Views from the Grandstands

Kay Bell | September 01, 2011

Mix it up

Chase for the Championship needs revamping to recapture its appeal


One of the most frequent complaints about the Chase for the Championship is that reducing the Sprint Cup hunt to 10 races devalues the full season.

Jeff Gordon crosses the finish line to win the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway, his second victory of 2011.

That’s a fair argument. We old-timers, er, veteran NASCAR fans remember fondly the days when the sport’s top trophy went to the driver who could master all types of tracks.

I’ve grudgingly accepted that NASCAR is not going to do away with its so-called playoff system. But the sport could mollify my fellow fans and me by again rewarding a well-rounded racer.

How? By changing the Chase races.

The 2011 Chase begins on Sept. 18 at Chicagoland Speedway. That’s followed by trips to New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix before handing over the hardware at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Aside from the always-on-the-edge Talladega and the paperclip that’s Martinsville, yawn. Wake me when Jimmie Johnson collects NASCAR championship No. 6.

The biggest problem with these tracks is that most of them are too similar. OK, that’s a major problem with a lot of NASCAR tracks. But the repetition during the Chase is notable.

Half of the last 10 events are on 1.5-mile tracks. Three others are a mile long (to be exact, Loudon, N.H., is just a tad longer than a mile). And while the banking varies a bit, these eight tracks are basically the same-old race oval.

So let’s mix it up a bit.

I’ll admit right up front that, despite my kvetching, five of the current Chase races still make my ideal final 10. But my other five Chase choices should spice up the championship quest.

1. Talladega: The NASCAR season begins with the restrictor-plate race at Daytona, so it’s fitting that a restrictor-plate competition would get the playoffs started. And this Chase keeper would do so in grand style, with the prospect of “the big one” adding excitement. But moving it from the sixth race of the Chase also would give any ­championship-seeking teams caught up in the usual mayhem more time to recover.

2. Charlotte: After surviving (or maybe not) Talladega, the teams deserve to return home to Charlotte for a little rest and track familiarity. So this one stays, too.

3. Martinsville: This half-mile track’s unique layout makes it a current Chase holdover. It is two drag strips connected by hairpins. What’s not to love?

4. Dover: You want to tell Miles the Monster he can’t have a Chase race? I don’t. Plus, the Monster Mile’s concrete at least offers a unique race surface. The inimitable Intimidator always complained about racing on sidewalks, but it’s a challenge for drivers and teams and deserves to stay part of the Chase.

5. Watkins Glen: Yes, early autumn in upstate New York can be chilly, but this race could add some heat. Some NASCAR drivers still complain about the road courses, but the fact is that most do quite fine. Plus, making them turn right and left at the halfway point of the Chase would demonstrate that all automotive skill sets are required to win the ultimate prize. If weather truly is a concern, NASCAR can insert Sonoma here.

6. Bristol: From the relative leisure of a Sunday road trip, we go next to NASCAR’s bull ring. Bristol is nonstop action and intensity, a perfect combination as the Chase rushes to the checkers.

7. Pocono: Drivers and fans alike either love or hate this track. I love it. The triangular shape, the gearing challenges, the fuel calculations. NASCAR already runs two summer races here. Split them up, and push one of the events into the Chase.

8. Atlanta: Though this track is a 1.54-mile quad-oval, it’s also the fastest of the nonrestrictor-plate venues. Isn’t speed what racing is all about? It definitely needs to be a part of the Chase.

9. Phoenix: This Chase holdover gets to stay for a couple of reasons. First, the sports fans out West deserve the chance to see one of the playoff events. Then there’s the desert setting. Stately Saguaros standing guard over fans perched on the hillside above the track is a scene worthy of Chase status.

10. Las Vegas: Sin City, baby! High rollers, higher stakes. Glamour, kitsch and Elvis. Need I say more? OK, a little more. Yes, the Vegas speedway is another 1.5-mile D-oval, but the setting offers a flashier place to end the season. I’ve been to Homestead-Miami, and despite the hyphenated name, there’s none of South Beach’s style to be found. Las Vegas provides a slice of Americana. Plus, it’s the home track of the Busch brothers, and one day soon, Kyle will join Kurt as a Cup champion. Imagine the excitement when l’enfant terrible does so in his own backyard.

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.

 

LOOSE LUGNUTS

Heavy traffic

The inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky was marred by a 20-mile traffic jam, which left some race fans sitting in their cars for more than six hours and kept many of them from ever reaching the track. Having idled in a NASCAR parking lot for hours trying to leave a race on multiple occasions, I have no sympathy for either race officials or local officials.

Races shouldn’t be sanctioned until tracks have sufficient traffic control and, more importantly, enough roads in and out of the facility. Kentucky needs to get its act together before the Sprint Cup is allowed to return — and Austin needs to pay serious attention to this. The crowd for the 2012 Formula 1 race at the new Texas track will dwarf Kentucky, and the chance for historic gridlock looms large there, too.

IndyCar ideas

The IndyCar series is considering a plan to drop the Milwaukee event and add one at nearby Road America. I’m all for this. The Milwaukee Mile is a historic oval, but it’s too small to showcase the Indy cars at their finest. Road America is one of the best road courses anywhere, and it was the site of a long-popular event in the old CART/Champ Car series.

I’m not so sure about another idea being floated. The IndyCar series judged its two-races-in-one-night experiment at Texas a success (I’m lukewarm on that) and is pondering a double-header at Iowa.

However, the Iowa twofer proposes one race on Saturday night followed by another on Sunday afternoon. If these are two full-length, full-points races, I might be convinced to haul myself to the track twice in 24 hours. But if they’re half-length races like in Texas, I’m not sure I’d make the effort.

He’s No. 3

Kyle Busch is far from my favorite driver, but I tip my hat to him for becoming only the third NASCAR driver to win 100 career races. Busch hit triple figures with his Nationwide series win at New Hampshire.

Busch’s 100th win gave him 49 in Nationwide, along with 22 in Sprint Cup and 29 in the Camping World Trucks series. Richard Petty, of course, is the all-time wins leader with 200, all in what is now the Sprint Cup series. The only other driver with more than Busch is David Pearson, who owns 106 wins — 105 in Sprint Cup and one in Nationwide.

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