In July, NASCAR CEO, Brian France, hinted that changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship could be in the offing. Since then, speculation, suggestions and complaints have been plentiful wherever NASCAR is discussed.
Faced with declining attendance at races and falling television ratings, France voiced a desire to inject more drama into the 10-race Chase to reignite fan enthusiasm.
"If we have the perfect Chase that we would love to see, it would be just like every commissioner would tell you," he said. "They'd like to see great playoff events ... action-packed, close games, great story lines. That's what anybody's after. We're no different."
So the short answer is, yes, changes to the Chase are important for the future of the sport. But the full answer is a little more complicated. NASCAR fans are a diverse population and making tweaks that would put smiles on everyone's face would be difficult, if not impossible.
There are the purists who feel that NASCAR made a huge mistake when the Chase format was implemented in 2004. That change came about when long-time series sponsor, Winston made their exit, providing an opportune time to spice things up. NASCAR leadership felt a change was necessary because of those criticizing the fact that Matt Kenseth was crowned the winner of the Winston Cup in 2003 after winning only one race. And he essentially wrapped up the championship with two races left.
That same year, Ryan Newman had a series-high total of eight wins, yet finished in sixth place in the standings. Kenseth basically won with title through consistent performance throughout the year, but not being able to win more than a single race.
Since 2004, the format has been tweaked to give bonus points for wins that were added in the seeding for the Chase. That was done to award outstanding performance and do more to make sure that winning drivers had a better chance of winning the championship.
Jimmie Johnson has mastered the Chase format and responded with a record four titles in a row. Now there is a feeling that something needs to be done to increase the drama in the Chase, and possibly crown a different champion. But as Brian France pointed out when he hinted at further changes in the format, under any design that's been discussed, Johnson would still have won the four championship trophies.
So, should the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship format be changed again. Yes, but great care should be taken in doing so. Winning races in the regular season is rewarded with ten bonus points, which creates a small advantage for those drivers. Shouldn't winners have a significant advantage in the seeding for the Chase? But care must be taken not to put the championship outside the realm of possibility for all of the Chasers.
Another major complaint is that the points leader heading into the Chase is handicapped when the points are reset. Perhaps a 50-75 point bonus should be awarded to recognize the accomplishment of being the points leader after 26 races.
Finally, the points system itself needs a little adjustment. There is not a big enough emphasis on winning races, and making the Chase is sometimes the result of being conservative in order to have "good finishes" in order to wrack up points. Put a premium on winning races and there will be more competitive action on the track for the 26 weeks leading up to the Chase. If there was more drama during the regular season it would likely carry over to the final ten races.
NASCAR also needs to give up the notion of competing with the NFL in any significant way. That hill is just too steep to climb. Instead, they should figure out how to remove much of the skepticism that a significant percentage of the fan base currently has toward NASCAR. One thing that would help that is to become more transparent in how the rules are applied. But that is a topic for another article.