Challenge Is To Improve The Chase, Not Abolish It
Among the loudest criticisms of NASCAR today surrounds the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Long time NASCAR fans by and large detest the Chase and everything it represents. To them, winning a Sprint Cup championship should represent the achievement of a season-long demonstration of excellence. The Chase short-circuits that process and lets unworthy drivers have a shot at the championship by getting lucky at the right time. The reality is that the Chase format as a concept isn't going anywhere; instead of trying to change the unchangeable, the focus ought to be on ways to improve NASCAR's playoffs.
Many forget just why the Chase format was adopted in the first place. NASCAR's 2003 season was a ho-hum effort that eventually crowned Matt Kenseth as champion. He won only a single race that season and was Jimmie Johnson-esque in both his consistency and his controlled corporate personality. It wasn't his most dominating season; Kenseth scored more wins in eight of his 14 full season and more top five finishes in five of them. But those 25 top ten finishes let the Wisconsin native claim the season championship before the season's final race even began. Kenseth claimed the points lead after the Atlanta race in week four and never left the spot again. NASCAR had nothing to offer its fans in terms of drama or interest once football season began and it showed.
The concept of the Chase was simple; take the season's highest-scoring drivers and let them compete in for the championship against one another. With every team competing each week it was the closest NASCAR could come to a playoff system. The very best teams would compete against each other on their own points system to determine a champion. The inaugural Chase in 2004 accomplished exactly what was intended as five different drivers pulled into the final race with a mathematical chance to win the championship. For racing fans, the drama was as good as any game seven ever played.
Highlights of NASCAR's first Chase (2004)
Since that first Chase, every season has had some measure of drama attached to the final race at Homestead. Some seasons were closer than others; not every Chase had the magic of the 2011 race between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards that saw a champion crowned based on season wins after the two tied in points. But without question the Chase for the Sprint Cup gave fans a reason to watch races deep into November. That reason is precisely why NASCAR implemented the Chase in the first place.
Looking at how a season may have turned out without the Chase is like peering into a murky crystal ball. There's no way to know just how teams would lay out their season if they knew the last ten races counted the same as the other 26. Did Johnson's team (among others) spend the middle portion basically doing on-track testing once their playoff position was secure? Would they have finished as well in the last ten races? And did the schedule change give certain teams momentum over others? That's long been identified as a major Chase issue with so many intermediate tracks present; a team with a good 1.5 mile program has a decided advantage come Chase time.
That being said, let's take a look at how the points would fall out had NASCAR not reset them with the Chase. By straight numbers, Jeff Gordon would have two more championships, with the 2007 championship being a runaway victory secured with multiple races to go. Carl Edwards would also have a pair of titles including a pre-Homestead clinch in the 2011 season. Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski would all have a single championship. In terms of different faces at the head of the field, abolishing the Chase would seem to accomplish that task.
Yet it's not NASCAR's goal to crown a different champion every year. Johnson's five consecutive (and six overall) championships came not because of any grand conspiracy on the part of the France family; they came because his team recognized the rules of the game and maximized their performance when it counted most. To think they wouldn't do likewise in a non-Chase environment is ludicrous. The #48 team finished fifth and second in the non-Chase seasons of 2002 and 2003 (Johnson's first two full Sprint Cup seasons). They were a team on the rise that was going to win multiple championships no matter what the format was.
NASCAR likely realized what many have ignored all along- there is no way to please all of the fans all of the time. The best that the sanctioning body can do is try to please the larger group of fans more than half the time. The outcry over 2003 was something NASCAR could not ignore, and to be fair, that season was only a repeat of what the series experienced several times in the years before. Tony Stewart's 2002 title came with only one other car in contention at the end. Gordon's 2001 championship came with a two race margin of victory. The three years prior? Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett and Gordon all won titles and finished more than a full race ahead of their nearest competition. That kind of lackluster championship hunt was not something the sport could sustain.
Sports fans in general tend to have short memories when it comes to the sport they love. Baseball fans swore they'd never return after a strike canceled the 1994 World Series. Yet the steroid-induced home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa sold out ballparks around the country. Hockey fans lost one Stanley Cup and parts of two other seasons in the last 20 years. Fans still turned out in record numbers after every work stoppage. NASCAR fans come from the same population and have the same propensity to forget the complaints of yesterday for the complaints of today. There's nothing inherently wrong with that but it's important to recognize it when looking at whether or not the Chase should be abolished.
NASCAR should, however, continue to tweak the format where appropriate to ensure points reward the kind of behavior fans want to see. Wins still do not mean enough and poor finishes still hurt far too much. Why not give the winning driver additional bonus points? Better still, why not only award points for the top 20 finishers? Award the race winner 30 points (20 for position, one for leading a lap, and nine as a win bonus), second place gets 19 points, third place gets 18 points and so on down to the 20th place finisher earning a single point. That would reward teams handsomely for winning, score a handful of point for good finishes, and essentially treat finishers 21-43 alike as what they really are. A crash or engine failure would hurt but no more than badly missing the setup and finishing three laps down.
Another useful tweak would be in the wild card format. By limiting eligibility to the top 20 in points, NASCAR tried to maintain the idea that season-long consistency was important. However, that caveat has taken much of the drama out of the wild card chase. 2011 and 2012 both saw 11th and 12th place in the point standings take the wild card spot in the Chase. Instead of breaking win ties by points, break those ties the way other ties are broken; by number of 2nd place finishes, 3rd place finishes, etc. This still rewards consistency but also places a greater emphasis finishing well.
The other advantage to that tweak is that it makes stepping out of the car for medical reasons a burden that can be overcome while still rewarding those who continually race well. Under the current format NASCAR grants medical exemptions as needed for wild card participants. But doing so introduces an element that is highly subjective and open to interpretation. The sport is founded on running fast and running often. No one wants to punish a driver who is medically unfit to drive. Yet neither should their absence create any sort of competitive advantage. The balance is a difficult one and a points-based solution seems to make more sense than an arbitrary exemption.
If NASCAR wanted a short-term boost in fan approval from its core fanbase, they could announce that the Chase is gone effective immediately. But there's a reason the Chase came to be in the first place and simply returning to the old format would only bring those problems back to the forefront. NASCAR has also invested far too much prestige and effort to change now; the France family isn't known for bending to the whims of the moment. For fans, it's far better to see how changes can be made within the system since it's not going anywhere. That's something that has a chance of happening. Dropping the Chase? That's not happening any time soon.