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.
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.
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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