While summer doesn’t officially end until Sept. 22, the Labor Day weekend coming up marks the unofficial end of summer in most of our minds, especially for those of us old enough to recall when school didn’t start until after Labor Day or even later. I’m not sure what the deal is with students forced to return to the classroom by mid-August in most of the country. I will say you that if you didn’t learn more of the important stuff in your life outside a classroom rather than in one, you’ve lived your life poorly and are probably an imbecile.
But I digress. After being hijacked many years to several locations, the Southern 500 has returned to its rightful place on NASCAR’s schedule, Labor Day weekend. While most fans would dub the Daytona 500 the biggest event on the schedule, I respectfully argue the Southern 500 deserves top billing especially in this era of plate “racing” at Daytona. The Southern 500 has after all been on the schedule nine years longer than Daytona and was the first NASCAR race ever run on a paved superspeedway for a 500-mile distance. The series then rolls on to Richmond, a track that may be the best left on the schedule.
Yep, odds are the next two weeks will feature the best two races left this season. Unfortunately for fans planning to watch these races on TV, you likely won’t get to see either of them. Both events will be televised, but NBC telegraphed its punches on Sunday at Michigan. You aren’t going to be able to watch two great races; instead, you’ll be subjected to the two events determining the field for the “All-singing, all-dancing, your eyes are going to pop right out of your dang heads, friends and neighbors” 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Wouldn’t it be nice if NBC could at least be honest about how things stand? Oh, sure, yeah, the garage area is like a pressure cooker, and everyone’s stomachs are tied up in knots wondering if they’re going to make the cut to be Chase eligible. But here in the real world?
Take Denny Hamlin. When he won the Daytona 500, this year’s first Cup event on the schedule, he knew he was all but certainly in the Chase. The same can be said for 11 of the other 12 drivers who have won races earlier this season (Tony Stewart, who did a sound-clip for NBC describing Michigan as the “bottom of the ninth inning,” sealed his Chase slot with a lackluster 21st-place finish.). Chris Buescher, who sort of backed into a win at Pocono Raceway when the fog rolled in, has to stay within the top 30 in points after the next two races to make the playoffs. Even with the Pocono win and a fifth-place finish at Bristol, Buescher is still averaging a 27th-place finish this year. Yep.
Oddly enough, if NASCAR just took the top 16 in points after Richmond, the Chase grid wouldn’t look a whole lot different. Stewart, who missed all those races at the beginning of the season, wouldn’t make the cut. Buescher obviously wouldn’t be in the mix. Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne would replace them, despite those two drivers having managed just three top-5 results combined to date this season.
As it stands, Chase Elliott is listed as 14th in the standings, 27 points ahead of Newman, who’s 17th. Longtime fans who still look at points as if the Latford system were still in place need to remember that, under the current points system, each finishing position is worth only a point. The maximum points swing (the difference between the winner’s points and that of the last-place finisher) is only 44 points.
Even if two drivers who haven’t won yet this year (and weren’t Austin Dillon or Jamie McMurray) were to claim the trophies at Richmond and Darlington, Elliott would still be in the Chase. If Newman were to finish second in those two races (and recall he has just one top-5 finish this season to date), Elliott would need only finish 13th or better to remain above the cutline. Kahne is more than a full race’s worth of points out of the Chase as the points add up right now. Kahne hasn’t won a Cup race since Atlanta in fall 2014 and hasn’t even enjoyed a top-5 result since Dover this June.
With the exceptions being the possibility of Kahne wrestling that 16th-place points position from Newman, or Buescher falling outside the top 30 in points, the Chase field is pretty solidified, but look for NBC to do what it does best,:manufacture drama where none naturally exists.
The Chase has actually lessened the excitement level in Cup racing. By its very nature, the 10-race Chase has diminished the importance of the first 26 races of the season. Drivers who win a race know they’ve made it to the playoffs.
There are two schools of thought on how that affects racing. Some folks believe it allows that driver to take chances they might not ordinarily entertain under a season-long points system, knowing they’re locked into the Chase. But most drivers are intelligent enough that they don’t like running into hard objects at high speeds with nothing to be gained from it. In some cases, drivers have outright admitted they didn’t push as hard as they could knowing they already had a few wins in the bank. If that driver’s team and crew chief decides, given the lay of the land, they might want to do a little experimenting in an attempt to find an edge once the Chase begins, that driver’s fans who attend or watch races are deprived of seeing their hero going all out for a win.
The Joe Gibbs Racing teams have been a bit off-song for a little while now, but then, all four (actually, five, if you count Martin Truex, Jr.) of their drivers know they’re playoff bound, don’t they? Who knows what they’ve added to their bag of tricks in the meantime?
It’s likely the nature of the Chase will affect TV coverage of those last 10 races in a way meant to enlighten new fans that will almost certainly irritate the living hell out of longtime fans. (And recall your parents’ advice about leaving the dance with the one that brought you.)
I was reading an interesting article earlier this week about a new Star Trek TV series that will soon be available on one of the pay-per-view services or another. There is considerable debate as to whether the program should be episodic or serial. What’s the difference? The original Star Trek series from the 1960s was episodic. Each week the captain and crew of the Enterprise faced a new challenge. There was considerable confusion as how to meet that challenge, followed by decided action and a bit of suspense if those actions were correct. Of course ,they always were and the episode was wrapped up nice and neatly in a single hour, as Captain Kirk put NCC-1701 on cruise control and the crew rocked on with their bad selves until the following week.
If a first-time viewer tuned into an episode of Star Trek, they would presumably be entertained by that episode perhaps to the point they’d make it a point to tune in to the program again the next week. In a serial series, storylines develop over weeks, if not seasons, and characters evolve as do their relationships with other characters. And if you happen to tune in for the first time mid-season, you’ll doubtlessly be confused as to what the hell is going on.
Think of a typical afternoon soap opera. A first-time viewer is going to be scratching their head wondering who all these loathsome characters are and why somebody doesn’t just drop a strategic nuke on Point Charles and end the madness. Homicide: Life on the Streets has always been a favorite program of mine, very well-written, very well-acted and with intriguing plot lines. But what might have doomed the show was its serial nature. If a first time viewer happened to tune in to the episode where Luther Mahoney met his overdue demise, they’d probably have been repulsed. The police beat on and ultimately execute a suspect. Taken out of context, that scene would have been nauseating.
Each Cup race, and by their nature any sporting event, is episodic in nature, a telecast to watch in and of itself. A race is going to start, and some favorites are going to fall by the wayside. Others who qualified poorly will assert themselves, though in some instances one driver will dominate. A first-time viewer, especially one tuning in midway into the race, is going to need some guidance. It might just be that two or three drivers are running back in 10th through 12th but they’ve already pitted for the final time while all the cars ahead of them need to make a final stop. At that point those three drivers might have the upper hand but a caution flag with 20 laps to go that sends everyone back to the pits could reshuffle the deck. As could those dark storm clouds looming over turn 4, which could certainly throw an Ozark into the cesspool of some teams’ plans.
When you start throwing in asides like how if this driver doesn’t improve his finishing position by three slots before the end of the race they’ll miss the cutoff to advance to the next round of the playoffs midway through a race, you’ve jumped the shark. “If points were awarded now” are five words that should never be used on TV. I’ve been following NASCAR a long, long time, and I’ve never seen the bastards award points prior to the end of the race. Cover and respect the sporting event you’re broadcasting at that moment and you can put it all into context after the race while most of your viewers have run out to By-Lo liquors to get another case of suds.
The Chase was NASCAR’s attempt to gimmick-ize the sport to compete with the ratings behemoth that is the NFL. (Wasn’t it about a decade ago Brian France told us that within a decade NASCAR racing would be more popular than NFL football?) The NFL season starts just as NASCAR’s playoffs gear up. Still, the local football team might have a bye week or perhaps they’re playing on Sunday, Monday or Thursday night that week rather than on Sunday afternoon. A bored sports fan in that market might choose that Sunday afternoon to give a NASCAR race a try.
The trick there would be to provide episodic coverage so that he or she could watch the race and be entertained. As such, they might decide to tune in to a race again in the future. Make that same potential viewer feel like they’ve walked into the middle of a story and the race is ending before the story concludes, and likely they’ll be channel surfing to a soccer game spraying the room with some mumbled, vile curse words and cheesy-poof crumbs.
And if telling the story of the race doesn’t boost ratings? Well, have you tried animated gophers?
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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