Chasing its Tail: NASCAR Chase Injects Drama, But Lacks Credibility

Harvick did what he had to do at Dover. Win.

Harvick did what he had to do at Dover. Win.

Listening to the television broadcast and published media reports, the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway this weekend was an amazingly captivating race, and delivered abundant drama. Except, lost in this headline is that we had a relatively uneventful competition on the track known as the Monster Mile, which Kevin Harvick dominated by charging to the front after starting 15th. From there, Harvick checked out, leading 355 of the 400 laps enroute to a must-win victory.

Harvick delivered a superstar “walk-off” performance with his “win and you’re in” advance to the next round, yet quality race passes throughout the field mostly depended on restarts and reinforced how aero-dependent the cars are under the current rules package. As my colleague Michele Rahal pointed out after Darlington (Chase Hasn’t Helped As Much As Low-Downforce, September 8), next year’s anticipated car specifications being tailored to a low downforce aero package cannot come soon enough to improve the on-track racing.

Yes, we had contrived excitement down to the final lap revolving around the elimination aspect of the Chase playoffs, and for a number of fans that seemed to be enough, depending on whether their favorite driver was on the bubble or not.

Additionally, we had the top playoff seed eliminated, as Jimmie Johnson, driver of the Lowe’s Chevy SS, had a broken rear axle seal cost the #48 team dearly in one race. Without a Chase playoff, Johnson would be 6th in total season points, Instead, Johnson was eliminated as the 14th place contender in the first Chase playoff round. Strikingly, Johnson may end up without a seat at the table for the top 10 Chasers celebration in Las Vegas, which would be a first for the six-time Champion.

Since introducing original Chase playoff format in 2004, NASCAR has made three extensive revisions in 2007, 2011, and in 2014. NASCAR has invested resources in marketing campaigns to explain this system to fans, as the sanctioning body attempts to draw new eyeballs to the sport. Grudgingly, countless fans have developed a complacent attitude to the Chase format, with a preference for just having stability in choosing a Champion from year to year.

The image says it all.

The image says it all.

When the most dramatic Chase changes were introduced in 2014, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France expressed his desire for more “Game 7” moments to decide the Sprint Cup Champion, not being satisfied with the prior format of a 26-race “regular season” and 10-race Chase that previously tallied points over the final 10 Chase races in determining a Champion (without elimination rounds).

As the final laps of the Dover elimination race wound down, Jeff Gluck (the esteemed motorsports writer for USA Today), tweeted the following “Even if you think the Chase is an artificial form of entertainment, I have a hard time thinking you don’t find this exciting.”

What followed was a substantial outpouring of responses in the Twitterverse, where I conservatively estimate that over 80% of the replies from fans covered negative reactions. A smattering of replies expressing displeasure or sarcasm were comparable to those comments below:

  • “This Chase format is artificial, manipulated and ridiculous. May as well add bonus points for jumping through hoops of fire”
  • “Maybe so, but to me excitement shouldn’t trump credibility when it comes to who you call Champion”
  • “Yes, watching cars parade around a second apart from one another is amazing
  • “Well, it is exciting, but it’s an injustice to crown a season champion in such a way”

The conundrum is that we, the fans, are being shortchanged with all points talk and no actual race talk.

Most troubling is that numerous enthusiasts have now ended up investing more time examining where Chase drivers stand in the running order, focusing on the point tallies rather than the actual race. Perhaps that is NASCAR’s goal, so that the actual quality of the race goes unnoticed. We get drama, entertainment, and shock value, similar to much of today’s reality TV.

The only problem is that the shock to the system may be too great for the patient to take. On the final restart of the race, the very real possibility existed that Harvick (had he finished second rather than first), Jimmie Johnson (already mathematically eliminated), and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (who just squeaked by Jamie McMurray for the one desperate position) would all have been eliminated in first round.

The potential for multiple eliminations of the sport’s biggest stars would have been a bombshell that likely would have sent NASCAR back to the drawing board to reinvent the Chase system yet again, as viewership would surely have fallen off over the remaining seven races.

Moreover, great performances by non-Chase drivers were completely overrun by the points tracker mentality. A stellar run by Aric Almirola, in the Richard Petty Motorsports #43 Ford, was totally ignored by NBC. Almirola finished 5th, but being a non-Chaser, that did not even merit a post-race interview.

Given its continuous tweaking by NASCAR, it’s hard to develop an effective solution, given the Chase playoff is here to stay. But, at some point, the unpredictability of this Chase playoff format will likely come back to haunt NASCAR. The current Chase format is now demonstrating that a driver can be penalized more for one bad race at the wrong time of year, as compared to the benefit of being a podium-consistent driver over the course of the Chase. Most Chase drivers typically are running in the top half of the field, so a mechanical issue that sends a driver to the garage in an elimination race creates an insurmountable deficit with 42 other cars in the field.

Perhaps the Chasers should instead be scored within their own group of 16 qualifiers. The Chase would still have elimination rounds, but an alternative would be to rank order each driver’s finish in each race from 1-16 (in essence “ignoring” the non-Chasers from a scoring perspective) and do the same in each successive elimination round. The analog is that this rank-order approach is already how the current Chase format determines the Champion among the four remaining drivers in the final race of the year, so it could be extended to earlier elimination rounds. Of course, this proposed approach might have its own challenges in explaining to fans, and would likely need to be “scenario-tested” to determine whether a more credible outcome is achieved.

The Chase playoffs were intended to make drivers push harder to win and inject more drama for fans. Yet, unforgettable last lap passes and three-wide racing cannot simply be invented by trying harder, as many drivers are already giving 100% on the track. Rejiggering the Chase Championship format to artificially create Game 7 moments subjects NASCAR to long-term credibility issues in determining its Champion. Whether this new-found reality show with the intense pressure to stave off elimination brings back eyeballs or not remains to be seen, but the level of risk taking has surely stepped up under the second year of this Chase format.

By Ron Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

Another Hot Night – Fantasy Insight All Star Edition

Matt Kenseth

It’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since that first “One Hot Night.” Putting lights up at a 1.5-mile speedway seemed like a crazy gimmick when promoter extraordinaire Humpy Wheeler decided to try it. That one move changed NASCAR forever!

The first Winston under the lights, as the All Star race was known back then, lived up to the hype. Dale Earnhardt in his GM Goodwrench colors, Kyle Petty in the Day-Glo Mello Yellow motif, and Davey Allison in the iconic Havoline star paint scheme put on a great show on that final lap.

This was one of the few races where “The Intimidator” was outdriven. Davey Allison got the win and crashed just after the finish line with the crowd going nuts…and then getting eerily quiet as Allison had to be cut out of his winning race car and carried away on a stretcher. It is highly doubtful this year’s All Star race can live up to that sort of a finish but it will be another hot night.

Handicapping the All Star event is tough. The Power Ratings are based on marathon length race events not the kind of sprint that the All Star race represents. Certain drivers take more chances without any points on the line while other guys are saner. The downside to picking a guy who is more aggressive is that he might wreck out of the event.

Since the format seems to change every year it is also hard to get a handle on who is the best in the upcoming format. So the best strategy is to pick the guy who has the best statistical edge at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This year my pick is Matt Kenseth because he has been the most consistent driver at this type of track recently.

Good luck with your fantasy racing picks this week and don’t forget to send in your pick for “Whiteboard Fantasy Racing” this week for the All Star Race.

Send in your pick to win this week’s Cup race to dennis@racetalkradio.com for a chance to win a copy of the National Speedway Directory from SpeedwaysOnline.com.

 

Whiteboard Fantasy Racing Winner Last Week

Dennis was the winner last week

 

Whiteboard Fantasy Racing Top Ten After 11 Weeks

Rank

Player

Total

1T

Carbon

23

1T

RA

23

3

LAM

19

4T

Grainger

17

4T

Gertie

17

6T

Chris U

16

6T

DMIC

16

8

Aaron C

15

9

Rick

13

10

Shari P

12

Clint Bowyer

 

Weather Report

Partly cloudy with a green flag temperature of 73F

http://raceweather.net

If you have a question about Fantasy Racing send it to dennis@racetalkradio.com and get it answered next week.

 

NASCAR by the Numbers- Lubricated by TheOilMedics.com

 

Using a proprietary race analysis technique we take the fans inside the numbers every week. DMIC’s rating system has been in use since 2002 and has proven to pick the contenders from the pretenders!

 

Consistency is King (Last Five Races)

Driver

Last 5

Ky Busch

94

M Kenseth

94

K Kahne

94

G Biffle

92

D Hamlin

92

J Johnson

92

D Earnhardt Jr

91

C Edwards

87

B Keselowski

87

M Truex

87

 

Horses for Courses (Track Rating)

Driver

Course

M Kenseth

93

J Logano

92

K Harvick

91

Ky Busch

91

Ku Busch

88

D Reutimann

87

D Ragan

87

C Bowyer

86

K Kahne

86

D Hamlin

86

Martin Truex Jr

 

Type Casting (Track Type Factor)

Driver

Type

C Edwards

94

T Stewart

93

M Kenseth

93

K Kahne

92

K Harvick

91

J Gordon

90

G Biffle

89

M Truex

89

D Earnhardt Jr

89

C Bowyer

88

 

Power Rating (240 Minimum to Qualify as Contender)

Driver

Power

M Kenseth

280

K Kahne

271

Ky Busch

268

K Harvick

267

C Edwards

266

G Biffle

265

T Stewart

265

D Hamlin

263

C Bowyer

260

D Earnhardt Jr

258

J Johnson

258

M Truex

256

J Gordon

254

J Logano

254

M Ambrose

252

P Menard

249

AJ Allmendinger

249

M Martin

248

R Newman

248

J McMurray

247

Ku Busch

245

B Keselowski

244

JP Montoya

243

A Almirola

242

D Ragan

241

J Burton

239

R Smith

239

D Reutimann

235

C Mears

227

B Labonte

221

D Gilliland

217

T Kvapil

217

L Cassill

214

D Blaney

212

 

DMIC’s Fantasy Picks

Each week we will take you beyond the numbers to handicap the field from top to bottom to help your Fantasy Racing team succeed. You are also invited to join Lori Munro and I on “White Board Fantasy Racing” every Monday night on “Doin’ Donuts” at 8pm ET on RaceTalkRadio.com. Win fun prizes by picking just the race winners in our unique format. Send your picks to info@racetalkradio.com to enter.

Top Pick (Last Week 2nd)

Matt Kenseth- Better at the longer races but great chance to get the win for new sponsor

(9 to 1 Odds) 

Best Long Shot (Odds of 20-1 or More) (Last Week 20th

Clint Bowyer- Strong on intermediate tracks

(25 to 1 Odds)

Showdown Winner

Martin Truex Jr- Has been in the hunt for the win every week

Do you have what it takes to handicap the races? Join Lori and Dennis every week and play in the Whiteboard Fantasy Racing Series! Send your pick for the Cup race to info@racetalkradio.com to enter. Weekly prize given away! 

NASCAR’s Allmendinger Wins Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona

NASCAR driver A.J. Allmendinger drove the last stint of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona on Sunday to win. The Penske Sprint Cup driver has had experience in both open wheel and NASCAR. Rick Hendrick says that the #51 Phoenix Racing Chevy is not a satellite car. He would consider selling Finch the best engines now that Kurt Busch is the driver. IndyCar tests with Rubens Barrichello at Sebring this week.

Dan Wheldon Killed In IndyCar Crash

Britain’s Dan Wheldon was killed today in a multi-car crash on lap 13 of the Las Vegas race. The race was cancelled and friends and family mourn his loss as do all the staff of Motorsports Unplugged and The Drive Channel. Dan Wheldon, dead at the age of 33.

The Sprint Cup Chase is Set, But The Outcome Isn’t


The Sprint Cup Chase is set and the action begins at Chicago this coming weekend. Will Dale Earnhardt, Jr be able to climb back into the game? Will Jimmie Johnson falter? Will Johnson and Kurt Busch continue their fighting? Who knows? This may be the toughest Chase yet.

Earnhardt “Pissed Off” With Martin’s Driving


Dale Earnhardt Jr. was squeezed into the wall by Martin in the closing stages of the Michigan 400 NASCAR race yesterday. Earnhardt blew a tire and flattened the side of Earnhardt’s car. Denny Hamlin took his second win this year shuffling the points. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

Summer And NASCAR Heat Up

Carl Edwards lost his points cushion at Pocono when his engine went up in smoke. The drivers battling to get into the top twelve positions for the Championship battle has heated up with a tight points race. Montoya, Biffle, Hamlin all need wins. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

The Corvette ZR1: A Screaming Bargain

The Corvette ZR1 is Chevrolets ultimate evolution of Harley Earl’s original 1950’s design. This Carbon Fiber street fighter takes on the world’s biggest names like Ferrari and Porsche. Michele Rahal of The Drive Channel and www.thedrivechannel.com takes you on a tour.
[email_link]

Layoffs, Sadly, Still A Part Of NASCAR

Ran into an old friend the other day, Scott Robinson, who has been part of NASCAR as a crewman and shop official for well over 20 years. Ol’ Scott doesn’t look like he’s aged a day.

But that might change soon. When I asked him how things were going, he paused and then said: “Pretty good right now. But who knows a couple of days from now?”

Robinson was referring to today’s precarious employment situation for many NASCAR team members. Although I told him it didn’t seem likely to me, he maintained he could be a victim to the ongoing layoffs.

“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in this sport,” he said. “When the time comes they don’t think about that.”

Layoffs have been a part of NASCAR for two years now and came about as the economy tanked. When that happened, corporations had to tighten their budgets which meant, of course, layoffs of their own.

It also meant many of them that spent good sponsorship money in NASCAR had to pull the plug on it – or at least reduce it significantly. One result is that even several of the top-tier teams have had to negotiate less expensive deals with two, three or even four financial supporters to make it through the 36-race season.

Other teams have had it more difficult. Some have lessened their participation in NASCAR while others have pulled out altogether.

When Robinson and I met, it had already been announced that Penske Racing had laid off 50 people earlier in the week with more to come.

The prime reason is that Penske has yet to find sponsorship for Sam Hornish, Jr., whose NASCAR career might be derailed if the money can’t be found.

Penske will field three Sprint Cup teams in 2011 with drivers Kurt Busch, Justin Allgaier and Brad Keselowski. Hornish Jr. will compete in the Daytona 500 and if he can’t proceed, Penske will enter him in the Indianapolis 500.

It had also been announced that Richard Petty Motorsports had laid off 75 employees. RPM itself might have ceased to exist had not new capital been infused by Petty and a couple of investment firms.

RPM, though, will operate with two cars next year instead of four. When a reduction in an organization’s number of teams occurs it means jobs disappear. Some employees are no longer needed – hence, they’re gone.

The RPM team reduction also has had an effect elsewhere, namely, Roush Fenway Racing.

Roush supplied cars and more to RPM in 2010. Since there will be only two to be serviced in 2011, Roush became overstaffed and as many as 60 people were let go.

This, I think, is a good example of the “trickle down” effect, something Robinson pointed out.

“People sometimes don’t understand how all of this affects the sport,” he said. “When a team doesn’t have the money and starts letting people go it reaches well beyond that. It hits a lot of folks working in the sport, even the people who sell souvenirs.”

There’s been plenty of evidence of that, given the speedways have struggled to sell tickets, advertising has dried up, souvenir sales aren’t what they were and fans have to, first, decide if they want to spend money to attend a race and, second, how much they’ll spend once they do.

As said, when it comes to layoffs they are across the board – in NASCAR, corporate America and businesses large and small.

We’ve been told that the economy is rebounding. But the process has been slow – very slow, obviously. People are still losing their jobs.

So it is in NASCAR, unfortunately.

It’s very likely Scott Robinson isn’t the only one taking a look over his shoulder now and then.

[email_link] Print This Post Print This Post

Print This Post Print This Post