Sep 132009
Well, the dust has settled at Richmond, and my favorite driver is out of the hunt for the Sprint Cup. Of course, Clint Bowyer was definitively out of the Chase after his poor showing at Atlanta last week. It’s been a tough, up and down season for Bowyer, who I like because he’s talented, unassuming, and gets no respect, not even from his own employers. They rewarded his great showing the past two years by giving his team and owner points to somebody else (Casey Mears, of all people) and sticking Clint with a brand-new car and crew. The overall implosion of RCR has been a major disappointment this season, but Bowyer’s performance, even with the greenest team, has been the best of a mediocre bunch. Still, with Bowyer definitively out of the Chase, and my beloved football starting up again, the question for NASCAR is: what’s to keep me watching racing on Sunday afternoon?

Of course, Bowyer isn’t the only driver I root for. I’ve always liked Stewart, and I’m also partial to the international contingent of Montoya and Ambrose (technically, the most Southern of all the drivers). If I’m going to go with the “no respect” theme, then I should also think highly of the Biff, which I do. And of course there are some drivers I root against. I don’t like to see anybody wreck, of course, but I might let out a small cackle of glee when the Busch brothers, Hamlin, or “cousin Carl” turn in a poor effort. So I have some interest still in how the Chase plays out. The problem is that due to its structure the Chase is played out long before it ends. As I recall, the Homestead race has only had a real chance to decide the championship once, and the past few Chases have been effectively decided by the time the green flag waved in Phoenix. Most Chasers are eliminated from contention long before that: last year Kyle Busch was through after Dover, and Talladega dramatically thinned the list of possible champions.

The other problem, of course, is that Jimmy Johnson seems to always win this thing. It would be unfair to deliberately calibrate the Chase to specifically stop him, although not without precedent. After all, the Chase was basically invented to prevent Matt Kenseth (or a similarly consistent non-winner) from ever taking home the Cup again. Johnson just does too well on most of the Chase tracks for anyone to catch him. He’s not magical, of course, but he’s unflappable, and as I’ve mentioned before, almost fatally unmarketable.

One way to shake things up would be to alter the track selection, especially to thin out the intermediate tracks. Some of those certainly ought to be kept: a Chase without a stop in Texas or Charlotte would be a strange beast, and Kansas always seems to produce an interesting race somehow. New Hampshire’s flat oval is just funky enough to stay. Still, there’s no good reason to ever race at Fontana, and much less reason to go there in the Chase. If the series is going to hoof it out to Cali, then the Chase should visit Infineon. A road race would diversify the Chase tracks and make it a more complete test of the drivers. I think the racing is actually more entertaining at Watkins Glen (or even rainy Montreal), but the fall weather up north might be too much of an issue. Homestead is also a really uninspiring track, a race nobody would watch if the champion weren’t crowned there, and seemingly selected for no better reason than the climate. I think the Chase ought to end at Nascar central in Charlotte, and Homestead’s spot given to a more unique and interesting track. Since we’re talking about my fantasy here, I’d put a Chase race in Darlington again.

Another way to address the Chase’s boring side would be to alter the scoring. This might sound more radical, but the Chase already makes a pretty artificial change to the points. Moreover, the goal of the Chase is not necessarily the same as the season points, so there’s no particular reason to keep that scoring system for the Chasers. With that in mind, here are three alternatives.

Option 1: Not enough pie

Chase scoring comes with a simple scale: 10 points for 1st place down to 1 point for 10th place, no points for lower. I would foresee two improvements from this approach. First, because the number of scoring spots is less than the number of racers in the chase, there will be a desperate fight for every position. Second, because the spread of points is so narrow and there’s no more penalty for coming in 43rd than 11th, one or two bad races will not completely eliminate a contender. The compressed dynamic range should make it easier for those who are behind to catch up with a few good performances, keeping the Chase drama alive until the checkers wave in Miami. The Chase would be “seeded” by treating regular-season points as a race (so 11th and 12th place Chasers get no points) plus one point per regular-season win. The weakness of this approach is that it gives the non-Chasers a lot of spoiler power, and might de-emphasize Chase wins.

Option 2: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Chasers are supposed to be champions. So in the Chase you get 1 point for winning, and 0 points for anything else. Regular-season wins and points, in that order, serve as a tie-breaker and nothing more, except that the regular-season points champion and the winner of the most regular-season races would get one Chase point each. Again, non-Chasers would have a lot of spoiler power, but that would fit in with the organizing scoring principle. More problematic, though, is that the drama could easily be sucked out of this system. In theory the only way to clinch a Championship would be with six wins in this system (maybe less if you started with a bonus), but in practice, and assuming relatively strong competition, three wins might be an insurmountable lead, with other drivers splitting up the other races. So, a strong showing early on could kill the drama.

Option 3: Only racing against each other

Use any points system you want, but in scoring the championship, only consider a driver’s position relative to other Chasers. Again, this has the effect of compressing the dynamic range of scoring, meaning that the championship points race will be closer all the way up to the end. It would certainly mitigate the influence of a team being taken out of the championship due to somebody else’s wrecks. On the other hand, a team’s own errors would also become less damaging, and the whole thing smacks of grading on a curve.

The Chase has done a good job increasing the drama of the last couple of regular-season races and the first few Chase races. The problem continues to be that the system hasn’t elevated the season’s final few races above their traditional status as irrelevant epilogues to an essentially settled championship run. Shaking up the track selection to emphasize a broader range of skills, and compressing the points range so that the issue remains in doubt all the way to the end, might make the Chase more compelling and interesting to those who, like me (and all those Jr. fans), don’t have their favorite driver in the mix.

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