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The Frontstretch 5: Things Fans Can Expect To See During the Chase

1. A lot of hype with a questionable amount of substance

If you’ve been around for the last 12 years, you know that NASCAR loves its playoffs, and the TV partners love it even more. Thanks to the current system of determining a champion, fans are treated to Chase Watch talk during the race broadcasts starting with the Daytona 500. Before the Chase, the TV booth actually had to spend most races talking about the race at hand. Now if that’s not to their liking, they can always resort to telling everyone who would make the field if the Chase started today… even if reality dictates it’s still 15 races until that’s decided.

For the record, since the FOX contingent spent so much time talking about the Chase during the Daytona 500, had the field actually been set that day, it would include Casey Mears, David Gilliland, Michael Annett, Sam Hornish Jr., Austin Dillon, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola and David Ragan. It would not have included Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Carl Edwards or Ryan Newman. It’s probably just as well they ran the other 24 races first. But it does illustrate how ridiculous the speculation has become.

But will the racing match up to the hype? It’s unlikely. Unless they are absolutely certain they have a winning car under them, the contenders aren’t going to race very hard unless they’re in the back of the Chase pack and even then they’d rather take a few points less than risk a crash and a lot of points lost. Titles have been lost for lack of risk-taking in the final 10 races (Edwards, I’m looking at you) and that was before eliminations came into play. There have been a few post-race incidents, but really, does a fight in the garage replace excitement on the track? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

2. Not much about the other 27 drivers in the race

Wait, there are other drivers in the race? Oh yeah, those other guys are still out there, aren’t they. And here’s a news flash: they’re actually still racing for something, whether that’s a stolen win, a few points to prove they’re a step ahead of a rival or some strong finishes to salvage a season that to many, is already a lost cause.

If a Chase driver is involved in a crash, he’ll have 17 microphones in his face the moment he steps out of the infield care center. One of those other guys? You’ll be lucky to find out whether he’s okay, let alone have actual airtime dedicated to an interview, not that you do now for a lot of the field, but it’s about to get 10 times worse.

And while yes, the Chase drivers do deserve attention, the rest of the field should not be completely ignored as they often are this time of year. They still have sponsors to convince to stick around, despite a complete exposure blackout for two and a half months of the season. They still race hard for every position they get. Well, mostly, because….

3. Nobody wants to be that guy.

Don’t be surprised to hear NASCAR remind the rest of the field during drivers’ meetings from now until the end of the year to basically stay out of the way of the Chasers. And while it would be a shame to see a driver taken out of championship contention by a backmarker driver, it’s also a shame that that backmarker driver has the added pressure of racing for his own position and avoiding disaster with a Chase driver.

So, if the teams not in the Chase won’t race the Chase drivers hard unless by some miracle they’re in contention for a win, won’t race each other hard when a Chaser is within breathing distance, and the Chase drivers won’t race hard unless it’s a last-ditch attempt to avoid elimination… who, exactly, is actually racing out there?

4. Some fans wearing tin-foil hats.

Conspiracy theories abound in NASCAR. The idea of the sanctioning body favoring one team or another has been around for decades and its roots are probably not completely unfounded. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you and all that. One such theory reared its head at Richmond last week when two different Joe Gibbs Racing drivers appeared to jump two different restarts without penalty on Saturday night. Has JGR gotten off lightly on a few penalties in recent years? Sure. So have others. A few years ago, the prime target was Hendrick Motorsports.

Before that it was Richard Childress Racing. Roush Fenway Racing has been bandied about as well. Nobody is immune. Does NASCAR fix races inasmuch as choosing who will win? No, absolutely not. Too much would have to go into actually fixing a race, but do they sometimes let things slide or create them to create a little excitement? Probably… and it will be heavily scrutinized in the Chase.

The other side of the coin is the idea of team orders. Would a driver go so far as to intentionally wreck a competitor to help a teammate? It’s happened before (just look at the 2003 Camping World Truck Series finale), so it’s not out of the question. NASCAR has indicated that it expects contact in the Chase, so it could be a very fine line.

What’s more likely, though, is a driver not in the Chase letting a teammate pass him late in a race for position. That’s happened before for sure. I’ve heard a team go so far as flat tell a driver on the radio a few years back to let a Chase-qualified teammate go by in the closing laps for a spot. That driver was not very happy about the orders, and I don’t blame him. It’s definitely a possibility for teams like HMS or RCR, which have team cars not in the Chase. Will it be rampant every race? No, and it won’t be blatant, either. But it’s understandable why fans would be suspicious of hanky panky.

5. A champion that many don’t see as legit

And at the end of the day, it’s easy to see why. The current Chase system all but throws away points earned during the first 26 races. One bad race can spell disaster even with two good ones in a segment. Meanwhile, three OK races, with the driver taking it easy and not taking risks to win, can easily mean moving on. And the one race for the title… well, that can erase a whole season of excellence in one slip of the wheel. Even the original Chase system makes the title seem cheaper than its full-season counterparts. If Jimmie Johnson wins a seventh title, it’s hard to put him on the same plane as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, and that’s a shame.

Johnson – and the other Chase-era champions – deserve better than what amounts to an asterisk beside the last dozen years’ worth of championships. But it’s equally difficult to argue that the asterisk doesn’t belong there, even if NASCAR doesn’t put one on the record books. Yes they won under the same rules as the rest of the field, but they didn’t win under the same rules as the other champions, either. And today’s one-race champion just devalues the whole thing even more. Better to be lucky and all that…

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Bill B

You really hit the nail on the head Amy. Excellent article.

DoninAjax

“Don’t race the chasers!”

Sounds like the Johnson rule. Or the Kyle Busch rule.

Tune in to “Why is this guy racing me? DOESN’T HE KNOW WHO I AM?”

rg72

Like Homestead last year when the Final Four happened to be in the Top Five for most of the race. Two of them (Hamlin/Newman) could barely sniff the Top Ten, let alone the Top Five in the previous 35 races. And of course who could forget Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson being coerced into making a hostage video to explain why they pitted from 2nd place on the last caution.

kb

That was a amazing display of WWE tactics. The announcers should have been ashamed of themselves. Hamlin and Newman didn’t see the front of a race track all year and all of a sudden they were ultra competitive with Logano and Harvick. Disgusting.

Earner

Ridiculous that 1 race best finisher wins championship ..It really demeans it…Also Dega (if it has to be part of this) should be the first race in a given segment so there is “some chance” to repair the damage to your (?) season…Dull-D’s & Down force thats todays Nascar..”but people want to see pack racing” Might as well let the engineers drive the cars to…Let Em Drive

kb

The “Championship” is basically meaningless..at least the definition I know of. NASCAR has a different definition.

GinaV24

totally agree,folks

russ

And the ratings will be? Its already a tough job going up against the Goliath of football, but each year the fans become more jaded to the Chase. I’d be more than mildly surprised if the ratings match those of the last couple of years.

william floyd

Good points all around. Nascar can and does change who wins races. Late phantom debris cautions, speeding calls made or not made on pit road late in a race, Carl Edwards I’m talking about your speeding a couple races ago that nascar ignored, jumping restarts like Kenseth just did in the last race by 3 car lengths with no call made. That one was an easy one to see for all the world, it’s on youtube today and all the other racers aren’t the only ones that complained about it. I would bet anything right now that Kyle Busch will be called for speeding on pit road at some crucial time during the chase, that’s almost a given on nascar’s part, another given is that Carl Edwards won’t be called for speeding on pit road when we all will see easily that he did. That’s the nascar we will see in the chase.

DoninAjax

I think Johnson picks the last stall because he can speed into it.

Earner

Yes thats part of it & no rule is broken..Some call that thinking..No I’m not a JJ fan (respect yes but can’t see me cheering for him) & further I would say his championships DO require an asterisk & the chase(now supposed to be referred to as “playoff”) does create exactly the NON competition that no one wants to see(“jus guys riding around in a circle”) Lets see all that hype & big down force-Add in Chicago track & they should lose any newer person watching this cause it’s probably going to be Dull-They don’t call em Dull-D’s for nothing & Chicago (laughable to start the chase with) has been in the top 3 dulls every season..Kentucky was up there to…Hmm I wonder how they changed that…Nope we can’t do that as that would mean brian was WRONG…Again..Best to all

Bill B

Actually the original chase championships need asterisks, the new bracket championships need question marks.

GinaV24

Bill B, that is absolutely excellent!

I agree with what you, JohnQ & kb all said above, too.

It makes me angry and sad that a sport that I really enjoyed so much has fallen so far that it is unwatched and just not fun. The weather is supposed to be great here this weekend – based on past not very interesting races at Chicagoland, followed by NH (yawn) and Dover (boring as heck), well, I may glance at some of it, but I am not spending my time inside on Sunday.

I agree with most of Amy’s column as well. The hype and hyperbole has reached a level where it is painful and counter-productive. IMO fans follow who they like, not just whoever is in the playoffs. And I am NOT a fan of this whole bracket BS or Nation nonsense.

kb

I am the president of the Tin Foil Hat club regarding NASCAR, and I don’t care. I hate to feel the way I do, but I love racing. NASCAR is a very screwed up organization that doesn’t care what the hell it’s real bread and butter thinks..the fans. I still cannot get over the concept of this stupid format for a zillion reasons. Brian and the Tv networks are the only one’s who like it. Talk about out of touch. Good article, nothing that has not been said before, all valid and true points. Does NASCAR read anything people write?

They had the drivers yesterday around the country having “Nation Rallies”, what a waste of time and how utterly stupid.

JohnQ

I’ve always been more of a stupidity as opposed to conspiracy theorist but NASCAR changed all that for me. I firmly believe that the racing is manipulated in an attempt to produce a desired outcome. With the ever lessening fan interest the Toyota money is more important than ever to NASCAR. With that in mind I would expect the sanctioning/fixing body to pull out all the stops in an effort to keep Toyota happy by presenting them with a Championship. I watch a less and less with each passing year. I almost hope for a manipulated Toyota championship so that I, like the rest of America, can finally be done with this mess. Any semblance of Stock car racing ceased to exist with the COT.

Bill B

I guess my hat is made of paper. I believe they manipulate races to produce a better tv show, which in itself is undermining the sport and in my opinion is enough to warrant walking away.
I am less inclined to think it is in NASCAR’s best interest to fix it to one entities benefit (owner, drive, manufacturer). Although with the money involved anything is possible. I will just ask one thing, if this fixing of races was that prevalent then wouldn’t there have been many through the years that benefited from it? With that many people knowing it be pretty hard to keep it a secret. If you made a deal with Chevy to fix some races and then a year later the Chevy teams see the Fords winning all the time wouldn’t they pretty much know the fix is on? Are you implying that everyone is in on it for the benefit of the show and that we are being duped into watching wrestling? (Although even without the fix being on we are on the cusp of crossing that line).

JohnQ

No, I don’t mean Liston/ Ali pure fixing, I don’t think given the nature of auto racing that is even possible. I think it is more manipulation in an effort to increase the chances of a desired result like when they slowed Elliott down in the mid 80’s to keep him from stinking up the show, or when they let Toyota drivers jump restarts now. I really think NASCAR so misreads the fans that they believe a Toyota Championship would be immensely popular. Or, I could just be nuts, a distinct possibility.

kb

Well thanks guys…I think we are in agreement, no matter what “type” of manipulation….and we may or may not agree who benefits or for the reasons..the point is….IT IS MANIPULATED. And that is the sad part that we all hate.

Steve

Given the Bears are in town and this track producing less than stellar racing, I’m interested to see what the grandstands look like for the race on Sunday. My guess is all the hype of **** Nation will fizzle quickly once 7pm Eastern time Sunday night comes and the parade at Chicagoland Speedway is over. Expect the proverbial debris caution with 20 to go to attempt to create an exciting finish too.

I’m interested to see if there will be continued fights in the pits after races this year. It got a bit out of hand where almost every race had one last year. I’m sure Nascar and the Networks love it, so I guess its one reason to tune in, if you like that sort of thing.

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