the belief seems to be that the Chase tracks favor the No. 48 team. The same principle is behind the assumption that because the rooster crowed and the sun rose, that the rooster caused the sunrise. The Chase favors the No. 48 team because the No. 48 team favors the Chase, focusing the majority of their energies on those final 10 events. They admitted as much at Martinsville and Sonoma this year.

Changing the Chase tracks would also be a logistical headache. Will NASCAR put the Daytona Coke Zero 400 in the Chase? What about the Bristol night race? The “Southern” 500? If one believes a playoff is still the best way to improve ratings, their best option would be for the Chase to host races that aren’t singularly grand in their own right, to boost those events’ ratings. The idea was to have people tune in for the last 10 races. So why waste that on the tracks that are already carrying their own mystique? What about the weather? Will we race at Pocono in November and move a Talladega race to the middle of July?

Then there is the 15-car field with an elimination format. Only one word is needed to shoot down why that is a bad idea: Talladega.

No matter what gets changed, the obvious flaws of the Chase will remain. There will still be points given to drivers who didn’t earn them, races leading up to the playoffs will still be uneventful protect-your-position parades, and the worst teams will still be racing even after the playoffs start, resulting in no discernible difference between a regular-season race and a playoff race.

Changing the Chase again will demonstrate that NASCAR can’t resist tinkering. That they can’t resist thinking that the suits in the Daytona Beach offices are more responsible for the sport’s appeal than the guys who strap in and race the hell out of each other at 200 mph for a single spot on a 95-degree day.

The very idea of the Chase should instantly grab one as absurd on the surface, and no less so when more closely examined. Most fans hated the idea before it was implemented and still hate it now. The fact that NASCAR still sees a need to tweak it every couple of years ought to prove even they realize the idea is a rotten egg. Except that a rotten egg can’t be “tweaked” to make it edible. Adding salt only makes it clearer that it’s rotten.

No method of determining a champion is ever going to be perfect or produce great battles every season, but at least totaling up points over 36 races at all of the tracks was as fair as it could be, demanding consistency over a long period of time. The Chase is a debris caution you can count on; why bother watching the first 475 miles when you know all that matters is the sprint to the finish?

As long as the Chase exists, it will stand in the way of racing excellence and continue to delegitimize the sport, like a chaw of tobacco in a cup of gourmet coffee. It doesn’t matter what flavor the tobacco is.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I don’t question the legitimacy of Junior’s win in the No. 3, but it did seem like no one was making much of an effort to pass him, and Joey Logano sounded awfully defensive after the race. I think this all started in 2001, when non-racing fans who had no clue about how plate racing works ranted about a fix being in place.
  • I heard a rumbling somewhere that Mark Martin may be headed to Red Bull Racing. That would be a great fit for both of them, but does this mean Brian Vickers isn’t coming back?
  • 600 starts ago, Darrell Waltrip was letting Rick Hendrick know that his young prodigy was never gonna make it. Today that prodigy is one of just three drivers with more championships than ol’ DW.

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