NASCAR Fan Commentary: The Chase

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Welcome NASCAR race fans to my NASCAR blog. First let me tell you I fell in love with NASCAR in 1996 when I saw my first NASCAR race. I thought racing was the most beautiful thing in the world. I made it a point to learn everything about it. I know who the champions were starting with 1995. I know who is in what car each year. People who have been watching longer than me come to me for information. NASCAR has become my Passion. That is, until recently. Don’t get me wrong. I still love racing and watch everything I can watch. It’s just that the emphasis is no longer on racing, but who will make it into the chase, starting with the Season opener in Daytona. Now maybe this gives the media something to talk about, but I would prefer they talk about racing instead of chasing. So, let’s look at the stats.

The Chase for the Nextel (now Sprint) Cup started after the 2003 season when Matt Kenseth won the Championship while winning only one race. The theory was that he was points racing instead of racing for the win. However, the season is 36 races long. One driver can’t win them all. Each driver will have to settle for the best they can do in that race.

The Chase was also invented so that the points would be closer at the end of the season, thus coming to the final race with drivers still having a chance to win the Trophy. So now they race for 26 races to get into the chase and then the points are reset so those in the chase can start over and win, even if they are in tenth place when they reset. And I have to ask, why would it be more important to crown a champion based on ten races, rather than on all 36 races? Is the Champion now winning the most races? Let’s have a look.

2004 was the first year of the chase. Kurt Busch won the championship with three wins that year and started the chase in ninth. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had six wins that year. Jeff Gordon had five wins. Jimmie Johnson had eight wins. So a ninth place team won the Championship without winning the most races. (By the way, viewers watched this new chase system in 2004, but many did not return in 2005. With less and less returning as the chase continued.)

2005 saw Tony Stewart winning. He was the points leader entering the chase and ended the season with five wins. He would have won without the chase. However, Greg Biffle had the most wins with six. (So far the chase isn’t doing what it was supposed to do. Many fans do not even watch the last ten races.)

In 2006 Jimmie Johnson figured out how to do his best in those last ten races and won with five wins. Kevin Harvick also had five wins, as did Tony Stewart. Kasey Kahne had six wins. So, once again the driver with the most wins failed to win the championship.

In 2007 Johnson had a stellar year with ten wins. He would have won without the chase. Carl Edwards was the closest winner with three wins. In 2008 Johnson won again, but had only seven wins to Kyle Busch’s eight and Edwards’ nine wins. Was Johnson the best all year, or only in the last ten races? He tied Cale Yarborough by being the only other driver to win three championships in a row. But could he have done it without the chase? No way.

In 2009 Johnson had seven wins to Mark Martin’s five and deserved to  win his fourth in a row. But it would not have been four in a row.

After 2009 my Official NASCAR Preview and Press Guide was no longer published (And I have to ask why). So I had to get my information some place else. Last year, 2010, the chase came down to Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Harvick. This time the points were close with the three of them still in contention the last race. However, Hamlin had eight wins to Johnson’s seven. And Harvick collected the most points of anyone at the end of the year and finished the season in third.

Is the chase doing what it set out to do? Or is it just another way for the media to furnish hype  to get that 18-34 age group to watch? In my opinion it may be getting the casual fan or new fan to watch but it is “Chasing” away the fans it once had. All the media talks about is who will make it into the chase, even after the Daytona 500!

Brian France’s reasoning was that other Sports have a play-off and that is why fans watch those sports. Because there will be a playoff. And the best team out there will not necessarily win the championship. But. With other Sports, a playoff is needed to decide the champion. There are Divisions within Leagues. The divisions find their best Team in their League and those Teams win their League Championship and go on to decide which League is the best.

With NASCAR, there are 43 teams (cars, drivers and crew members) racing each other every time. So a playoff makes no sense. That is what the points do. It used to be the driver who was most consistent throughout the whole season had the most points, won the Championship. With the chase the points are reset and the driver who performs the best in these last ten races is the Champion. Should the emphasis be on racing to get into the chase or racing to win races and do the best one can with the equipment one is given?

Jimmie Johnson has won five chases in a row. He is the best “chaser” out there. While that is quite an accomplishment (and I  am liking him more and more all the time) you really can’t compare what he is doing to any past champions. He doesn’t have to lead the points all year, just be the best in the last ten races.

In the case of Matt Kenseth winning with only one win, he had a wonderful year. If you were to pick a driver each race all year, in 2003 Matt was the driver to pick. He may have only won one race, but he was the best driver all year and deserved to win the Championship. The same goes for any past Champion. They were all the best driver all year, not just in the last ten races. And while I love watching Johnson race, he is not the best driver all year. Kevin Harvick should have won last year. He was there at the front through most of the races. He collected the most points of anyone all year. But Johnson won his fifth in a row. And I have to ask how many in a row it will take and how many fans NASCAR will lose as a result, before they dump the chase and go back to having the best driver all year win the Championship.

The last ten races last year were great. Racing was wonderful. But the stands weren’t full. And ratings were down. If the idea of a playoff is working, why are so few watching? Like I said, I love NASCAR. I love watching racing. These days it is more about entertainment (a la WWE) than about actual racing. More about crashing than about racing. More about who will make it into the chase and win than about racing.

This NASCAR race fan will watch NASCAR racing. Even with the chase. However, NASCAR should look at the fans they once had and what they liked instead of looking to find new fans to replace them. The long time fans bring in more new fans. The chase brings in new fans at the expense of the long time fans.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend. But as fans we are treated to the Barrett-Jackson Auction all day until 5 ET, when we get to watch practice. (Are the drivers waiting to get onto the track until after the auction?) Looks like the media has it’s own agenda, not what the fans want. Just my opinion.

Brought to you by Sheila Hawley. I love NASCAR. Despite the chase.

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