Frank Likes The Chase...Kind Of
(A note from the author: I was getting ready to send this posting in when RFF founder Jim Fitzgerald covered some of the same ground last week. I held off to see if I should re-write, then decided not to do that, so here are my thoughts on one issue he also covered, still written as if he didn’t beat me to the punch.)
Somebody has to do it.
Somebody has to be the contrarian, or maybe just the grouch. It may get me yelled at, but I accept the mantle. We have multiple writers on this Internet outpost, and if you’ve decided to put up with us, you deserve some differences of opinion. Here goes.
I kind of like the Chase.
I say “kind of” because I really don’t like the big-time college football playoffs, so maybe “kind of” makes me less inconsistent. You can believe that or not.
Most of my esteemed colleagues here (other than Jim) don’t like the Chase at all, and that’s their right, but when they blame it for most of NASCAR’s ills, I think they’re wrong, and here’s my case.
The Biggie: You can’t blame the Chase for the decline in Sprint Cup attendance. The Chase was implemented in 2004, and Cup attendance remained at its high plain for about five years after that. At Charlotte, for instance, attendance figures (remember when we had those?) were as follows for the two Cup races each year:
2004 180,000 & 140,000
2005 165,000 & 165,000
2006 175,000 & 170,000
2007 175,000 & 165,000
2008 160.000 & 160,000
2009 100,000 $ 106,000 (rain postponement in May)
2010 145,000 & 103,000
2011 145,000 & 105,000
2012 145,000 & 100,000
2013 deep dark secret
Richmond looks similar, with attendance of 100,000-115,000 for each race from 2004-2009, than a dip into the 90,000s and 80,000s by 2012. The deep dark secret, of course, is that they’ve continued to decline after that.
By 2009, we were dealing with the Great Recession, and I suspect that hurt and continues to hurt attendance a lot, but the other thing that happened then was the Car of Tomorrow, which Brian France last year called NASCAR’s worst mistake. I would suggest that the COT and the economy had lots more to do with NASCAR’s decline than the Chase (although if you want to argue that the Chase hasn’t been the miracle to bring everything back to its rosy peak, I guess you could). There are other issues, too, but I’ll deal with them in a follow-up post later.
Reason #2: Historical blinders.
Many who ceaselessly slam the Chase forget how much discontent there was with the point system that it replaced. That one rewarded consistency to the point where it might be characterized as mediocrity. Twenty years ago, for example, Terry Labonte (I’m definitely not calling him mediocre) won the Cup Championship over Jeff Gordon even though Gordon won 10 races to Labonte’s 2 – they had equal numbers of Top5s and Top 10s. That’s like the NFL awarding the championship to a team that won fewer games but didn’t have any disastrously bad days.
The only good thing about that point system – known forever to old-timers as the one Bob Latford devised and wrote out on a napkin or his sleeve or something – was that it replaced one that was much worse. That even earlier system awarded points based on how big a race’s purse was, and it was used in the days when the variation between races was much greater than today. Fifty years ago, Fred Lorenzen drove only 11 of 1966’s 49 races (winning 2), but he finished six spots higher in the points than Tiny Lund, who drove 20 more races and had a win himself. In 1963, Lorenzen came pretty close to winning the championship despite running in barely half the races, and Fireball Roberts finished fifth in points, despite running barely one-third of the events.
No system for determining a champion is perfect, but to declare the Chase the worst of NASCAR’s sorry lot is more than a stretch.
Reason #3: It’s the way the sports world works.
How many Chase detractors are NFL fans who can’t wait for the playoffs, even if the Super Bowl might be won by a team that got into the show as a wild card? Yes, I know the lousy teams don’t get to keep playing, but racing is just different that way; nobody wants to see a handful of cars run 500 miles.
EVERYBODY has playoffs, starting in Little League, where the postseason seems to last longer than the real season . . . or maybe that IS the real season, and we parents of also-ran teams are just along to provide more hot dog sales. Big-time college football didn’t have playoffs, and you’d think that was a bigger scandal than (fill in any one that involves a politician you don’t like). And with the NCAA, most of the other teams even get to continue playing, even if it’s in the Pete’s BBQ, Cider & Shoeshine Bowl out there on a high school field in Pete’s hometown (pop. 377). If the Chase had been cooked up in 1995, I think it would have added to NASCAR’s meteoric rise, even if it wouldn’t have prevented the subsequent crash.
So what’s the bottom line, Mr. Big-shot writer?
I think it’s complicated, but I think the biggest Brian France hater out there wouldn’t suggest publicly that we go back to the days when the race winner might be the only car on the lead lap or when less than a quarter of the cars in the starting field had even a remote chance of winning. The problem is that everybody takes for granted the NASCAR accomplishment of incredibly close competition because that makes it easier to scapegoat the big corporate machine for whatever’s gone wrong. Trouble is, the two go together. Without centrally designed, nearly equal cars, it’s a lot easier for somebody to run away with the race (or season).
My feeling is that we need to take some baby steps back in the “old days” direction, so that the cars return to actually being Chevys, Fords, Toyotas or whatever, and the driver plays a bigger role – Tony Stewart was on the money when he said that’s not the case anymore. They have to be baby steps, though, because big steps were what gave us the Car of Tomorrow and might just have started this whole mess.
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. It’s getting kind of late for lots of rotten tomatoes to be lying around, but those with access to them may toss them. I was planning to make some spaghetti sauce, anyway.
Frank’s odds ‘n’ ends – I’ve said before that one problem with Monday-morning Quarterbacking (or Checkered-Flagging) about NASCAR is that those with the great ideas that surely will save the sport don’t have to stand behind them when the financial consequences hit. Offer to pay for all the losses if Brian adopts your idea and it doesn’t work, and he’d be at least a little more likely to listen. I still haven’t heard anybody do this.