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NASCAR's problems go beyond Chase for the Championship


The suits are at it again. Talking, plotting, manipulating.

The folks in charge of NASCAR see their TV ratings fall and naturally get anxious. They see their attendance numbers drop and understandably get nervous. They see their bank accounts dip and get darn near apoplectic.

And so, with the season at its midpoint with Saturday night's Coke Zero 400, NASCAR chairman Brian France acknowledged the sport is already considering dramatic changes to the 6-year-old Chase for the Championship playoff format.

That could mean weekly eliminations during the final 10 races. That could mean refiguring the points system. That could mean virtually anything for a sport that has seen attendance drop another 10 percent this season and had its lowest-rated Daytona 500 since 1991.

"The main reason is we want to make sure it's giving us the big impact moments it was designed to do," France said. "Pushing the winning envelope to mean what it needs to mean in our sport."

That sounds good, but there is a disconnect somewhere along the line.

Television ratings are not down in June because the Chase is bland in November. Seats are not empty at Dover or Bristol because the Cup is virtually decided by the time we reach Phoenix or Homestead.

In other words, the problem is not the final 10 races.

NASCAR's numbers are dwindling long before the Chase begins, which means the problems in the spring and summer will not necessarily be solved by waiting until the fall to change the rules.

"From my conversations with them, they are very serious about making some changes. We've talked about minor changes all the way to some very extreme options that they are considering," four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. "I know their No. 1 goal is to make it entertaining and exciting.

"The thing I keep questioning them on is making sure that it follows the history of our sport and a champion is crowned in a way that respects the past and past champions. Some of the ideas I've heard are absolutely crazy. It's more of a crapshoot than anything."

So what is the answer?

Changing the climate in the garage would be a start.

The Chase for the Championship has promoted the idea that there is more to be gained by consistency than drama during the first 26 races of the season. Wins seem to matter less than DNFs, which means being careful has more value than being aggressive. And that can lead to too many drivers worrying more about their place in the standings than screaming toward a checkered flag.

Over the years, nearly 23 percent of the Chase drivers have made it into the field without winning a race. That just seems antithetical to the reckless, and devil-may-care, origins of the sport.

So why not make a victory a necessity for qualifying?

A couple of year ago, NASCAR began using victory totals to seed drivers in the Chase. This would take it one step further.

Drivers would be motivated to push harder. Beginning in February, every race would potentially serve as a qualifier for some driver. And those boring, hide-in-the-bushes top-10 finishes would no longer be enough.

Of course, not everyone will like this idea. Particularly the drivers themselves. They are, in a way, like college football coaches who favor the bowl system. Football coaches save their jobs by giving the appearance of success with a bowl berth. And stock car drivers save their sponsors by giving the appearance of success with a spot in the Chase.

Purists might also scoff at this idea. They'll say it messes with history and does not take into account the consistency needed to finish atop the Cup standings.

Except history says Cup champions have been pretty good at finding the finish line. In the past 35 years, every single Cup champion has won at least one of the first 26 races during the season. In other words, this system is not likely to eliminate any serious contenders. All it will do is force more drivers to be aggressive from February to September.

For a sport that begins before spring training and ends after the World Series, it is absolutely critical that the so-called regular season feels like it has more of an edge. Otherwise, the season already feels tired by the time the Chase rolls around.

Stock car racing is supposed to be dangerous. It is supposed to be a seat-of-your-pants proposition.

It is supposed to be about drivers fighting for a checkered flag and not owners calculating point formulas.

If NASCAR wants the end of the season to be more exciting, it should consider making the rest of the season more relevant.

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

NASCAR's problems go beyond Chase for the Championship 07/03/10 [Last modified: Sunday, July 4, 2010 12:55am]
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