NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced today big changes to the format of the annual “Chase for the Sprint Cup”. Beginning this year, there will now be 16 drivers instead of 12 to make the Chase, with the 16 drivers entering the “Chase Grid”. Those 16 will be race winners from the first 26 events of the season, and the highest point-earners without a win, if there aren’t 16 winners. The 10-race Chase will be broken up into 4 segments, or “rounds”. The “Challenger Round” will consist of the first 3 races. Any Chase driver who wins in those 3 races will move on to the “Contender Round”, along with the highest earning drivers in points, totaling 12 drivers in all. After the points are reset, those 12 will compete in a similar system over the following 3 races, Chase races 4-6, the “Contender Round” to cut the field to 8, with race winners, followed by the highest drivers in points moving on. After another points reset, those 8 compete in the “Eliminator Round” in Chase races 7-9 to cut the field to 4, with race winners and at least 1 highest points earner advancing to the “Sprint Cup Championship” at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Chase race 10. That event will be a winner-take-all finale, with the highest finisher among those top 4 drivers taking home the championship.
Let’s start with the first 26 races; the “regular season”, if you will. Winning a race will, in fact, almost guarantee a spot in the chase, as the 16 spots will go to up to 16 race winners and (if there aren’t 16 race winners) the highest remaining drivers in points. By the way, drivers do have to attempt to qualify for all 26 events and remain in the top 30 in points to be eligible. While France said part of the reason for the changes is to somewhat eliminate points racing (and instead make everyone race for wins), there will still be some points racing most years for the final spot or so, depending on how many winners there are. Only twice has there been more than 15 winners over the first 26 races of a NASCAR season (and only once in the “Modern Era”), so it is very likely there will still be some points racing going on at Richmond in September. One scenario flatters me, however: it is theoretically possible for, if there are 16 or more winners, a driver to finish 2nd in every race from Daytona to Richmond and not qualify for the Chase. Whatever happened to consistency being such a big deal? Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Kurt Busch all failed to win races last year, and Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, and Jamie McMurray all failed to win in the first 26 events before winning during the Chase, so its possible some very good drivers who have solid consistent seasons will be on the outside of the Chase (although there were only 11 eligible race winners during the first 26 races, so all of those except McMurray would have qualified; I’m just using those names to say “what if”). Even still, I find it hard to believe that if the 30th place driver has a win at, say, Talladega, that he’s more qualified to compete for a championship than my hypothetical driver who finished 2nd every week? I sure don’t think so.
One aspect of the regular season I question is the fact that the winner of the Daytona 500 is very likely to qualify for the Chase, having that assurance several months in advance. If a driver wins 2 races early, they are a mathematical lock into the Chase. I don’t know that its right for a team to be locked in after, potentially, 2 races. That’s practically the equivalent of a team leading the division standings at the end of April to be locked in to the MLB playoffs in October, a theory that wouldn’t be reasonable for the game of baseball.
While in the Challenger, Contender, and Eliminator Rounds winning will automatically advance a driver to the next round, there will still be points racing to fill the rest of the spots. In some ways, I don’t think the racing during those rounds will be much different, from the perspective of the drivers or the fans, other than the fact there are 3 “elimination races”. And what’s with these names of the rounds? Just say the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd (or Semifinal) rounds of the Chase (or playoffs, or raceoffs), like every other sport.
One aspect of this system that will certainly create excitement is the winner-take-all finale. The highest finishing driver out of the 4 still alive for the championship at the Homestead race in November will be crowned the champion. These will be 4 drivers running well leading up to the finale, so there’s a good chance that highest finisher will be the winner of the race. France said that simplicity, particularly for the sport’s casual fans, was important, which is why, as he put it, it was important that the last race was not a math contest, but instead was as simple as possible. It is theoretically possible a driver could finish down in the 30-somethings and still win the title if all 4 drivers have problems, although, as France mentioned, that’s possible now. Another possible scenario is something unusual deciding the title, such as fuel mileage. However, I remind you of the last race in 1992, when Alan Kulwicki risked running out of gas with about 20 laps to go to stay out front and lead one more lap than Bill Elliott to get the bonus points for leading the most laps and win the title. And that happened after a 29-race points battle, much less a one-off championship event. (They only ran 29 races back then, and had no Chase.)
As I said, France mentioned the importance of simplicity. And while it will be simpler to understand the championship battle during the last race, I don’t think it will be during the first 35, and particularly during the first 9 races of the Chase. Multiple points resets, and some drivers being locked in each week while others are points racing in the final race of a given round, will likely lead to some confusion among fans, particularly those casual fans who don’t watch every lap of every race. Also, having one set of circumstances for the first 26 races, another set for each round of 3 races, and another set for the finale will likely lead to confusion as fans (and possibly even drivers or the media) get mixed up over what rules and criteria apply for each round. The explanation of the new system on the NASCAR news site jayski.com was nearly a thousand words long, whereas one could explain the old system in a much more efficient way. And, by the way, I got into NASCAR at a very young age. At that time, I could understand the points system, even with the mind of a young child, because it was a year-long, cumulative battle. Even the original Chase format we’ve used for the last 10 years (in several variations) could make sense to a young child, even if it took a little explanation. Try explaining this system to a 5-year old and see if they understand it. Odds are they won’t.
This post may sound like I’m totally against this system, but that’s actually not true. While there’s certainly bits and pieces of the system about which I’m skeptical at best, the overall concept of a “tournament”, if you will, and a winner-take-all final race will certainly bring excitement at the end of the season, and perhaps draw more fans to the racetrack and to their TVs. I’m all for anything to spread the sport of racing, just as I am with the other sports I follow and write about (baseball, football, golf, college basketball). While I won’t give the system a 10 out of 10 rating, a 5 is about right, because (as I mentioned) I am intrigued by the concept but have a few reservations about certain aspects of the overall format rules.
Another positive about this system is that races in the spring may be made more exciting by more aggressive racing, as drivers try to punch their ticket to the Chase while they have a chance. In the past, while each of the first 26 races have been important, the overall importance was on points, or “the big picture” as many drivers and crew chiefs call it. Finishing 2nd was a “good points day”. And while that will still be true, there will be so much stock in winning that drivers will surely be more aggressive in going for wins so that “good points days” don’t matter since they’ve won a race or races. I use races in the spring as an example, because in the past, after a 2nd place finish in a March race, a driver’s mindset may have been “There’s still plenty of time for me to get more good finishes and qualify for the Chase in the top 10 in points or the wild card.” Now, that may change to “that may have been my best shot to win, and I just lost that chance.”
Many will say it wouldn’t be fair for a driver to be dominant all season, only to have a tire problem, or a mechanical or engine failure at Homestead and lose the title. But many people probably said the same thing about the original Chase format 10 years ago. And besides NASCAR’s fan base swings a little conservative (let’s be honest), so change isn’t necessarily popular anyway. But consider this about that dominant driver scenario I just mentioned: in the NFL, a team could go 16-0, and lose in the first round of the playoffs. In MLB, a team could win their division by 30 games and be swept in the first round of the playoffs. In college basketball, a 31-1 powerhouse 1-seed will eventually lose to a 17-15 small school 16-seed in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament (and if you don’t believe a 16 will ever beat a 1, choose one of the 7 instances of a 15 beating a 2 to make your argument). Having to win in the playoffs to validate a great regular season and win a championship is part of sports, across the board. So from that big picture perspective, seeing NASCAR as one of a number of American sports, this isn’t much different than the playoffs we all love in every other sport (there’s even one in college football starting this year, finally).
Regardless, the news of the day, which shifted a little attention to NASCAR and away from the Super Bowl, at least for a few minutes, reminded us that the NASCAR season is just around the corner. The Daytona 500 is in just 24 days, and there will be cars on the track at Daytona in just 15 days. And from a purely points perspective, due to the new rules this will be the biggest Daytona 500 ever, as the winner will be almost guaranteed to have punched their ticket to the “Chase Grid”.