Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 30, 2014

A New Chase Format, A New Day For NASCAR

In politics the long-standing rule is that if one has bad news to announce the time to do it is Friday afternoon. The obvious corollary to the old maxim is that the worst time to unveil important good news is just as the weekend is getting under way. The ancient wisdom is that as we the people begin to turn our collective attention to such critical matters as where to eat out or what movie to see, less attention will be paid to any story, even one that on a Monday morning might be deemed very important.

While the logic is most often cited in the context of political news, it applies across the spectrum; which makes one wonder just what Brian France was thinking. The NASCAR Chairman picked this Thursday to announce dramatic changes to the way in which the stock car racing circuit will crown its champion, starting later this year. How could he not realize that the focus of virtually every sports fan in the country right now, including those whose first love might well be NASCAR, is on the New York metropolitan area where a certain football game will be taking place Sunday evening at MetLife Stadium?

NASCAR could use some new fans, or even the return of some old ones, and France’s announcement if not its timing provides some indication that the sport’s leaders understand that. The revisions to the format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup should make for more exciting racing from Daytona all the way to Homestead by putting a premium on winning. Of course, rolling out those changes in the midst of the annual tidal wave of Super Bowl hype, which is if possible even greater this year given the NFL’s decision to play the game in Gotham, means a lot of would-be fans won’t really be aware of those changes for a while.

From its early days up until 2004, the year after Brian France took over management of NASCAR from his father, the champion stock car driver of the year was simply the one who accumulated the most points over the course of a season’s races. But that simple format meant that a dominant driver could win a championship well before the NASCAR schedule concluded, effectively devaluing late-season races and decreasing fan interest.

The Chase format introduced a decade ago essentially split the Sprint Cup season into two segments. Over the first 26 races drivers compete to win the most points based on their finishing position, and then some number of those racers vie against each other over the final 10 events for the championship. For the first three years of the Chase, the top ten in the points standings and any drivers within 400 points of the overall leader qualified for what amounted to NASCAR’s playoffs. That was changed in 2007 to the top 12 drivers, and then changed again three years ago to the top 10 plus 2 Wild Card slots given to those drivers outside the top ten with the most wins.

On Thursday NASCAR‘s Chairman threw all of that out the window. Beginning this year the Chase field will be expanded to 16 drivers. The first 15 spots are reserved for the drivers with the most wins during the 26 races that make up the “regular season.” As a practical matter, there are always a handful of teams that are dominant enough to win multiple times. It’s highly unlikely that the regular season races will produce more than 15 different winners. Last year those 26 races produced 12 different winners; a season earlier they yielded 13. In other words, winning a race should ensure a spot in the Chase. That hasn’t been the case until now, since the points won by winning one event can be more than offset by a couple of poor or even non-finishes due to crashes or mechanical problems.

The final spot in the Chase, or as many spots as are left over after all of the winners are recognized, will go to non-winner(s) with the most points. The guarantee of one spot for a non-winner is insurance against the small possibility that a driver could be the overall points leader without actually winning a race.

Once the field of 16 is set, it will be whittled down to the top 12, 8, and eventually 4 racers after every three Chase races. As the logo-bedecked Generation 6 cars speed through this elimination phase, a victory by a member of the Chase field guarantees that driver a spot in the next round. Finally next November when the field charges toward the green flag at the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead the final four members of the Chase field will be the only drivers with a shot at NASCAR’s ultimate prize. The driver with the highest finish among those four will become the Sprint Cup champion.

France’s expectation and certainly his hope is that the significantly greater reward for winning will mean harder racing at every NASCAR stop, and more drivers willing to be more aggressive. Certainly the new format lessens the value of a nice, safe, 7th place finish and “a good points day.” On Twitter and other social media, the first reaction from drivers was universally positive.

In announcing the changes the NASCAR chief said “This is pretty clear; you have to win, you have to compete at a higher level, you have to take more chances.” While announcements like this are often filled with hyperbole, those statements seem grounded in fact. If that proves to be the case, Brian France and his family run sport will have helped themselves considerably.

Thursday evening NASCAR’s website featured an analysis of how the Chase results from the last three years would have differed under the new format. It’s a meaningless exercise of course, because different rules will produce different strategies and tactics on the part of the drivers. But the analysis showed that under the new format last year’s champion would not have been Jimmie Johnson; but rather Dale Earnhardt Jr., far and away NASCAR’s most popular driver. If France has found a way to make Junior NASCAR’s champion, the grandstands at tracks all across America will be full again. Now if he could just figure out that Thursday of Super Bowl week isn’t the smartest time to announce important news in any sport with initials that aren’t NFL.

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