Speak Your Mind: For better or worse, NASCAR overhauls the Chase

NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France announces the new Chase Grid format Thursday during the NASCAR
Media Tour at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Image
The Chase as we knew it is no more. NASCAR made waves Thursday with its announcement of a radically retooled Chase.

The new elimination playoffs system would allow for 16 drivers to battle it out in four rounds of competition. The first nine races in the Chase would be split up into three segments - the Challenger Round, the Contender Round and the Eliminator Round, with four drivers eliminated in each round. The last four drivers would then compete in the season's final race, the winner-take-all Championship Round, in which the champion would be determined by which driver reaches the finish line first.

The drastic changes have created an uproar in the NASCAR community. While some are open to the new format and ready to embrace the change, others are diametrically opposed.

Some of our writers at Skirts and Scuffs decided to weigh in on the new system in the latest "Speak Your Mind" column. Here's what we had to say:

L.J. Cloud: "At the end of the day, although consistency is important in our sport, and it remains important, it's just less important, so they like that. They (NASCAR fans) understand winner‑take‑all formats, and they understand being the best down the stretch. You can note any of the other examples of that where Tony Stewart one year made that incredible run. They love those moments. This is going to elevate the opportunity for more drivers to have those moments." ~ Brian France

"I think one of the best championships we've had recently has been Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. That was a dog fight. It's what you live for. It's what you want to see. I think this will just allow us to see more of that action when we get to Homestead." ~ Robin Pemberton

"I think it goes back to when we first started the Chase. Candidly in an ideal world we would have wanted ten drivers going into Miami separated by ten points. Obviously, that can't always happen. When we looked at it, we looked at the Tony Stewart run and how exciting that was. But over those same years, '10, '11, and '12, we heard more and more talking about points racing and the racetrack saying, look, my fans come for my one race. They want to see their driver win, as do we. So we wanted to emphasize that as much as possible. Put drivers in situations where finishing second was okay, but they want to go for that win. They always do now, but we wanted to emphasize that even more." ~ Steve O'Donnell

I'll never forget the first Sprint Cup race I saw at the racetrack instead of on TV. It was November 2011, at Texas Motor Speedway. Tony Stewart won his fourth race of the Chase, beating Carl Edwards. Smoke cut Cousin Carl's lead to three points.

It was also my first weekend to be in the media center. You could almost touch the excitement. Everyone knew that what we were witnessing was special, that it would be talked about for years to come. The chemistry between Smoke and Carl sizzled. The racing thrilled.

The five-year reign of Jimmie Johnson came to an end when Stewart got up on the wheel, pulled his team up on his back and won the race at Homestead by passing every car in the field at least three times.

The next season when Carl Edwards visited the media center, I asked him if he'd had a chance to reflect on the previous year, if he'd been able to appreciate being a part of history and he said (I'm paraphrasing, of course) that yes, he'd looked back somewhat in awe of how the season had gone and that he realized how fortunate he was to have been part of such an epic battle. That even though he lost by a tie-breaker, he appreciated how rare it was to have a championship battle of that caliber.

With NASCAR's announcement of the Chase changes, I found it interesting how people first jumped to the conclusion that the sanctioning body intended to thwart Jimmie Johnson's quest to tie Petty and Earnhardt by winning a seventh championship by placing more value on winning. A driver who has won 60 races and six championships in the 10 years of the Chase. If anyone has an edge in the new system, it's Jimmie Johnson.

No, I blame Smoke. Not really "blame," of course. I just think that these changes are the result of Brian France wanting to create more "Game 7 moments." More Smoke vs. Cousin Carl kind of conflicts.

Good luck with that, Mr. France. The 2011 Sprint Cup Championship was special precisely because it hadn't happened before. We - and they - remember it because it was so rare.

So, in my opinion, trying to artificially create those races, those contests that hold a special place in the NASCAR legends book, completely disregards what made them so special from the start.

I'm not saying that the new Chase format won't be exciting. Of course it will. I'm not saying that it can't produce those "Game 7 moments," just that I don't think they can be forced even by creating the winner-take-all final race.

In addition to upping the bar for Chase finales the Stewart-Edwards tie made drivers even more conscious of the value of a single point, and I think they dialed back because of it. The thought that Carl Edwards only needed one more point during the season made drivers start points racing from the first lap of the Daytona 500.

In practice, I don't think that the majority of the Chase will be all that different, except that instead of the broadcast crew "putting a fork in" the competitors they thought were eliminated from the championship hunt, drivers will be officially eliminated.

The main difference is that final race. The four-driver winner-take-all extravaganza. The four drivers who survived the regular season, who made it through the Challenger Round, avoided the forks and advanced to the Contender Round have one race to add to their racing legacy.

Possibilities abound. A dark-horse driver scoring an unexpected win locks him or herself into the Chase, bringing much-needed funds to the team. A six-time champion going on a win streak and showing why he's Six-Time.

Bottom line - I'm ambivalent about the changes. They could be the best thing for NASCAR since R.J. Reynolds. Or, since the shakeup smacks of desperation, it could backfire horribly by alienating the very people that NASCAR hopes to draw to the track.

Either way, I'm still going to watch. How about you?

Beth Reinke: In his State of the Sport address, NASCAR Chairman Brian France said the new system is designed to do three things. First, it puts greater emphasis on wins. I give that part a thumbs up.

Second, he said the changes “make competing and running for a championship much simpler and much simpler to understand.” I believe NASCAR athletes and diehard fans are some of the most savvy, intelligent folks around, so making things “simpler to understand” isn’t relevant to us or our sport. Besides, the new system doesn't strike me as simple. We had “The Chase.” Now we have: the 16-driver Chase Grid, the Challenger Round, the Contender Round and the Eliminator Round, with points reset after each round. Not. Simpler.

Third, France said the new format will “expand opportunities for more drivers to compete for the championship while ultimately rewarding the most worthy, battle-tested champion.”

The first part of that statement is true, because 16 drivers competing is more than 12. But will we actually end up with the “most worthy, battle-tested champion?” Maybe. Maybe not. Admittedly, the last four contenders will probably be the cream of NASCAR’s crop. But in my opinion, the “Eliminator Round,” is a foolish plan that is unfair to those four teams. I believe it cheapens the championship and allows happenstance to play too great a role in the outcome.

One event, one track to determine a champion doesn’t make sense in a 36-race season. A championship caliber team could have their title chances crushed by a skittish non-contender. Or a guy could lead the whole race, then blow a tire and hit the wall on the last lap. One bum engine, one dropped lug nut, one pit road speeding penalty - could end it all. What happens if all four finalists get caught up in one wreck and end up in the garage? The champion is the driver whose car is the fewest laps down when it limps across the finish line?

I think a better plan would a 3-3-4 set-up that eliminates one of the "rounds." Start with 16 drivers in the Chase Grid. Run three races, then eliminate the bottom six drivers. The remaining 10 drivers run the next three races, then eliminate the bottom six again. You’re left with the final four contenders with the points reset, but they have four races to duke it out. If we need a fancy name, dub the final four races “The Final Four.” Catchy, isn’t it?

Carol D’Agostino: I have many concerns about the changes in the Chase rules, but they all revolve around the issue of credibility and whether continuously tweaking or in this case making wholesale changes in the sport tarnish racing’s reputation.

Brian France says they are making this change to simplify the rules and make it more entertaining. However, I feel like NASCAR is trying to reach out to the casual fan by trying to replicate other sports’ championship formats. Stock car racing is not like other sports, so we should not try to become more similar to other sports.

I am opposed to “dummying down” racing to appease fans who only watch to see who wrecks. These casual fans are also not the folks who will pay to see a race in person, so NASCAR is clearly pandering for television ratings, i.e. advertising dollars.

Rebecca Kivak: NASCAR’s taking a huge swing at the Chase, but I’m not so sure it’s a swing in the right direction. Instead of letting the championship drama naturally occur, NASCAR is manufacturing it with a contrived system.

I do like the increased emphasis on winning races. I’ve long advocated for giving wins more points, but it looks like NASCAR preferred a more radical change. As for the elimination rounds, they basically serve to make official the natural eliminations we’ve observed during the last 10 years of the Chase.

But the problem I have with the new system is that the last two rounds, the Eliminator and Championship, open themselves up to voiding the very thing NASCAR is trying to emphasize.

If the retooled Chase was in place last season, then Matt Kenseth – who captured a season-high seven wins – would not make the final championship race because his poor performance at Phoenix would have knocked him out at the end of the Eliminator round. This is ridiculous.

And under the new system, it would still be possible to have a winless champion. According to the calculations, if the new system was used last year, then Dale Earnhardt Jr. - who did not win any races - would have hoisted the 2013 championship trophy.

The very possibility that the driver with the season’s most wins could be eliminated from the title before the final race contradicts the fiber of what NASCAR is hoping to accomplish with the overhaul. Moreover, a winless champ is the very thing NASCAR has been trying to prevent since implementing the Chase in the first place.

The Championship round itself brings its own set of issues. Letting one race determine the champion may sound good in theory, but a champion should be determined by the culmination of the season, not during a final race where happenstance plays way too much of a factor. With the final four drivers striving to be “first to the finish,” what if one driver gets an engine failure – your points leader, for instance? In the old system, there was still a possibility that he or she could still claim the title dependent on their points lead and how their challenger ran. In the new system, as soon as the racecar leaves a trail of smoke, he or she is out. What if one - or a few of the drivers, or even all – get taken out in a wreck? What if a title contender becomes a target for a rival who’d love to ruin his or her championship chances? Once that driver is out, so are all the wins and the consistent performance they’ve put together for the season. That doesn’t seem fair.

In terms of legacy, one has to question how the new champion’s title will compare to past championships, as the formats of achieving them are so drastically different. This would especially be problematic if the champion is remembered not for a stellar performance, but instead for not being wrecked or having no mechanical failures when their competition did. Again, not what NASCAR is going for.

With great change comes great risk. While the new Chase format will surely add excitement, it could very well backfire in NASCAR’s face.

One thing we know for sure is the new playoffs system will change the sport forever. Whether it’s for the best or worst remains to be seen.

What do you think of the winner-take-all Chase? Let us know in your comments below. 

Speak Your Mind: For better or worse, NASCAR overhauls the Chase Speak Your Mind: For better or worse, NASCAR overhauls the Chase Reviewed by Admin on Friday, January 31, 2014 Rating: 5