Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Tweaking the Chase or Tweaking off Fans?

One of the big changes expected this year is modifications to the Chase. One is a tweaking of the point system. That is a large task, and is a lot to chew on (I’ll try to break it down in another entry). The other expected change is opening up the Chase field to more drivers. The current limit of ten drivers will apparently rise to at least 12. That means that over quarter of the field is eligible for the Chase. Under the current model NASCAR’s playoff is the most elite of the professional sports with a playoff. Of the major sports, which NASCAR considers itself, only NCAA men’s basketball has a smaller percentage of teams make its playoff, and that is only because Division 1 basketball has 334 teams.

NCAA Football 64 of 117=54.7%
NBA 16 of 30=53.3%
NHL 16 of 30=53.3%
NFL 12 of 32=37.5%
MLB 8 of 30=26.6%
NASCAR 10 of 43=23.2%
NCAA D1 Basketball 65 of 334=19.4%

It’s basic economics: the fewer spots available the more prestigious each spot is. Increasing the number of drivers also increases the chances of an undeserving team walking away with the title. Jeff Gordon won three of the first nine races in 2005. After that he was wildly inconsistent during the summer. He did not make the Chase and didn’t deserve to. If the field is widened, Gordon makes it in, along with Elliott Sadler who had 0 wins, and 1 top five after Richmond. That’s a very diluted field. What happens if Gordon got hot and scored the most points in the last ten races? The 26-race “regular season” should count for something too.

The current ten-driver ceiling also allows for any driver within 400 points of the leader. If a driver is that close to the top teams, he deserves to make the Chase. In three years that has not happened. That is pretty good evidence that ten drivers (or less) is a natural limit.

The motive for expanding the playoffs is granting more exposure to more sponsors. Sponsors of cars that miss the Chase probably do not get the return on their investment that the top cars do. It’s a valid point, but Chase or not, the top cars will always get more attention. They shouldn’t have the power to dictate how a championship is decided.

Instead of appeasing the sponsors with more Chase slots, how about NASCAR pressuring the TV networks to make the coverage less Chase heavy? If Jimmie Johnson is currently running 22nd and a non-Chase driver is leading the race, show the leader. If Matt Kenseth struggles all day, it is not a story that needs constant coverage. Take that camera and focus it on Dave Blaney running fifth.

There are plenty of ways to get exposure during the Chase. Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle garnered attention by winning races. Brian Vickers captured the spotlight by wrecking the most popular driver plus his teammate. And he won a Chase race. Not everyone can make the Chase or win races. Michael Waltrip crashed early, ensuring an interview to drop sponsors’ names.

This move also poses the risk to non-Chase races. Races like Bristol, California and Richmond have added importance as the final races before the Chase. With more teams assured spots, there is less drama. This past season at Richmond Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart and Mark Martin all dangled off the edge of a cliff. One was guaranteed to fall. With the new system none of the three would really sweat as long as they finished the race.

Maybe the biggest problem I have with changes to the Chase is the timing. The Chase was only implemented three seasons ago. Constant tweaking will only do harm. Some years the Chase will be great (2004), some years the best driver will dominate (2005) and some years it will be dull (2006). It happens in all sports, but NASCAR is the only one that seems too impatient to let things solidify. If the sport’s leaders can’t sit still, how can they expect fans to?

It's reaching crunch time for the driver previews. I'm down to the top 20 drivers plus some of the top rookies. I hope you've enjoyed them as much as I have. I will continue with the previews again on Monday. There are so many other things to cover I needed a quick break. With real NASCAR news begins cropping up again (ie something other than family feuds and drivers falling off golf carts.) there are a few things to say.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,