NASCAR chasing a “Game 7” that doesn't exist
One of the better slogans NASCAR's PR department has rolled out of late was its “More than just a game” ad campaign. The ads reminded casual and lapsed fans that auto racing brings an element of speed and excitement that none of the stick and ball sports can match. Yet in its never-ending quest to create additional excitement, NASCAR is risking some of the very things that made it popular in the first place. And in attempting to create a “Game 7” atmosphere at Homestead, the sanctioning body is ignoring how drama is created in the first place.
While NASCAR has yet to confirm any specific changes, it seems clear that the Chase will change once again in the near future. The latest trial balloon out of Charlotte involves expanding the initial Chase field and then utilizing a knockout format to eliminate competitors as the playoffs move along. The finale at Homestead would then involve a second points reset giving all of the remaining drivers an equal chance to take home the championship.
Proponents of the system have long drawn the parallel to stick and ball sport playoffs, where teams are eliminated from championship contention as the season draws down. The net result in those sports is that the champion generally represents the team playing its best “when the stakes are the highest”. The best overall team may or may not win; perhaps the best example of this came a few years back in the NFL. The New York Giants won the Super Bowl by taking down the previously undefeated (and virtually unchallenged) New England Patriots, ending their dream of a 19-0 season. Football fans accept that this is normal; the results of an entire season nullified by the events of a single game.
Diecast from Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s last title run
NASCAR fans generally don't look at things the same way. For decades, the championship went not to the car who was fastest in a single race nor the team that could dominate for short periods of time. The very phrase “checkers or wreckers” was a term applied with scorn to drivers who, while talented, lacked the necessary discipline to make consistent finishes. One doesn't need to look at the history books long to see that the driver with the most wins was never a lock to win the title.
The Chase, instituted by Brian France in 2004, aimed to change that. No longer did a driver need to be the most consistent over the entire season. As long as a team made it into the field they had a legitimate shot at a title. The addition of wild cards for race wins only enhanced the change; Tony Stewart's 2011 championship was a perfect example of this. The team struggled so mightily that crew chief Darian Grubb was told his services would not be required beyond the end of the year. Yet Smoke caught fire at the right moment, reeling off a series of wins to close the season and edge Carl Edwards out for the title.
Whatever the motives in its creation, long time fans have been near-universal in their condemnation of the format. To this day, many consider Jimmie Johnson's six championships to lack the same legitimacy of those won by Earnhardt or Petty. A cursory Google search will show any number of websites that calculate the points based on the old format- and posts from fans claiming that Jeff Gordon is the real six-pack champion (or that Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards ought to have Cups on their mantle). There is no way to know what the points battles might have looked like; Johnson works within the rules of his day just as Petty and Earnhardt did before. Would his team have focused more on the mid-season stretch that's served as a de facto testing session over the past decade? Would momentum have meant more to his competitors if they knew their points lead would stick past Richmond? We'll never know.
What is certain is that in an era of declining attendance and television ratings NASCAR should be doing everything they can to attract fans. Instead, the sport seems determined to attract casual fans who by their very nature lack the same emotional (and financial) investment in the product. Casual fans might leave the television on if what's there interests them. Hardcore fans not only leave the race on, they spend real money on merchandise and race tickets.
Hockey faced the same sort of dilemma. The NHL spent much of the 90's expanding into non-traditional markets in a search for their own casual fan. They instituted rules designed to appeal to people who didn't traditionally follow the sport and the television presentation changed to accommodate their lack of knowledge. Fox went so far as to color the puck and add red streaks for hard shots to help these new fans follow the on-ice action.
Instead of drawing in new fans, the NHL succeeded merely in turning away those who truly loved the product. Atlanta, not exactly a hotbed of hockey fandom, watched its franchise struggle to garner any interest before seeing it move to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The Phoenix Coyotes spent years in bankruptcy court being managed by the league. The financial imbalance between hockey haves and have-nots, caused in large part by vastly inequal fanbases, resulted in a pair of work stoppages. The NHL has stopped the bleeding mainly by recognizing what they are- and what they are not. In the process, they've thrown 20 years away.
So while NASCAR cannot focus entirely on the desires of a vocal but aging portion of its fans, neither can they afford to disregard everything they say. Doing so risks everything the sport has gained over the last 35 years. Fans flocked to NASCAR because it offered something different, something that they other sports could not provide; drama that doesn't necessarily depend on wins and losses.
The inherent difference in fan expectations is ultimately why a Chase featuring eliminations will blow up in NASCAR's face. Imagine a Giants-Patriots scenario playing out in stock car racing. Driver A, who struggles to finish among the top ten all season long, manages to qualify for the playoffs on the strength of a mad scramble at Talladega early in the year. Meanwhile, Driver B proves dominant throughout the year. He wins 15 races and averages a top ten finish in the others. He takes home trophies from intermediate tracks, road courses and everything in between.
As the season pulls toward a conclusion, Driver B continues to run up front while Driver A struggles to stay above the cut line. Thanks to mechanical issues for his peers, he somehow snags the fourth slot going into Homestead. Is there anyone who honestly believes that if Driver A out-points his peers in the finale that he deserves a Sprint Cup trophy? Two wins and a handful of top ten finishes vs. 15 wins and 25 top ten finishes- which of those results is a championship season? And if fans question the legitimacy of Johnson's titles, what do you think they will say for Driver A's?
NASCAR has also looked to expand the Chase field in the past over basic economics. More playoff spots equal more teams receiving higher sponsor exposure and more fans emotionally invested in the Chase. Yet what happens the first time a big-name driver is eliminated early on? As things sit today, teams have the ability to come back from one poor run. The “Chase Mulligan” so talked about means that teams can recover from a blown engine or crash (particularly with races at Martinsville and Talladega waiting). An elimination format would create a zero-tolerance environment for mistakes. What if the aforementioned Driver B crashed on the first lap of the Chase opener. Would his previous accomplishments now mean nothing?
An elimination format also puts the ten race Chase schedule itself under an intense microscope. Drivers who excel at short tracks would cry foul at a Chase schedule that contains only the race at Martinsville. What about the carnage that regularly occurs at Talladega? Is it fair to eliminate teams when the result is almost always out of their control? And what about the possibility of adding a road course to the Chase; for the many teams who struggle at the two already on the schedule, how would they (and their sponsors/fans) react to an event that would almost guarantee their elimination?
I believe that Brian France's heart is in the right place. He seems to genuinely believe in the concept of a Chase and that having a playoff system is the key to making NASCAR relevant once again. The devil, however, is in the details. If he genuinely wants to increase fan interest and emotional investment, the first step should be the weekly product on the track. Fans who enjoy watching a race and care about the drivers involved will come back for more- the 80's and 90's proved that point. Many of those years had runaway title races and yet it didn't matter. That, not last year's NBA Finals, should be NASCAR's goal.