On October, 20 2016, Frank Buhrman posted an interesting article entitled "Frank Likes the Chase...Kind Of". As expected, his well-reasoned article created some rather lively discussions among the readership. In it, Frank proposed a challenge of sorts when he stated,
"We also can take baby steps to continue tweaking the Chase, but I’m not ready to return to crowning the Cup champ with three races to go in the season, and I kind of like the winner-take-all feeling at Homestead."
Though he never identified what kind of baby steps he felt were needed, I thought I would offer my two cents worth on the topic even though, for the record, I think it’s safe to say that I’m a’gin it (as they say around these parts).
I won’t repeat my reasons for my opposition here as they can be viewed in part in the comment section on Frank’s article and besides, the purpose here isn’t to rehash those discussions, but to focus on the baby steps for improving the methodology.
But as Frank describes in his challenge, the current Chase system does prevent crowning a champ with three races to go, forcing it to go to the final race. In other sports such as baseball, a team sweeping the World Series in four games used to be viewed as a mark of greatness. But in our auto racing series crowning a champion with races remaining is viewed as boring and something that must be avoided like the plague or maybe more accurately avoided like a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota leading the pack at a Talladega Chase race.
The result - the Chase.
What never gets mentioned however, is while addressing that concern and producing artificial excitement, that same Chase also robs us of any chance to have more than four drivers competing for the championship in the final race, like we had when six drivers started the 1992 Hooters 500 in Atlanta with a chance to win the Cup. Now that was a championship race!
Sorry, I digress.
But after a dozen years and multiple missed opportunities to rid the sport of this contrivance to crown a champ, it's pretty obvious to even the staunchest opponents that the Chase is not going away anytime soon. And sadly, after a few more years of it we will have an entire segment of fans who will know no other way to crown a Cup Champion than through this contrivance.
So with the Sanctioning Body’s commitment to this methodology, baby steps of possible improvements are probably the only hope we have. And for those who are in the a’gin it crowd, that is unfortunately, little to no hope at all.
But with all that said, what baby steps can be taken to put lipstick on this hog called the Chase (no disrespect meant to pigs) and make this a bit more attractive? When you consider the politics, economics, prides and egos involved, I’m not even sure baby steps are a realistic possibility, but for this exercise we’ll assume they are. So what baby steps can we take?
All that said, I believe there is little hope for modifying the Chase itself. To quote Mike Helton, “It is what it is” and I believe the Sanctioning Body is quite pleased with its efforts and its resulting product. After umpteen tweaks and versions over the last dozen years there is little left to mess with. They have reached the pinnacle and I think any modifications to the present methodology would be a move down. There, I said it… and you have no idea how difficult that was for me to do.
But given the fact that as long as the current regime is in place, this is what we have. We can like it if we want (I don’t and seriously doubt I ever will) but they really don’t care if we do and make no bones about it.
To me, the only area you can realistically monkey with for now is when the Chase is run and what races are included in it. I believe that once you get past the contrivance issue, the Competition Caution Championship if you will, the Chase’s only chance to build interest, excitement and momentum is it must start earlier in the sports calendar with Bristol, not Richmond being the cutoff race. Why? The reason is three-fold.
First, to increase interest, the Chase has to start before the beginning of the NFL season, NFL fantasy football draft, and the growing sports force - college football. Race fans, more often than not, are also fans of these other sports. So it is critical to get them hooked into the Chase, get them vested in it before these competing interests come on-line. By moving the cutoff up earlier in the season, the Chase has a much better chance accomplish that.
Second, Show of hands ...Which track would you rather see multiple drivers digging to make the cutoff for the Chase-Bristol or Richmond? ISC employees and current or former Richmond employees are not allowed to vote. Good. It's unanimous. Bristol it is.
Third, the lineup for the three races in the first Chase segment now becomes Michigan, Darlington, Richmond which I think most fans would agree is a much more attractive lineup than the current Chase kickoff of Chicagoland (ugh), New Hampshire (double ugh) and Dover.
Currently, having the first Chase race in Chicagoland sucks any and all excitement out of racing that may have been created at the cutoff race at Richmond. It defeats the purpose and talk about a letdown!
The new lineup of Michigan, Darlington and Richmond builds on the excitement created at Bristol by offering an intriguing variety of tracks for the first elimination round (don’t you just love that term? Every time I hear it I can’t help but think of a laxative commercial or the aftermath of a hot dog eating competition).
The two miles in the Irish Hills, the Lady in Black and back to the short track at Richmond for the first Chase Elimination Race. Diverse. Interesting. And not a cookie-cutter track among them. Interested? Now comes the tough part.
How to accomplish this? I see three ways – maybe you see more.
1) Shorten the season three races by removing three Current Chase races.
The only way this is going to happen in the current environment is it’s going to have to start forming some very serious ice in very hot places and I’m talking about a place hotter than Talladega in July. Highly unlikely but an option all the same.
2) Move three of the current Chase races out of the Chase into the regular season. Which races need to come out is open to later discussion.
3) Expand the Chase by adding an additional round. The Chase now becomes 20 Chasers - 13 races, which should elate all the Chase fans.
Personally, I like option 1. The season is too long. It has been too long for a long time. Fans, even diehard fans face race fatigue over the course of a thirty six race season, and once they burn out and stop viewing, it takes a major change to get them back and rebuild that momentum. And that’s our long term fans. We lose the new ones long before that. That’s why at the end of August everyone is ready for football instead of the Chase. Shortening the season would minimize that.
Think about it, if the season was shortened as described, we would be long since done now. We reach our crescendo, we crown our Cup Winner and get out before the NFL season heats up, before CFB playoffs shape up and Major League baseball crowns its champion.
In this scenario, our sport doesn't get lost in the clutter and noise of competing sports. At one time that wasn't important as we were big enough to withstand it – but things have changed and unfortunately now we can’t. Now, the Chase just gets buried in the shuffle known as sports entertainment.
But with the millions and millions of dollars involved and contract obligations there is no way such a choice would be made. And it’s hardly a baby step. But it’s out there because I believe it would improve the Chase.
Now Option 2, which involves moving three current Chase races out of the Chase and into the regular season, offers all the advantages of Option 1 except it intensifies the burnout factor.
Once you start at Daytona, there would be no breaks and that’s definitely a downer. But this option gets us out of the clutter by shifting the Chase to an earlier and more favorable time on the sports calendar while maintaining the current incoming money flow to NASCAR, teams and tracks. I think it would help the Chase, but the grind created would be hellish.
Option 3 of adding another round to the Chase would be the path of least resistance and based on recent decisions, I can see the one most likely adopted by the Sanctioning Body. The expansion changes the Chase dynamics some, which would likely offend some Chase purist and would no doubt drive even more of the a’gin it group away from the sport.
But such a move would move the cutoff race to a more favorable track, would move the Chase start to a less congested time in the sports calendar as well, without intensifying the grind. Such a switch would provide a much more exciting first three races to build interest and momentum for the Chase and hopefully that could be sustained as we enter the lineup of dregs found in the new Second Elimination Round.
As a fan who is in the a’gin it group, it pains me deeply to write such words, because the next to last thing I want to see is more Chase. But no matter your feelings on the subject, if you take Frank’s challenge to improve the Chase, Chase expansion has to be a baby step consideration.
So there, that’s about the only baby steps I see available to improve the Chase. If you have other thoughts please share, because even though I’m a’gin it, I am interested in possibilities to improve the sport – or see what shade of lipstick might look best on this little piggy.
As I close, and as I think about the current state of the sport, I can’t help but go back to that April 8th, 2000 Saturday Night Live sketch with Christopher Walken as music producer The Bruce Dickinson, Will Ferrell as cowbell player Gene Frenkle with group Blue Oyster Cult recording the band’s biggest hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”.
Known as “More Cowbell”, the skit features producer The Bruce Dickinson’s solution to improving the bands “dynamite sound” is to repeatedly insist on something that is out of place and they already have too much of to begin with… More Cowbell.
I couldn’t help replay the skit in my mind and think of how aptly it describes NASCAR today. Instead of Blue Oyster Cult, who are just trying to record their song in as pure a manner as possible, they were fans who want their champion determined in a simple, pure way.
Of course, Mike Helton would have to be the cowbell playing Gene Frenkle. And The Bruce Dickinson would be none other than our very own The Brian Z. France, and the mantra is no longer “More Cowbell” but “More Chase, Baby”.
With this in mind, play the skit in your mind again and see if it’s not applicable to today’s NASCAR. If you don’t remember it, click here to refresh your memory.
As you cue it up, think a stick and ball application offensively inserted in a place where it doesn’t belong, like a cowbell in this rock and roll classic. The man in charge’s idea of how to make things better is to demand more of what is wrong. And the insistence to push the Chase into other series, is no different than The Bruce Dickinson’s charge for Frenkle to “really explore the studio space this time”.
When Frenkle made his impassioned speech to the band, I could see Helton addressing the fans…
Helton: “I’m standing here, staring at racing legend, Brian Z. France.”
France: “The cock of the walk, baby!”
Helton: “And if Brian Z. France wants more Chase, we should probably give him more Chase!”
France: “Say it, baby!”
Helton: “But the last time I checked we don’t have a whole lot of series that feature the Chase.”
France: “I gotta have more Chase, baby!”
Helton: “… And I’d be doing myself a disservice and every member of the NASCAR nation if I didn’t push the Hell out of this!”
France: “Guess what? I got a fever! And the only prescription… is more Chase, baby!”
And as the band/fans relent and accept the cowbell/Chase, the fans accept or for the love of their music accept France’s closing promise -
France: “Babies… before we’re done here… y’all be wearing gold-plated diapers.”
If you’re confused and ask what does that mean, you’ll be told…
France: “Never question Brian Z. France! Roll it!”
One, two, three, four…
The Chase has been in place now a dozen years or so. The Sanctioning Body views it as the way to improve racing like a cowbell improves a song. And as the Chase has now moved into other series, it’s the prescription for our leader’s fever.
Although I thoroughly despise the way the Sanctioning Body crowns the Cup winner, over the last six weeks this fan has freely given the Sanctioning Body all the cowbell it might want.
In this article, I’ve admitted that the format is probably as good as it gets. But like a colonoscopy, just because the format for it is good, doesn’t mean that I enjoy it. Even so, this fan has offered alternatives in scheduling to maximize any positive impacts that it might actually produce.
In earlier articles, this fan outlined ways to “Chase-ify” everything about the sport, from using “20-20” as a “Chase for the Race” to set each race’s starting grid, to applying the beloved Chase methodology to determine individual race winners in the “Chase for the Checkers” (which for reasons I have yet to understand, though it uses nearly identical methodology, Chase for the Cup fans aren’t so eager to embrace the Chase format for individual races… go figure).
With all this, I think Mike Helton now has all the cowbell he needs to freely bounce around, with his cowbell, I mean Chase, exploring the entire studio known as the NASCAR series.
The Sanctioning Body can “Chase” everything it wants, it’s leader can demand “More Chase” as a way to improve things but only time will tell if these actions will “Chase” fans back to seats in the stands and back to their couches in front of their TV sets on race day.
And that, race fans is the most important “Chase” of all.
Till then, I’m waiting for my gold-plated diaper, baby!
And “More Cowbell, baby!”
[Editorial comment: If we started the Chase at Daytona in February, we could have a 36-race Chase. Definitely worth a try!]