NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch Five: Best and Worst of the 2014 Chase

Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has the good, the bad, and the ugly on the new Chase format

1. Good: A real sense of urgency

One thing this format has produced is a lot of drivers looking for more than a good points day. The races overall are much the same as we’ve seen all year, but there is a definite sense at the end that the finish means something. That’s one thing that has been missing, at least for teams who were looking at the season prize instead of the weekly one. The new Chase has produced that in several of the last nine races and perhaps a few during the first 26. There were still a lot of weeks, though, when teams opted for a sure thing rather than risking the day for a win. Once the Chase started, that tone did change, and it made the races – and sometimes what went down afterward – feel like they really meant something. That’s a spark that hasn’t always been there to the degree it should.

 (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Keselowski and Gordon have added to the “feel” of the Chase, but have also contributed to the sports’ image–good or bad. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

2. Good: Drivers showing personality

This part partially goes along with the newfound sense of urgency, but it’s good for the sport when the drivers look like they care about winning. It’s not even about the fighting or pit road antics, but rather about passion coming to the surface. Brad Keselowski‘s continuing emergence as a villain, and one who doesn’t care what others think of him, is good for the sport. He’s brash, a little arrogant and takes every spot he can on track every week. You don’t have to like him, but if you don’t, then what he becomes is the foil for the good guy. The sport needed a driver who didn’t care about anything but the “W” and Keselowski provides that.

Another moment that the sport needed? How about Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s emotional win at Martinsville. Some said it meant nothing, because Earnhardt had been eliminated from title contention, but that’s selling Earnhardt – and race fans – short. No, there was no title on the line, yet Earnhardt wanted it anyway, more than he’s wanted just about anything, and it showed in the way he drove and in the way he celebrated. It was about history, tradition, family, pride… points didn’t matter. It was about winning, and the celebration was about having fun simply because he won. If more drivers raced like that, for those things, there would be no points racing.

3. Bad: Too many questions, not enough answers

What the Chase hasn’t done is answer some key questions. It hasn’t eliminated points racing or really made winning more important. It has increased ratings for the last two weeks, but it did little, if anything, to boost the 33 races before that.

The format leaves fans with plenty of questions. Was the racing really better? Will the champion be legitimate? Will the best driver have won? Are fans in for more changes? Are fans being heard? Perhaps it’s the last question that’s the most critical. The last couple of races have had fans watching, but will they keep watching now that the driver with the most wins and the one who earned the most points are not in contention? Will they watch a year from now when the novelty has worn off?

4. Bad: Perception is reality

At the end of the day, the sport is what people take away from it. That can be a good thing if they were in the stands for a great race. That makes people want more.

But there has to be more. If a new fan gets engaged after a race at a short track, a road course or even a restrictor plate track and then sees three lackluster races at 1.5-mile tracks, will that fan stick around? If the drivers don’t engage fans at the track or show real emotion in interviews, will the fans keep paying attention to them? Probably not. Fans need to have a good experience every time out, whether seeing the races in person or on television, to keep them coming back. The racing hasn’t done that consistently.

Also, while the postrace incidents at Charlotte and Texas showed a spark in some drivers and ignited a lot of talk among fans, things like that don’t give an accurate picture of the sport. Passion doesn’t boil over every week and fans should not expect that kind of reaction all of the time. Also, fighting in the garage after the race doesn’t exactly do anything to dispel the image that NASCAR has been trying to shed for years: the view some sports fans take of NASCAR being an unsophisticated, redneck sport. Drivers throwing down after the race shows passion, but to some, it comes across as base. NASCAR needs to find a way to make it all about the racing, and that means making the racing stand alone as something worth watching.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
There have been many great moments and races this season but will 2014 be remembered for the year of great racing or the year of fights? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

5. Ugly: A champion with questionable credentials

The question of whether the champion is a legitimate one under the Chase system has been at the heart of many fans’ disappointment with the format for a decade, and it’s a valid one. While it’s hard to say that every season would have played out the same way without a Chase system in place, there are a few seasons where it’s hard to swallow the outcome. The first Chase produced a champion who, under the previous year’s system, was a distant fourth in season-long points with stats that didn’t match up to the competition. The system changed history, too. It’s very possible that 2014 would have been the year a driver tied the sport’s greatest legends with seven titles… seven full-season titles unfettered by any points resets along the way.

Fast-forward to 2014 and again, there are questions. Taking into account points earned all season, only one eligible driver would still be eligible. The other three, if the season had played out the same, would have been mathematically eliminated. The driver with the most wins and the one with the most points are no longer eligible for a title under a system that NASCAR claimed would make winning of the utmost importance. A driver with just four top 5s and one who would be sitting 14th in points heading into Homestead see their chances alive and well. Will fans accept a champion other than, perhaps, Joey Logano as a legitimate champion of the sport’s highest level? It’s likely that many won’t.

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kb

..what your article says is NASCAR plays the strengths “entertainment”, I do understand the sports to a degree is “entertainment” but I was raised with it being something more, something than one getting a short lived sugar rush of satisfaction. Brian is playing to the 15 minute attention span of most young adults, hoping to win their 15 minutes of loyalty. Too bad, the sport of stock car racing and it’s proud history as a great American pastime deserves much better.

GinaV24

kb, that’s because Brian France’s attention span is about that of a fruit fly and so he plays to that audience. Sure racing should be entertaining, that’s a part of why I watch, but it seems to me that some years ago, NASCAR crossed the line from being a sport to trying to just be entertainment.

I can’t watch it that way – maybe if I were a new or casual fan, I could, but so much of what NASCAR has done in the past 10 years just aggravates & frustrates me that it is no longer enjoyable.

Also as Amy pointed out, OK, so there has been a ratings boost for the last couple of races, big whoop if it doesn’t do anything for the sport overall, although maybe Fox & NBC are willing to take their losses as a loss leader, I don’t know. ESPN has bailed out, not even bothering to bid on NASCAR because it doesn’t have the VALUE to them, but NBC paid big bucks I’m sure to the France family so Brian is a hero to all the people who feed from that trough regardless of what the fans think. I believe that what the fans think or want is irrelevant to Brian France & the family.

Bill B

Yep, agree with you both.
If there is a yearly spike at the end of the season due to the entertainment factor of the chase and the casual fan, how does that make FOX feel?
BTW, with the state of NASCAR and the current entertainment bent rule package, I hope to eventually become one of those casual fans. Just waiting for Jeff to retire.

GinaV24

Well, you know that I’m there with you on Gordon’s retirement. In a lot of ways, except for actual race day, I am a casual fan. When the TV contract came out in 2001, I watched every minute of NASCAR coverage available. After the Fox contract renewal was signed and there were a lot of changes made to the cars, rules, championship, etc. well, I stopped watching pre-race – mainly because I was tired of being told my clowns like Kenny Wallace that the fans didn’t know anything – “listen up race fans” – and Fox’s shtick became same old same old, just as ESPN’s has.

How does Fox feel? I wonder about that, too. Considering that except for Daytona they don’t have much going for them with the first half of the season – since that has become almost irrelevant except as a seeding exercise.

I won’t be watching Homestead. If Jeff wins the race, it would just be more salt in the wound because it would mean he lost the trophy by 1 point and I just am not interested in giving ESPN or NASCAR any ratings uptick.

Earner

Just a note: ESPN was very upset they were never on the grid & deals were decided before they had a shot.
That has alot to do with the coverage the last 2 years & esp this year as they have had no investment to protect.

tom

The new system is no different than the previous versions in that consistency trumps winning. For all of their wins, Gordon, Johnson, Keselowski and Junior are out because of a bad race (or two). Newman and Hamlin are in because they kept their bad races to a minimum and made sure their bad races were at the ‘right’ time (not in one of the elimination rounds).

And this isn’t going to change unless NASCAR wants to simply award the championship at the end of the season to the driver who has the most wins. And even there we have the potential to upset fans if, for example, a driver was to have 4 wins but a slew of crashes and mechanical failures.

We can’t have it both ways. Wins or consistency, one or the other. And either way, half of the fan base will likely be upset.

Bill B

I think what was interesting is that once the chase started the drivers also bought into the must win mentality and in many cases that resulted in bad results that left them in a bad position for the elimination races. Now that they’ve been through it once, assuming BF doesn’t change it again which is highly doubtful, will the drivers have learned that consistency really is the most important? How will the strategy change next year now that they’ve seen how it works?

We saw a lot of chase guys have issues in the first 9 chase races that didn’t seem to be as prevalent in any of the past chases. IMO, a lot of the drivers were really racing for wins, putting it on the line and crapping out, which allowed two drivers that just raced for points and the best finish possible in the final running.

GinaV24

That is a valid point for sure, but who knows what else Brainless will change next year. After all, there will be lots of changes to the cars next year so we know he can’t leave anything alone.

I will bet that next year we will see more aggressive driving (read: wrecking) for positions since why not? That style was validated by NASCAR.

Don in CT

I’m sorry Tom, but you can have both by simply instituting a season long championship combined with a point system that rewards winning with a substantial difference that makes going for a win worth a risk. Toss in points only being awarded to the top 20 or 25 to get rid of the rolling wrecks and we might actually get to see some racing again.

salb

No one questioned the validity of a one race winner being a champion under the pre crapshoot system until some in the media (maybe some rather new to the sport and not understanding the difference between stick and ball sports and racing) raised their eyebrows when Kenseth won. Yes, this system really isn’t that different in that wins obviously don’t make a difference, but Nascar led people to believe it did. To me, this certainly makes the proclamations of a huge change and wins being more important seem even sillier. Without the post race fisticuffs would the stands still sell out? Would ratings be up? Will any of this carry over into next year beyond Daytona? Guess we’ll find out eventually.

GinaV24

“The system (chase) changed history, too. It’s very possible that 2014 would have been the year a driver tied the sport’s greatest legends with seven titles… seven full-season titles unfettered by any points resets along the way.”

Absolutely it did and I’m disappointed with the fact that both Hamlin & Newman have pretty dismal stats, one win between them and yet, they are part of the “finale” at Homestead.

I also find it disgusting that many of the NASCAR tweeters (and by that I mean those who IMO represent NASCAR’s media or are associated with NASCAR in some way- thru TV, radio, etc.) feel that bashing the fans who don’t like the chase, this format or the prior ones, and think that somehow telling someone they are “stupid” if they don’t like the chase or don’t plan to watch the race at Homestead, is going to change their minds about how they feel. I’m not a professional PR person but insulting & disparaging the customer doesn’t seem to be the one to bring them on board.

Oh and I’ll be avoiding Summer’s column since IMO that isn’t even worth the click.

kb

Well said, I noticed that too, if you don’t like this idiotic way to crown a “Champion” something is wrong with YOU. It seems though that mentally is how the world rolls today, demonize and attack the one’s with common sense and who question the idiocy of all things stupid.

GinaV24

I realized yesterday that I was having a long running argument with 2 people who insist that NASCAR in no way manipulates the races with caution flags or whenever it darn well pleases them. I wasn’t going to win it because they will deny it with their last breath.

the last tweet from one of them was “I’m sorry your guy isn’t in it”, a lovely little slap which really ticked me off. Don’t mind her – she’s obviously just an angry Gordon fan and in their opinion that invalidates my point of view about NASCAR patently and blatantly manipulating the finishes. The fact that I’ve complained about the same thing for a lot of years means nothing.

The drivers know it, too but ever since Hamlin was fined and penalized for saying it, they, of course, no longer make any comments in public about it. The race fans can’t possibly notice these things or we just don’t “understand”.

kb

..Well said…and how can anybody not realized that Nascar IS the biggest manipulator of them all. Your guy isn’t in it, and that stinks he was extremely deserving (you know Championship material) and they think that is what you are mad at, certainly you are upset but that does NOT invalidate your thinking (which is correct) or the reason for your concerns. Damn sheep most of them, just how Brian likes them. It always comes back to the simple yet lame thinking ..”she is jealous” her guy didn’t get in, so therefore all your valid gripes are because “you are jealous”. JG not getting in shows the farce this garbage is, and for somebody NOT to see it, doesn’t say much for humanity. IMO of course.

GinaV24

thanks, kb, I appreciate you understanding my point of view. Normally, the fact that the NASCAR media refuses to acknowledge the facts, which is that NASCAR is the biggest manipulator of all, would be only mildly annoying, but when it is topped off by the fact that Gordon and Kez for that matter, deserve to be racing for the trophy, well, it is much harder for me to be calm.

I see ESPN has their 4 burning questions up – one of which is the new chase fair? I haven’t read it yet and considering most of the contributors are, of course, NASCAR people, I may just not bother. I don’t really care what they think, any more than they care about my opinion.

Tim Krantz

The race was indeed manipulated, acording to in race audio. Gordons in race audio said the brake pad was on the track for many laps,untill Joey was in position for the Lucky Dog.

Tim Krantz

By the way,I’m a Harvick fan,so no sour grapes on my first post.

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