SEPARATE THE CHASERS FROM THE RACERS

OK, let’s get outside our comfort zone this month. I hammered NASCAR’s Chase For The Championship “playoff-system” contrivance when it first came out, but see its economic necessity for a racing series that is trying to compete in the TV ratings wars for sports programming. So, I have come to accept it, but that doesn’t mean I like it, and I believe it could use some major modifications to improve it, get TV ratings up, and actually improve the racing – perish the thought!

NASCAR, its big-bucks paying sponsors, and more of its racers it seems, read those TV ratings numbers like their stock market portfolios, and this year’s NASCAR TV rating numbers are down. Even with the Chase.

And look who has been stinking up the Chase play-off format: our buddy Tony Stewart (2006 Nextel Cup champ) and his Chevrolet. Too bad he could just manage a 14th at Phoenix with a car that should be made into a show car after its farm-equipment-like performance there. He’s won three of the Chase’s races and would have been in first place in the Chase before Phoenix if he had made the playoffs. But by missing it by a mere 16 points, he and his team have the benefit of racing for wins and not having to race for points – like Chase contenders fellow Chevy driver Jimmie Johnson and steady-teddy Matt Kennseth. What’s wrong with this picture? The guy winning the most races in the play-offs can’t win the Championship?

Not to knock Matt Kennseth, but he hasn’t set the win column on fire this year (with four wins, but none in the Chase), but as always his team’s consistency has kept him in the hunt. That is one tough bunch of former short trackers (Robby Reiser and Matt The Brat’s on-track confrontations were something back in their short-tracking days), and it will be one big pain in the Chase format if they win the Nextel Cup because of their non-exciting Chase runs – they finished 13th at Phoenix, but are still second in points.

Unless Johnson has some sort of incredible bad luck (he has to finish like 12th or above at Homestead), he’s got the 2006 Nextel Cup in hand. He and his Chad Knaus-led team deserve it. Not just because they have come so close in the past, but also because he has matured as a racer. Hand-picked and groomed by former Chevy racing chief Herb Fishel back when Johnson started racing off-road for the Bowtie brand, I began reporting on Johnson when he raced in the ASA. He was as direct and personable as he is now, but not quite the wheelman he has become. Having Chad Knaus-built and tuned cars, and Jeff Gordon as a driving coach hasn’t hurt him either, but he will represent the sport well because of his driving ability and marketability and general goodguyness.

But back to the Chase. Wasn’t it supposed to kinda sorta eliminate season-long points racing, jazz up the racing and keep the TV ratings increasing in the fall sports programming blitz by football, and make the final portion of the season less of a sleep-fest by having more contenders in the hunt? Not working on all fronts it seems to me.

What to do? First, award more points for winning a race during the year, or at least winning one during the Chase races. TV ratings are tied to the action on the track, and I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination one could say that it has been an overly exciting season. In today’s sped-up world in Attention Deficit Nation, it is a supreme irony that NASCAR racing would seem to be moving slower than it has in the past! Want to get the action stirred up and get the TV ratings up? Award 50-100 extra points for winning a Chase race or a regular season race and stand back. There is really no incentive large enough to race now for a win during the season or during the Chase. Make it so.

As long as we’re pushing the envelope, let’s shred it. Currently, once the Chase starts you have those racers in it and those out of it competing on the same race tracks and in the same races. This allows in 2006 someone of the questionable sportsman caliber of Cup racer and non-Chaser Robby Gordon to throw out roll bar padding to cause an opportune (for Gordon) caution – and kill Chaser Jeff Burton’s racing strategy and chance at a top finish!

Not that Gordon wasn’t doing something that hadn’t been done before (most weren’t so lucky to have the big TV eye capture it all for replay after replay) – but the effects of his action on Chaser and viable candidate for the Nextel Cup Burton were catastrophic.

Spilt up the Chasers from the other racers in the Chase races and help eliminate such stupidity. When the tour comes to a Chase track, have a Prelim race of 300 miles for the non-Chasers – they’re racing for 11th place on back in the Nextel Cup. Then have a 200 lap knock-down drag-out main race for the racers in the Chase.

This would be basically a sprint and I’d pay extra to see the top teams in the Chase really race. So what if it’s only a 10-car field (maybe you expand the Chase to the Top 12 or 15 in points) – it would be some of the most exciting laps you’ll see. And no bogus Lucky Dog passes either among the Chase drivers in these main races! One admirable merit of the Lucky Dog pass (the only one) is that it eliminates the incentive for racing back to the yellow –- which is just asking for carnage. But NASCAR now has the technology in its tracks to instantly pin point any car’s position – so just freeze the field at a caution during one of the Chase main races. There would be only 10-15 cars to keep track of -– shoot, Morris Metcalf and his ace team of scorers could manually keep track of that in the old days before electronic tracking!

NASCAR needs to step up the racing action to get their TV ratings up and keep the fan base or all those high-paying sponsors will eventually move on to whatever sports programming does (see: NHRA). Give the fans what promise the Chase originally held: racers racing for wins and not just for points. 

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