1. Nobody wants to be that guy, but…
Do drivers race differently in the Chase? That’s been debated and I think they do. Nobody who’s not in the title hunt wants to have an adverse effect on the championship by inadvertently taking out someone in the title hunt, unless, of course, they’ve been eliminated by someone who’s done them wrong, and then all bets are off.
The drivers still in it also seem less likely to push each other’s buttons for fear of retaliation. So, the non-Chase drivers don’t want to race the Chasers too hard. The Chasers will race each other hard, but not too hard, and eight guys racing hard isn’t really as compelling as a full field. There are a few Chasers who race the non-Chasers like they expect the waters to part for their Chase-ness, but that’s not really great racing when it turns into the Chase driver being a jerk and/or leaving crashed cars in his wake that should not have been wrecked. What it all leads to is racing that’s not very compelling to watch.
2. Somebody is going to be that guy
What sets NASCAR’s playoffs apart from other sports is that there are 40 participants in each event. That means that someone not in the hunt is almost certainly going to have an effect on the outcome at some point. Imagine if a player from, say, the Minnesota Twins running onto the field in Cleveland, plucking a ball out of the air, and it being a legal move.
That’s where racing hits a brick wall in terms of having a successful playoff: There are a lot of drivers out there who could destroy or boost someone else’s title hopes without being in it themselves. Who wants to watch a 400-mile race with just four drivers in it to end the season? The rest of the field makes for compelling storylines, but can also adversely affect the outcome.
3. The weather is its own animal
Mother Nature hasn’t been much of a race fan this year. But while rain-shortened races are legit in terms of producing a deserving winner, are they also legit in determining the champion? That’s a more marginal yes.
There’s really nothing that could have been done differently at Texas, because asking teams and drivers to come back the next day for what might have been a half hour of racing wasn’t a viable option, and neither was restarting in the neighborhood of 3 a.m., though the call to end it early was a bit of a sour note.
However, I firmly believe that in the Chase races scheduled during the day should be run during the day, because that’s what teams set up for and that’s what will give fans the best race. Night races are a bit more problematic in that they’d have to be on Sunday night, but if afternoon races are postponed to Sunday night, a Saturday night race could be too. I’d like to see all Chase races be day races, but in fairness to the teams, perhaps running them at the time of day originally expected would make a better race for all involved.
4. Wait, there are other guys?
The other thing about the Chase is that to the television broadcasters, anyone not either in the Chase or wrecking with someone in the Chase might as well be invisible, unless they’re leading. Then it’s done begrudgingly, as if they were stinking up the show for the network. While the title hunt is an important storyline, it’s not the only one.
There were 32 sponsors in the race who did not get their money’s worth. The sport can’t afford to lose sponsors over the Chase, and teams really can’t afford it. Plus, it’d be cool if drivers who crashed out of the race were acknowledged a little. Maybe tell their fans they’re OK, or if they needed further evaluation.
Maybe even (gasp!) talk to them, especially if there’s not a lot of action on the track. Go through the field a couple of times. If the Homestead race winner isn’t also the champion, their fans can forget about the victory getting more than passing mention. It’s not that the broadcast needs to give tons of time to everybody, but not giving any time at all only hurts the sport and its fans. The ratings have dropped like rocks this fall, and perhaps fans are fed up with only being allowed to see the Chasers race.
5. If history is made, it still won’t be
Jimmie Johnson is poised to make a run at a seventh title in a couple of weeks. That’s something that has been done exactly twice in NASCAR’s nearly 70-year span, but it will take another generation before fans talk about Johnson with the same reverence as they talk about Earnhardt and Petty. As long as there are people watching who also watched under the old format, they won’t see it in the same light. Only when fans have never known anything but the Chase will they see the titles as just titles, and not tainted by the format. That’s a long time for today’s champions to wait.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.