Commentary: Both Sides Of The Chase Debate

It is now official that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will have a new system in place to determine the champion. It has been hailed by NASCAR CEO Brian France as a simplified formula that will appeal to fans with its winner-take-all approach. According to their data, everyone is on board with the change. However there’s plenty of examples to the contrary.

When I started this blog, going on four years ago, there was an unintended consequence that took place. My view of the sport shifted from an extremely bias fan to someone who sees both sides of the coin, so to speak. I learned that to make it, I couldn’t come out and bash a driver or team without merit. With that said, as much as I dislike the direction NASCAR is going, I can see exactly why they’re going that way.

We’ll start right there with why they’re doing this. It’s no secret that ratings and attendance are stagnate in NASCAR. Feeling that the boom in attendance and ratings would continue forever, NASCAR didn’t think about what would happen when it stopped. The excitement that will come from each knock out round (something right out of reality television) should draw in causal fans and television networks. Add to that a simple winner-takes-all final race at Homestead and it’ll be guaranteed that will be the focus of many sports fans come November.

It is also a move against a point structure where a driver could not even win and still be champion. Putting an emphasis on winning has been a constant battle for NASCAR ever since 1985, when Bill Elliott won 11 times, but lost the title to Darrell Waltrip and his three wins. The emphasis has been placed on winning because doing so in the first 26 races gets you into the Chase. From there, if a driver wins one race during each knockout round, he or she will be guaranteed to move on to the next round. That sets up the stage for the final race where four drivers will be on equal ground. In years past, drivers would have such a point lead that simply showing up to the event made them champion. Now to guarantee they’ll win the title, they’ve got to win the race.

The biggest sticking point I am seeing about this new system is it seems to fly in the face of tradition when it comes to NASCAR history. I whole heartedly understand and believe that as well. That said, if you don’t evolve and keep moving, you’ll get left behind. As ESPN’s Marty Smith noted, this is NASCAR swinging at the fences to do something for not only the short term, but also the long term health of the sport. I applaud them for doing something proactively rather than retroactively.

The negatives of the system are a long booming list of what-if scenarios. Right off the bat, if the system was applied to 2013, your champion is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., a driver who went winless in 2013. How is that indicative of a system that rewards wins versus consistency? You can argue drivers would have raced differently with the new system in place, but it at least shows that wins don’t mean you’re going to win the title.

Something that bothers me about setting this up for a four way, winner-takes-all, royal rumble at Homestead is that NASCAR is manufacturing a “Game 7” moment. In 2011, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards dueled for the title, with Stewart winning a tiebreaker. That was real and that was special. What makes it special was you didn’t know it would happen until it happened. Now, you’re guaranteed every year it’ll be a one race shoot out. Exciting yes, but the luster is lost because you know it is coming.

If the playoff system will be like this for the next, who knows how many years, then NASCAR needs to go a step further. The final 10 race locations (or even just the finale) need to be changed on a yearly basis. If they are so insistent on comparing themselves to football, then they should look no further. Their championship game is played at a different venue every year. Sometimes it is played inside a dome, sometimes it is played outside in 80 degree weather, and this year it’s being played in frigid temperatures outside. Imagine the season finale being run at a short track or even a road course.

We saw last year at Richmond that teams will do most anything to get into the Chase. Michael Waltrip Racing tried, got caught, and were crucified. With that example, I would hope that no one tries to fudge the outcome of the Chase, but those questions will linger since Richmond and intensify this year. Is a driver racing hard to keep someone behind him to benefit a teammate? Is a driver not racing hard enough and letting someone by so they can advance? Now we’re getting back to ball and strike calls that I hate because they impact the outcome of the championship in a one race shootout.

My final thought on the matter is a simple one. I’ve stated it on Twitter and I’ll state it again here. At the end of the day for how much fans dislike this proposal (or like it) it doesn’t matter. Public opinion only factors so much into NASCAR’s decision and it’s a very simple situation all together. This is NASCAR’s sandbox. You’re welcome to play in it, but they make the rules. If you don’t like them, then you can always get out.

The approach I am going into 2014 with is “let’s see how this plays out.” If it is every bit as exciting as NASCAR hopes, then I’ll be happy to admit I was wrong in doubting them. If it ends the way fans fear, then I’ll be happy to admit I was right in doubting. Either way, we won’t know until the checkered flag falls at Homestead, and until then we just have to sit back and enjoy the ride.