Views From the Grandstand: It's time to Change the Chase

Kay Bell | January 01, 2010
 
Jimmie Johnson holds up four fingers to signify his unprecedented four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.
Jimmie Johnson holds up four fingers to signify his unprecedented four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.

It’s a new year, but I still hate the Chase for the Championship.

NASCAR isn’t a stick-and-ball sport, so it didn’t need to try to reinvent itself by adding a playoff.

The ostensible reason was that, too often under the old system, the championship was decided well before the last race was run. Guess what? That’s still happening.

The real, and wrong, reason the Chase was created was to appease the TV suits, who were tired of losing their Sunday viewers to football in the fall. They thought if they could advertise their races as a playoff, they could pry a few eyes from the gridiron.

That hasn’t worked out. Part of the problem is that the 48 team has this Chase thing licked. Good for them, but bad for the fans and TV networks.

NASCAR is obviously committed to the Chase, so I’ve resigned myself to dealing with this faux faceoff. But I do have some suggestions on how it can be improved.

Return to 10

When the Chase started, only 10 drivers made the cut. Then Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t make it in, so NASCAR expanded the field. Bad idea.

It was obvious that the change was made as a knee-jerk reaction to two popular drivers missing out. Any pretense that the so-called playoff was legitimate vanished when NASCAR expanded it. So go back to the top 10. If Junior or Jeff or Jimmie (yeah, right!) misses out, it’s just one of them racing deals.

Let winners in

Is 10 not enough cars? Then let’s include everyone who wins a regular-season race.

NASCAR finally acknowledged that fans (and competitors) value wins by increasing the points awarded for a win. And the number of wins count even more when it comes to

Chase seeding.

But this season, two of the biggest winners and most compelling racers were on the verge of missing the Chase. Mark Martin made it. Kyle Busch didn’t.

NASCAR lucked out with Mark. Even though he had four wins as the cutoff neared, he was in danger of not getting in. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the oldest driver and big fan favorite got a chance in this career-reviving season to go for his first series title.

But the racing powers that be had to be devastated that their headline-grabbing, fan-polarizing bad boy didn’t get to make a no-holds-barred run for his first Sprint Cup championship despite five points-paying wins.

So let’s allow anyone who wins a race in. That’s already the deal for the all-star race. And again, it underscores the point of racing — to win!

That means the Chase could include 10 guys or several more — in 2009, the field would have been 15 — but that flexibility would be part of the appeal. Sure, an also-ran will squirrel in now and then, but that’s OK. Fans who love long shots would have a ready-made team or two to support.

And one thing’s for sure: a “welcome winners” option means an exciting driver like Kyle Busch will always be in the hunt.

Rework the Chase points

When you let in these extra drivers, you’d also need to tweak the Chase points system. No problem.

All the drivers who get in because they won would be considered in 11th place. They’d get no extra points for their wins, but they’d be in. More drivers and teams would be happy. More fans would be happy. And more sponsors, who need every incentive in this economy to stick with NASCAR, would be happy.

Make it a real playoff

OK, this will never happen, but it has to be said. If NASCAR is so intent on having a playoff, then make it a real playoff and drop the teams that don’t qualify.

That’s right. For the last 10 races, only the teams that make the Chase get to race.

Then you’d have only the cream of the season’s crop competing — no worries about some backmarker taking out a contender. Remember the Sam Hornish/Jimmie Johnson run-in at Texas in November?

Yes, there would be lots of open track, and they’d have to take Talladega out of the mix since drafting would be problematic with such a small field. But wide-open tracks also would be exciting, allowing the best drivers room to really show their stuff.

The JJ rule

Finally, even if — or maybe especially if — the Chase remains unchanged, NASCAR needs to create what I’ve dubbed the JJ Rule.

Here it is: Jimmie Johnson would start the Chase 500 points behind everyone else regardless of where he finished the regular season. He’d probably win the Cup anyway, but maybe by relegating him to the back, NASCAR would finally get what it wants: A championship that actually goes down to the last lap.

 

Loose Lugnuts

Bobby Labonte gets a 2010 ride. The former NASCAR champ will drive for TRG Motorsports on a full-time basis. It’s been sad to see my fellow Texan’s trouble finding employment. What’s the deal? Labonte has a Cup trophy on his shelf and by all accounts is a decent fellow. Are teams so cash-strapped that they’re opting for rookies with smaller salary demands instead of a proven winner? While TRG isn’t a top-tier team, its performances steadily improved over the course of last season. And at least Labonte will start the coming season with a bit of certainty, or as much as any racer can hope for.

Formula 1 racer Jarno Trulli looking ahead to NASCAR. The Italian who drove in 2009 for Team Toyota spent time with Michael Waltrip Racing at last fall’s Phoenix race. Trulli watched his first-ever NASCAR events from the Sprint Cup garages and checked in with former F1 colleague Juan Pablo Montoya. While Trulli, who has a home in Miami, still plans to drive in F1 for a while, he said he would like to leave the door open to a possible NASCAR future. “When you come here and see how many people come to watch these series, you understand, you realize there’s so much interest around,” Trulli told Autosport.com. “So it’s really a professional top series, especially for America.”

Hmmm. “Especially for America.” Jarno, I realize English isn’t your native tongue and things are often lost in translation, but if you ever do make the move to NASCAR, one of your first tasks better be hiring a PR agent.

Speaking of Formula 1, its operatic off-track machinations are almost as entertaining as watching the cars race. Take, for instance, the shakeup in the 2009 F1 championship team.

Mercedes-Benz purchased a majority stake in Brawn GP, which took the series 2009 manufacturer and driving titles. But that momentous move was soon eclipsed by Mercedes’ decision not to resign reigning champ Jensen Button. Instead, the company decided that instead of a Brit behind the wheel, it prefers Nico Rosberg as its lead driver. Britain’s Daily Mirror newspaper reported that Mercedes would consider it a marketing coup at home if its new team were to win the world title with the German Rosberg.

So why is the changing of a driver such big deal? The NASCAR analogy would be Hendrick Motorsports wins the Sprint Cup, Detroit-based Chevrolet buys Hendrick, Chevy fires California native Jimmie Johnson and puts good Midwestern driver Matt Kenseth in the 48.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.

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