There's no doubt that the NASCAR drivers who compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup are at the top of their craft, but does the Chase really work as a system for awarding the best racer of the year? It certainly brings the drama, but it also proves that playoffs just don't work for more than 2 competitors.
Why Does The Chase Exist?
The Chase for the Sprint Cup is the system by which the Sprint Cup winner is decided. For the last ten races of the season, the top sixteen competitors are chosen based on regular season points prior to that race.
Points are reset at the start of every three-race round of the Chase, forcing competitors to finish well or be eliminated. Additionally, winning a race during the Chase automatically gains you an entry into the next round regardless of where you stand in the points.
NASCAR put together this helpful explainer featuring several star drivers at the beginning of the Chase this year:
Moreover, NASCAR wants the Drama™ of the Chase to bolster fan interest and television ratings, particularly in the mid-season when it starts to go up against college and professional football.
Everyone knows NASCAR has a bit of an image problem, often being associated with rednecks and the uneducated. The fanbase is aging and overwhelmingly white. To survive, NASCAR must pitch its wares to new fans who aren't Southern white dudes who've grown up around it.
They've done an excellent job of getting women on board, having the highest number of female viewers out of any major professional sport. NASCAR is also among the easiest motorsports to follow online and on social media. If I need a clip of a crash or some other unusual goings-on from a race, boom—it's out there almost instantaneously.
But What About The Racing?
Herein lies part of the problem when it comes to NASCAR wooing new fans. NASCAR is a lot like baseball: both sports are uniquely American, and both are incredibly difficult to follow if you have the attention span of a gnat.
The extent of my baseball fandom goes a little like, "It'd be sweet if my Bears make it back to another College World Series, and, um, baseball pants are nice?" The issue is the downtime, the very structured nature of it all, and the lack of overt physicality in the same way that football has tackles and basketball runs from one end of the court to the other at the speed of plaid. I can respect baseball as a sport, but it's not what I'd sit down to watch per se.
NASCAR, to me, is a bit easier to follow in part due to its rubbin'-is-racin' tendencies, but at the same time, the bits in between passes through tight packs of cars are more difficult for me to put in context. I'm not an oval racer myself, so I don't quite have the context on many of the nuances of the sport: pit strategies, good defensive lines around the track, good bumps vs. bad bumps and the like.
I'll admit that NASCAR is a motorsport I haven't immediately gravitated towards, and that I had to start following it to work on this blog. So, consider this the outsider's perspective on NASCAR that no one asked for, but you're going to get anyway. I'm one of the magical newbies they're trying to attract as lifelong watchers and fans. Is it working?
Eh, not entirely.
There's a ton of fan access to the drivers at races and other events, which is good. Television and online coverage and analysis is even more accessible, if not a bit overkill. That's also a good move, even if I wish some of the IMSA properties got a bigger share of that TV time. Forcing additional drama via the Chase isn't what I'd fix, though. I'd rather see them gear more commentary towards new fans who need a catch-up on the season's storylines, or perhaps more attempts made to appeal to fans of other motorsports. "Look! There's racing going on over here!"
But let's not worry about making the TV commentary more accessible if there's drama to be had, right? That seems to be the point of the Chase: stir up controversy, and mmmhmmmm. "Dios mío," as the fellow in NASCAR's Chase video said.
The Wrong Kinds Of Headlines
Unfortunately, the usual talk I hear isn't about the racing at all: it's who punched who, who's getting fined, and the other assorted stuff that happens off the field. While no one wants the drivers to be the overtly sterile PR-Bots that other series have, you get the feeling that the Chase pressure may be manufacturing additional drama by squeezing sixteen or fewer drivers to the absolute limit.
The series isn't attracting racing fans with that so much as it's getting fighting fans. The sheer number of off-track shenanigans this year was at one point so high that bookies were accepting bets on the likelihood of fights breaking out.
To the great unwashed masses who believe that NASCAR is all just a bunch of redneck stupidity, this kind of thing validates their point. Never mind the skill it takes to race tightly in heavy traffic for lap after lap. Nope. Congratulations, the stress of the Chase has made That Guy even more insufferable by adding fuel to his arsenal of "that's not racing, that's WWE."
I rather enjoy it when drivers get heated and passionate about their races. I love it when they say off-hand remarks that aren't carefully monitored by the team's marketing staff. What I don't love is when grown men start getting all punchy over a car race, because then I have to explain to some version of That Guy who for whatever reason believes NASCAR is the cancer that's killing the United SportsCar series (because NASCAR, I guess) why I've been tuning in for the races.
Where's the racing? Buried under fightin' headlines.
The Best Driving Takes A Back Seat In The Points, Too
Enough about fights—what about the mechanics of the Chase itself makes it such a questionable idea? Let's take a look at the numbers, and particularly, the oddball case of Ryan Newman.
Chase haters like to point out that Ryan Newman made it all the way to the final round of the Chase without scoring a single point. How could he win the Sprint Cup, an award purporting to go to NASCAR's best driver, when he can't even seal the deal to win a race?
He scored points well, that's why. He was consistent.
Alain Prost was famous for taking a similar strategy in Formula One, and was hailed as a genius. However many points he needed to win the championship, "The Professor" would score 'em without pushing the car to higher finishes. This was brilliant, even if it did annoy fans who wanted racing drivers to go for a win whenever possible. (It's okay, guys. We had Senna.)
Newman, however, has been absolutely lambasted for making it through to the last round of the Chase on points alone. It's clear that NASCAR fans value wins. That's why you get into racing, after all: to be faster than all the other folks on track.
The one thing that the Chase does well is that it translates the importance of winning races into a quantifiable gain. Winning a race trumps your point count, and gains you an automatic entry into the next round of the Chase.
It's not clear based on the point structure of the regular season that wins are really valued any more than finishing in a high-ish place. Winning first out of 43 drivers nets you 43 points, second place earns you 42, third gets you 41, and so on, and so on. There's no additional bump for winning overall or making it onto the podium. It's a completely linear distribution of points, all the way down to a 43rd place finisher getting one single point.
Don't hate on Ryan Newman for being great at gaming the system. Hate on the system itself.
If we look at regular season points and number of wins versus Chase results, that could give us the best approximation of who is the best driver in NASCAR. Does it match up to Kevin Harvick being #1?
Nope. Sorry, Kevin. You're a great driver and all, but per stats geekery wonderland Jayski's Silly Season Site, Jeff Gordon would have taken the top spot with 1245 season points to your 1171. Harvick would have finished fifth overall if there was no Chase.
Logano, who finished fourth in the Chase, would have finished second. Brad Keselowski, who was eliminated before the final round of the Chase to finish fifth, would have been third. Perennial favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who finished all the way down at eighth in the Chase, would round out the top four.
Per Jayski's regular season points ranking:
Unofficial Top 25 in 2014 Sprint Cup Driver Points Standings (not the Chase):
[after Homestead, race 36 of 36]
(using current points system, but not the Chase rules, unofficial)
1) #24-Jeff Gordon(EC), 1253
2) #22-Joey Logano(C4), 1216, -37
3) #2-Brad Keselowski(EC), 1179, -74
4) #88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.(EC), 1175, -78
5) #4-Kevin Harvick(CH), 1171, -82
6) #31-Ryan Newman(C2), 1136, -117
7) #20-Matt Kenseth(EC), 1131, -122
8) #42-Kyle Larson #, 1080, -173
9) #48-Jimmie Johnson(EC), 1067, -186
10) #99-Carl Edwards(EC), 1059, -194
11) #1-Jamie McMurray, 1014, -239
12) #16-Greg Biffle(EC), 1000, -253
13) #11-Denny Hamlin(C3), 987, -266 (missed a races)
14) #15-Clint Bowyer, 979, -274
15) #18-Kyle Busch(EC), 969, -284
16) #5-Kasey Kahne(EC), 966, -287
17) #3-Austin Dillon #, 958, -295
18) #27-Paul Menard, 944, -309
19) #55-Brian Vickers, 921, -332
20) #41-Kurt Busch(EC), 911, -342
21) #9-Marcos Ambrose, 872, -381
22) #47-AJ Allmendinger(EC), 868, -385
23) #78-Martin Truex Jr., 857, -396
24) #43-Aric Almirola(EC), 820, -433
25) #14-Tony Stewart, 799, -454 (missed 3 races)
(CH is the 2014 Sprint Cup Series Champion)
(C# is chase driver and current Chase position)
(EC is chase driver that has been eliminated from the Chase)
If we went by number of wins alone, everyone's favorite drama llama Brad Keselowski would be the overall winner, with six wins. He finished fifth in the Chase standings. Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano have five wins apiece, tying them for second place if number of wins were the only thing that mattered.
We should value finishing well in addition to finishing first, however, when trying to figure out a way to give the Sprint Cup to the best driver of the year. However, everyone knows that winning matters more.
If I'm going to quote Ricky Bobby anywhere in this article, it might as well be here. "If you're not first, you're last" may have been a line from a clever satirical view of the sport, but it's dead accurate. Winning is so highly valued in motor racing that it's part of the very ethos of the sport, so it should matter more than merely finishing well in the points.
This brings me to the biggest issue with adapting a playoff format to motor racing: you're not team vs. team, you're team vs. field. With many other sports, you can say, "Ha, ha! We beat those schmucks. On to the next batch of FRESH MEAT!"
Auto racing is more subtle. You may finish 5th to your nemesis in 7th, or you break one week and have finished in the top five all season, but get dead last for one weekend. You don't want your season to be defined by one race of sheer bad luck.
Applying a playoff system to a sport where there is such of wide range of finishers who do well down to finishers who don't is like trying to cut down a forest with a Puffalump. It's simply not going to work.
Will Anything Change For 2015?
Probably not. Per SB Nation, there was an increase in viewership of the last two races leading up to the finale, and ticket sales were excellent for the last ten races of the year.
NASCAR is happy with it, too.
Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton told Motorsport that the new Chase format produced "the best stuff I've ever seen in my life."
Sure, it's entertaining, but did the best driver of the year really win the Sprint Cup? Jeff Gordon might have something to say on that one.
Photo credits: Getty Images