The format is compelling, but it doesn't reflect a 36-race season.
One of the reasons I went into journalism is because it required very little math, which may explain why people with my anti-math affliction maybe a little slower to catch on to the NASCAR Chase, Version 4.0, because that’s how many times the formula has been changed since it began in 2004.
And that doesn’t include the fact that it was originally the Chase for the Championship, then the Chase for the Nextel Cup, and now it is formally the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Oh, I get how it works, and how all of them worked – or didn’t work, otherwise it wouldn’t have changed so much, right? – and I appreciate the drama that is being created by the current elimination-style Chase.
And I know that whoever among the four finalists does best at Homestead-Miami in a week – be it Ryan Newman or Kevin Harvick in Chevrolets, Denny Hamlin in a Toyota and Joey Logano in a Ford (can you imagine how depressed the Ford people would be if there wasn’t a Ford in contention at the Ford EcoBoost 400?) will go down in the NASCAR history books as the Champion of the 2014 season.
But for me – and judging from some of your comments on past Chase stories I’ve written here, some of you, too – this Champion’s name will have a little mental asterisk next to it: That asterisk will mean, “This driver did the best of the four at the season-ending race, but by no means had the best overall, 36-race season.”
Because that is what being the NASCAR Champion used to mean – consistency, a minimum of mistakes, usually a maximum of victories, plus day-by-day excellence on pit road, in the shop, and in the manufacturer’s support. It seems like the new format sells short the season, and emphasizes the fact that the new “Champion” may be crowned because somebody else’s crewman forgot a lug nut on the last pit stop at Homestead. If that happens organically, like it did with Kurt Busch’s down-to-the-wire championship, great. But NASCAR is manufacturing that level of tension, and that seems a tad artificial.
Compelling? Oh, yes
I’m not saying the new format is bad, because it is pretty damned compelling: Turning NASCAR into “Dancing with the Stars” or “The Voice” has succeeded if you are looking for nothing more than “compelling.” All that’s missing is having a stone-faced, stentorian announcer open an envelope, pause for an excruciatingly long period, then announce a name. But even in “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Voice,” the eventual winner wins because he or she was consistently among the best from the first to the last show.
In NASCAR, it’s pretty much luck. Yes, Harvick and Logano are hot, and have been reasonably warm all year, but how to explain to a non-NASCAR fan how Newman and Hamlin made the show?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m pulling for Newman, because I want to see what NASCAR does if a driver who has not won a single race wins the championship, because all season we’ve heard that the new Chase emphasizes wins. If Newman is the champ, I have a feeling we’ll see Chase Version 5.0 pretty soon. Plus, I typically pull for the tortoise, not the hare.
Plus, and I’ve written about this before: NASCAR must do a better job of publicizing the fact that even though the headlines may say, “Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhart, Jr. eliminated from The Chase,” that they are still racing every weekend.
Buzz, and more buzz
All that said, if NASCAR’s goal was to generate buzz right up until the final race, they’ve done that. The fact that Homestead-Miami is not quite sold out yet, and that the place only holds about 65,000, including about 45,000 seats, may not be the endorsement they are looking for, but I have a feeling the place will be packed for next weekend. As it should be: It’s a great track.
But I’m still sadly old-school when it comes to going to a race: I go to see, well, a race. I don’t care much about championship implications, or radio and TV prognostications that “If the race ended right now…” who the champion would be, especially on lap 10.
If my enjoyment of a race means I must rely on someone armed with a calculator, then I’m clearly no longer in the target demographic, assuming I ever was.