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The Yellow Stripe: 6 Ways to Change Up NASCAR’s Chase

Before the official release of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Schedule, we were all lulled into a false sense of security that, per NASCAR’s head honcho himself, the upcoming changes would indeed be “impactful.” Now, I’m not sure what dictionary Brian France swallowed, but there can be almost zero doubt that those adjustments, which came out in a drip-drip fashion via Twitter, leaks and Facebook, were anything but groundbreaking. In fact, they were quite the opposite, something akin to rearranging deck furniture on the Titanic: all very nice, but ultimately pointless.

Now, the powers that be have turned their collective wisdom to what might happen to everyone’s favorite beast of a championship crowner – the Chase for the Sprint Cup. At a recent event, Brian France, when asked about altering the Chase, replied, “We’re going to look at that. If we can make it a better format, we will, with protecting the credibility of crowning our champion. We want to create moments where you have to win… The Chase format is a hybrid of other sports in the way they handle tournaments or eliminations. It’s a blend of consistency, but you have to perform at crunch time. If we can enhance that whole concept, we should and we will. But we haven’t made that decision.”

It’s quite the answer – really, it is – when you take a few short minutes (which you’ll never get back, I might add) to analyze the mixed metaphors and strange diction of NASCAR’s big cheese. So let me boil it down: Yes, we’re considering making changes, but we’ll do it carefully so as not to make a mockery of the sport. So what changes could NASCAR be considering? Here’s a few that are surely near the top of the pile:

More Drivers

The inimitable Bruton Smith alluded to more drivers in the Chase on Trackside Live! at Bristol this past Friday evening, and I’m certain this concept is under consideration. Call it the “Dale Junior Rule” if you will, but the basic premise here is for NASCAR to ensure that all the big names (and big sponsors) are represented in the challenge for the championship. Let’s not forget, there’s precedent here: In the first two years of the Chase, only 10 drivers duked it out for the title; in the last four years, it’s been a total of 12. Just in case you’ve forgotten, this “12 rule” was established in the year following both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon missing the final field of 10 back in 2005. This year, for example, Mark Martin could likely just miss out, creating the sort of situation NASCAR hopes to avoid. More drivers in the Chase? You can pretty much bet on it.

More Races

This is an area I haven’t seen discussed a lot, but I have to feel that NASCAR is considering expanding the remit of the Chase – possibly to as many as 12 or 15 races. Now, the rationale here would be to make more of the overall schedule relevant to the actual serious business of deciding a title. Plus, this would have the knock on effect of giving more tracks an all-hallowed “Chase race.” So, whilst I think this adjustment is much less likely than the addition of more drivers, I wouldn’t rule out an expansion in the gamut of the Chase, likely to an initial 12 races… maybe even more.

Different Tracks

If the Chase were to expand — and even if it isn’t — there has to be some kind of rotation amongst the different tracks. Now, I realize we would be told “this is impossible,” but as the old Adidas slogan goes “nothing is impossible” and I believe this is the case with regard to the schedule. I’m not advocating 10 different tracks each year, but there does need to be significant new blood. How good, for example, would it be to see Bristol, Darlington or Daytona in the final 10 races? If the Chase isn’t going to go away (and again, I just can’t believe it will) then this move should be a no-brainer: logistical issues aside, it would make a huge difference.

Elimination of Chasers

The notion of eliminating drivers from Chase contention as the 10 races progress is not a new one. It’s more in keeping with the traditional notion of a playoff where losing teams go home and the winners keep going. Given that after about three Chase races, at least half the field are all but mathematically eliminated, there is some validity to this concept – but it would have to be executed perfectly. What if, say, one driver has a 10-win regular season, goes into the Chase 400 points up, then has two straight stinkers to open the Chase? Should that driver – in a sport that rewards consistency – be withdrawn from title contention so hastily? Like many other ideas this notion, I can’t help but feel, is a great idea on paper and a terrible one in practice.

A Stronger Emphasis on Winning

This is something that could also be applied to the “regular-season” champion who really should receive some kind of boost for finishing atop the heap before the Chase begins. In this case, a potential change to the Chase could come with a significant points boost for winning one of the final ten races. Too often, it’s easy for a driver to take a safe top five than to really go for it. An additional, say, 30-50 points for a Chase win by an Chase-eligible driver would definitely lead to fireworks in the closing laps. And that’s something you can take to the bank. Simply put: Winning a race should be worth a lot more.

A Revamped Chase Points System

While I’m on the subject, my last potential change to the Chase would be the implementation of a completely new points structure, perhaps akin to the new 2010 Formula 1 system which rewards winning much more than before. In a sense this adjustment, to me, is an obvious idea. By splitting off 12 drivers, you’re saying there are “haves” and “have nots.” So why should the “haves” be scored alongside the riff-raff, if you will? Of course, you’d need a series of mathematical geniuses with a slew of complicated spreadsheets and fiendish algorithms to work it all out. And if nothing else, if done judiciously, you’d likely end up with more contenders with a shot at the title come the season’s final two races.

So there we have it, six ways to change up the Chase. One final quick thought this week: How much better would the Chase be if it opened with three night races at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond? Now that would really be something to savor, wouldn’t it?

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