New Chase not a reason to stop watching NASCAR
News of NASCAR's 16-driver, wins matter most, points-resetting, highest finisher of remaining four at Homestead-Chase surfaced just over two weeks ago. 80-90% of the opinions I heard of the format both before and after NASCAR's official announcement of it last week have been of the dissenting variety. Longtime fans feel betrayed by the sport they've loved since long before the first version of the Chase debuted in 2004. And I've seen promises by many that they "are never watching again" and they are "done with NASCAR for good." That's understandable, as one of the biggest gripes of the Brian France Era is the inconsistent changing of formats and the cheapening of two-thirds of the season, just to make a slightly-more exciting playoffs. This new scenario does this - to the max. But that does not mean now is the time to stop following the sport you love, like, or are about to hate.
One of the biggest complaints of the last 10 years and certainly the last five has been seeming lack of incentive for drivers to "let it all hang out" and race on the ragged edge to win. The new Chase certainly emphasizes the importance of winning, as taking a checkered flag all but guarantees a Chase berth. This would have put David Ragan, winner of last year's May Talladega race, in the 2013 Chase, as he was just inside the top 30 in points (25th) after Richmond. What this new format helps eliminate is drivers having a mediocre, 10th place kind of season and making the playoffs without winning, while other winners in, say, 15th in points get shutout. It also gives hope to a small team, like Ragan's Front Row Motorsports, or even a middle team like Richard Petty Motorsports or Chip Ganassi Racing, of getting more of the spotlight than before. The new Chase incentivizes crew chiefs leaving their drivers out on old tires and fumes of gas, drivers jostling three-wide on late restarts, and drivers making contact to get that badly needed first win of the season. Drivers may not race radically different and teams may not strategize to extremes, but even a slight uptick or change in both could make things more interesting.
The biggest flaw of the new Chase is the emphasis on one race and the lack importance on the first 26 races as a whole. My first thoughts about the new system - and the observations of vocal opposing fans - is that once a driver gets that important first win of the season and is virtually guaranteed a playoff berth, then they can skate the rest of the season until the Chase. But this logic does undermine one constant in NASCAR: everybody wants to win every week. Drivers have seemed insulted when accused of racing for anything less. The previous Chase systems allowed for winless drivers to make the playoffs, as long as they stayed at a safe spot on the points standings. Under the new Chase, the only safe spot in points is first. This should throw conservative strategy out of the window and make the trophy the only target - not just a good points day. And for those drivers with wins that know they are playoff-bound - they can just race for more wins, which do decide the Chase seeding when it starts.
NASCAR did miss one big point in all of this change. The sport's governing body operates as if the spice lacking in the racing action is only strategic and psychological. They beefed up the incentive to win, by changing the whole system and by making the Chase have eliminations and an ultimate deciding race, just like stick and ball sports. What NASCAR officials missed in this legitimacy-compromising upheaval is likely the bigger reason drivers don't look to be racing as hard: the racecars. Carl Edwards said recently that the stakes can be made as high as the heavens. But if he can't even get to the racecar in front of him, he sure can't pass them or bump them out of the way. Edwards has said for years he'd love to see softer tires and less downforce on the cars, so drivers had more control and weren't so pegged down. He and others want more variance in the racecars, so they aren't all going full speed the entire time. Softer tires create more speed, but fall off faster. Less downforce makes them harder to drive at full speed. NASCAR tried to remedy this - and did to some extent - with the Gen-6 car, which will have new tweaks in 2014. But the new parts on the cars likely won't dramatically change a problem that has been in place since the late 1990's.
Regardless of your problems with the new Chase - the dilution of the first 26 races, the high instance of bad luck that could ruin someone's season in the last race, the probability of team orders affecting the outcome (like Richmond last fall), the confusing format, the complete diversion from the championship history of NASCAR, the probability that a NASCAR judgment call (like a timely debris caution) could decide the championship, the fact that the rules change too often (like the Shootout or the All-Star Race do), the fact that a driver with zero wins could stillbeat a driver with 35 wins - 2014 is not the year you should stop watching NASCAR. Give it at least one more shot. Drivers at the racetrack where I announce, Gresham Motorsports Park, race for a championship - but you wouldn't know it. They really only care about the trophies and the cash that particular Saturday night. NASCAR is trying to bring that mode back. It may work and it may not. But if it does, do you only want to read about it or watch highlights? No. You want to get caught in the suspense and emotion that good racing brings. And even if you watch it through critical-colored glasses - don't you want to see yourself proven right? For the good of NASCAR, let's hope the changes are a success. For a sport so dependent on exposure and sponsorship money, the changes have to be for NASCAR to survive.