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NASCAR must make sure new 16-driver Chase sticks

Jan 30, 2014, 1:33 PM EDT

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Change is a constant force in our lives that we cannot escape. But while change can be positive, it can also be negative – especially if they come one after the other.

Many citizens of NASCAR Nation argue that such has been the case regarding the sanctioning body’s willingness to continually tinker with its decade-old Chase format, which emerged in 2004 to redefine the way a champion is crowned in the top-tier Sprint Cup series.

The Chase has taken various forms since its original incarnation, which had the Top 10 drivers in the championship (and anyone else within 400 points of the leader) going into the 10-race post-season. But then came the tweaks – an expansion to 12 drivers in 2007 (with the 400-point bit dropped), followed by an overhauled points system and the addition of two “wild cards” in 2011.

Now, yet another change has arrived. As first reported by the Charlotte Observer earlier this month, the Chase has now officially expanded once more to a 16-driver field and will feature eliminations after every three races in the playoff to set up a four-driver, winner-take-all battle at Homestead-Miami Speedway for stock car racing’s biggest prize.

Depending on your viewpoint, NASCAR CEO Brian France is either to be commended on his persistence in creating a “Game 7”-style playoff environment like those of other sports, or vilified for craving it so much that he’s forgotten that NASCAR simply isn’t like any of the other sports.

We see France’s thought process and I would think that we all understand it.

The last thing he wants is to produce a boring product, especially with NBC Sports coming in to join Fox as the sport’s broadcasters in 2015. Then there’s the fact that the core NASCAR fan is getting up there in age – the sport itself may be at the start of a youth revolution (hello, Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon; goodbye, Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte), but that’s not showing up in the grandstands or in the TV demos.

Naturally, France wants to change that with a show that cannot be ignored.

The sport’s purists can complain until they are blue in the face, but society demands to be entertained (and considering that we’ve fueled the rise of the likes of Jersey Shore, the Kardashians and Justin Bieber, we don’t care how). If France believes this new format can entertain more people and help NASCAR enjoy another mainstream run like the one it had in the early to mid-2000s, then more power to him.

But at the same time, he and his colleagues need to put the hammers away in the toolbox and let the changes stick. This format needs to be in place for more than just a few years, because while change can be good, there are advantages when it comes to long-lasting continuity.

Too many changes can make the sport look desperate, as if it’s looking for the magic bullet that instantly brings back the days when NASCAR was part of the “Big Four” of American sports and drivers like Jeff Gordon were hosting Saturday Night Live.

You’d hope NASCAR would know there is no such thing as a magic bullet after seeing the much-hyped Danica Patrick struggle in her rookie Cup season last year or seeing the IndyCar Series continue to suffer with a miniscule national presence after American open-wheel racing united again in 2008.

Furthermore, too many changes agitate the loyal fans that have stuck around for decades and have remained loyal as their sport has evolved into a national phenomenon. There’s the balancing act of this change: Gaining as many new fans as possible without finally driving that longtime base away for good.

NASCAR shouldn’t be attacked for wanting to be more relevant. But it needs to understand that this new format has to be given time to make an impact and that it must resist the impulse to tweak it again in the near-future.

  1. kitnamania13 - Jan 30, 2014 at 2:02 PM

    Brian France is the Tony George of NASCAR, and he’ll probably end up leaving a similar legacy on his respective racing discipline.

  2. cdawgredface - Jan 30, 2014 at 4:48 PM

    This is a disgrace. I could see a “game 7″ style playoff format having some integrity if it was just those last 4 drivers on the track in Homestead but it’s not. There will be 39 drivers and a late phantom caution that will dictate the champion.

    I read a report that calculated Dale Jr. winning the Cup last year under this format. I like Jr. but him winning the Cup over Jimmie last year would have been a complete joke.

  3. imwhitewolf - Jan 30, 2014 at 8:15 PM

    The last thing he wants is to produce a boring product——

    Yo, Chris,

    Here’s a hint for you—NASCAR is already a boring product and constantly rearranging the rules isn’t helping it. If you want to improve the sport let the crews have some latitude in what they can do with the cars.

    There are reasons why the attendance is down each year (all one needs to do is watch a race on tv—the networks are doing their damnedest to make certain no views of the stands are shown) . One is the cost of attending. Another is the lack of competition on the track. NASCAR is losing it’s older fans and not connecting with the 15/30 year olds it needs to remain viable.

  4. oceanpeaks - Jan 31, 2014 at 1:40 PM

    In the good ol’ days, drivers went at it on and off the track, and the racing was never boring. These days, micro-management, silly mechanical restrictions and fines/penalties at every turn (don’t get me started on over-commercialization of every single part, comment and public moment) have turned it into an even less-raucous version of roller derby. The track is no longer sport, it’s a board room. Under this new incarnation, most weekly races will be even more pointless than regular season NBA, MLB and NFL games, because it’s not hard to identify who the finalists will be… in the current era, garage budgets rule. Sorry, Mr. France, but more and more of us are finding that our money is better spent at local stock tracks.

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