Now that the BCS is kaput and the College Football Playoff is nigh, the sporting universe has rid itself of a controversial, and much of the time, illogical playoff system.
Though as we bid adieu to the BCS and its idiosyncrasies, we’ve been given a new playoff system that makes even less sense than the outgoing college football mechanism: The revised NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.
(Disclaimer: As long as Major League Baseball has a 162-game season come down to 1-game playoffs, its playoff structure will retain the belt for worst in North American sports, and by hefty margin).
NASCAR instituted the Chase back in 2004. It was supposed to keep fans interested for the duration of the season and increase the sport’s popularity. Until then, the driver with the most points won the championship, which seems like the most equitable way of doing things. The Chase took away that inherent fairness, but the excitement created by the newfound, so-called “NASCAR Playoff” was enough for people to get on board. Plus, the first incarnation of the Chase was heavy on points-based merit, so it wasn’t a complete departure from the old system.
Now on its fourth variation, the Chase has moved as far away from the old model as ever. Rewards for high point totals earned by extended periods of consistent driving have been replaced by fluke victories and brief lucky stretches.
Any deserving champion, by virtually any calculation, will make the Chase. It’s the recent restructuring, from a 10-race playoff to three separate three-race interval playoff series followed by one final championship race, that makes finding the true champion a crapshoot.
First and foremost, the Chase doesn’t remain true to the drivers. These are people putting their lives on the line—willingly, but still—for nine months a year and much of it has become hollow.
Why did Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, and Paul Menard even bother racing this season? All four men registered at least five Top 5s and 13 Top 10s. Yet they were bumped from the Case in favor of AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola because the alliterative A’s each had a win…even though each had only two Top 5s and only five and seven Top 10s, respectively. The one thing that made sense about the BCS was that every game mattered towards the final ranking. Apparently NASCAR viewed its own version of that as a problem and acted by grossly devaluing the regular season.
A major part of NASCAR is the various types, lengths, and designs of the tracks. Certain drivers are better on specific tracks. If the best driver all year catches a few troublesome tracks in the first playoff series, oh well, not NASCAR’s problem. True, the best should be able to survive and advance on any track, but the point is, why hold the season? That’s like the Miami Dolphins going 14-2, gaining the top seed in the conference, and having to travel to snowy New England in the playoffs.
It is about winning. You race to win, plain and simple. But over 26 races, the tough guy rhetoric of “We want winners only!” loses its luster. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of “Winners only” to the point where a driver can win a race, rack up 5 DNFs, only a few Top 10s, some 30th place finishes, and still sneak in, as long as he’s in the Top 30 in points to go along with his sole win. Does that sound like one of the 16 best drivers? No, but Kyle Larson, who finished the season with 17 Top 10s in 36 races and didn’t make the Chase, does. We’re trying to find the best, but one, potentially fluky, win, doesn’t mean you’re better than someone who brings it week after week.
The revised Chase rewards fans with short attention spans and marginalizes the people that follow the sport for nine months. Seeing that most NASCAR fans are diehards and few casual fans exist, it’s an even greater injustice to those loyal fans that follow from Daytona to Miami. Does NASCAR think average Americans are going to jump headfirst into the sport because they’ve devised different playoff “series”? Not likely, and now the fans that invested their time in the first 26 races are being sold “Hey! Look! A shiny new playoff and our own Super Bowl!” If your favorite driver wins a race during the first part of the season, great. On the days he doesn’t win, it’s as if he didn’t even race.
When a dominant driver is knocked out, NASCAR wants to be able to spew the “Anything can happen!” catchphrase. However, say this driver was knocked out because of freak crashes, where other drivers collided and he caught some collateral damage, causing him to DNF in two of the three races that round. These aren’t instances of “stuff happens.” These are instances of weekly “twelve-car pileups” where 5-10 drivers routinely fail to finish.
Over the course of 26 races, these things tend to even out. Over three series of three races, it’s a roll of the dice, and that’s assuming there’s no shady tactics like the 2013 collusion that inspired the 2014 changes and expanded field. Yes, there’s the omnipresent possibility of drivers from certain teams conspiring to fix the results. NASCAR finally sniffed it out last year, but the chance of it happening again, potentially in the final race, looms large.
The Chase, in its original form, even in its second and third, was splendid. Every race mattered. A bad race was covered up by a slew of good ones. A win was nice, but you couldn’t mail it in after that. And if you were among the best, you made the Chase. From there, it was a 10-race playoff, which is an adequate number of races to determine a champion. At least, it’s better than three races, followed by three races, followed by three races, followed by one race.
If someone ran away with the title after eight of ten races in the former Chase system, that, NASCAR, is “stuff happens” and it can’t all be exciting. At least the best driver won. But the powers that be couldn’t handle the idea of the championship being decided before Miami and having a meaningless final race or two.
Instead, they’ve elected to have 26 virtually meaningless races at the beginning of the year, with only one driver mattering per week. At least now we know for next year: ditch Daytona, bypass the Brickyard, and forget Fontana. Enjoy your summer Sundays and just tune in for a few hours in November.