By Matt Crossman
For years NASCAR has been drowning in its own expectations. After spending much of the early 2000s bragging about how hot it was, the sport cooled off. The problem is that NASCAR was never as hot as it claimed to be. It was popular, yes. It had rabid fans, no doubt. But it never had 75 million fans, as it so often claimed. It was never the second-most watched sport, as it liked to tout.
So now after years of declines in attendance, TV ratings and the ever-sought, ever-elusive buzz, NASCAR is trying desperately to get back to where it was. The problem is, it was never there in the first place, and the sport's leaders fail to understand that getting there shouldn't be the goal anyway. NASCAR officials spend too much time concentrating on what will make NASCAR more popular and not enough time on what will make it better.
The latest grasping at straws broke Friday night and will be front and center for the sport at least until the Daytona 500 (Feb. 23) and probably long after that, too. As reported by Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer, NASCAR plans to radically change the way it determines its champion.
Right now, the Chase for the Sprint Cup works like this: After a 26-race "regular season," 12 drivers qualify for the 10-race Chase. Those drivers have their points reset for the final 10 races, with bonuses for wins. Whoever has the most points at the end of the 10 races, wins the championship.
The new system, according to Utter:
"In addition to expanding the Chase field from 12 to 16 drivers, a win in the season's first 26 races would virtually ensure a driver entry into the championship Chase. If there were more than 16 winners, the 16 with the most wins and highest in points would gain entry.
"Once the Chase field was set, a round of eliminations -- similar to the NCAA tournament -- would take place after the third, sixth and ninth race of the Chase, culminating with the championship determined by a winner-takes-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway."
This proposed change follows the switch to the Chase format in 2004 and several tweaks since then. The tweaks have included expanding the Chase field, adding bonuses for wins and changing the number of points awarded per position. Even for hard-core fans, it has been hard to follow, and that was made even more difficult last season when penalties after the Chase field was set changed the field and chairman Brian France unilaterally put Jeff Gordon in the Chase even though he had not qualified for it.
Racing is the simplest sport there is: Start here, first one there wins. Yet NASCAR has progressed from a simple championship system based on consistency to one based on consistency plus a semi-mad dash at the end to a (proposed) needlessly complicated mess.
First cut the field to 16, then cut it to something else, then cut it again then -- click, football is on. At this point, NASCAR should just buy an officially licensed dartboard, put drivers' names on it, give a lucky fan selected via market research a dart to throw, and whosever name gets hit wins the championship, as long as it's Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Making winning more important is a good idea. Adding drivers to the Chase, no big whoop. But already fans have zeroed in on the final race as winner-take-all as unacceptable. The complaint goes like this: A driver could pile up win after win, top five after top five, dominate the entire season, wreck on the last lap of the last race, and lose the championship.
Having four drivers race for the championship while 39 others drive in circles on the same track at the same time for nothing is just plain silly. It makes sense only when viewed through NASCAR's prism of trying to create "Game 7" moments. But NASCAR has never made a case for why overhauling the sport in pursuit of that singular goal is a good idea.
The fact every other sport has "Game 7" moments is a reason to not have them in NASCAR. NASCAR should trumpet that the champion must do well all season long. NASCAR should celebrate that a finish in February matters in November. Instead, NASCAR is trying to be like everybody else.
NASCAR is so obsessed with where it wants to be that it doesn't pay any attention to where it is. NASCAR does not need to manufacture "Game 7" moments. It needs to fixate on the incredibleness of every turn of every race. NASCAR is great because driving into a corner at 180 miles per hour means you are certifiably insane and might wreck and oh gosh I can't watch did he wreck? From February until November, these nutbags risk turning their cars into smoldering rubble and themselves into something far worse … and yet NASCAR constantly fiddles with its championship system to create excitement.
Instead of asking themselves, "is changing the points system a good idea?" NASCAR officials ask themselves, "will people pay more attention to us if we do this?" Instead of focusing on being the best NASCAR it can be for NASCAR fans, NASCAR seems to want to be the best NASCAR it can be for non-NASCAR fans. The end result has been non-fans staying that way and longtime fans joining them. The proposed new points system will continue that trend, no matter how many "Game 7" moments it creates.
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