NASCAR's desperate Chase changes were long overdue
Brian France was in a rush. Stepping onto a private jet in Los Angeles, which would soon ferry him to another sold-out NASCAR race, he lifted his cell phone to his ear and spoke in a rapid-fire way. The chairman of NASCAR had people to see, expanding budgets to review, and a Victory Lane to visit. Life was so heady for France as he slid into his leather seat on this warm afternoon in Southern California that he was moved to share his big dream: one day soon NASCAR would hold races throughout Europe and Asia.
"We're hitting our stride," France said. "We're certainly no longer a regional sport. We're a national sport—and we're just going to get bigger. We're kind of on a roll."
Let the record show that the date was March 4, 2005.
Ever since France's plane took off, NASCAR has taken a spectacular nosedive. TV ratings for its events have dropped nearly 50 percent since he uttered those words nine years ago. Attendance has eroded almost as precipitously, last evidenced by the swaths of empty seats at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November when Jimmie Johnson won his sixth championship. France once boasted that NASCAR was the second-most watched sport in America. Now it has been marginalized to the point where, beginning in 2015, several races will be shown in that TV backcountry known as the NBC Sports Network.
On Thursday afternoon. France, with his soaring hopes of nine years ago long since crushed, strode to a dais in a dimly lit room at the Charlotte Convention Center. He looked out at the audience dotted with reporters. In the world of traditional print journalism, only the AP, The Charlotte Observer, and USA Today still dispatch reporters to the majority of NASCAR's races, whereas a decade ago, at least a dozen traditional outlets were trackside each week. Taking a deep breath, he then outlined an overhaul of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. This was no tweak with a screwdriver, mind you. France did his work with a wrench so big that only the man who controls the entire sport can lift and wield it.
France, in effect, changed the entire nature of NASCAR by making winning individual races more important than consistency.
"Things evolve," he said. "You look at the BCS, it has evolved. They'll be having their own championship format this year ... Evolving means you're getting the best ideas at the moment."
Yes, this move was the equivalent of Roger Goodell tearing up the rules for the NFL postseason a month before the regular season kicks off. And yes, France is a desperate man doing a desperate thing. Which is why I can scarcely believe I'm about to type these three words to describe my reaction to the new playoff system:
I like it.
Here's an overview NASCAR's new championship format:
• The postseason field will expand from 12 to 16. If a driver wins a race in the 26-event regular season, he's essentially locked into the playoffs. The driver that captures the regular season points championship is also in. If there are more than 15 different race winners, the tiebreaker will be position in the standings.
• The Chase is now elimination-style, sort of. After the first three races, the bottom four drivers will be out of the title hunt—unless one of the four notches a playoff victory, which automatically moves the driver to the next round. After six Chase races, three more drivers will be gone; after nine, only four will still have a shot at the title.
• At Homestead in November, the points will be wiped clean to set up a winner-take-all dash to the title between the final four drivers. It should be noted that, if this format had been in place in 2013, the championship-winning driver wouldn't have taken a single checkered flag in the playoffs. That driver's name: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Long-time NASCAR fans already have erupted on Twitter, calling the new format "a gimmick" and "artificially-created excitement." I get those criticisms. I also understand that, since it was formed in 1949, NASCAR always has emphasized consistency of finish over single-race victories in determining its champion.
But like open-face helmets, that dusty logic belongs to another era. The only way for NASCAR to be relevant in the fall, when its Sunday afternoon events go head-to-head with the NFL, is to freight each of the 10 Chase races with as much meaning as possible. This new system does that.
Will it open the door for a mid-pack driver to fluke his way to the championship? I spoke to about a dozen drivers earlier this week in Charlotte, and not of them believed it would. "The cream will still rise," Jimmie Johnson said. "The best drivers and the best teams will still be in the same position to win the championship at the end of the season as they've always been."
"An also-ran team won't win the title under this system," said Earnhardt Jr. "When it matters most, and it will really matter there at the end, the best drivers will show you why they're the best."
France has been an easy target in recent years—lord knows, he's made several mistakes that have contributed to NASCAR's astonishing decline in popularity (his introduction of the winged Car of Tomorrow in 2007 tops that list)—but give him credit now. On Thursday, he tacitly admitted that the Chase, which he implemented in 2004, wasn't resonating with fans and was, in fact, fostering less-than-thrilling season finales. Last season Jimmie Johnson finished (yawn) ninth at Homestead to win the championship.
When you're the boss, inaction is usually the easiest path. But on Thursday, France gutted the core value of the sport. Consistency, for the first time in NASCAR history, is no longer more important than winning when it comes to hoisting the big trophy at the end of the season.
It's a good move. It's far too early for NASCAR to announce, "Gentlemen, we're starting our comeback," but perhaps this will kickstart the sputtering sport.