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Is a fourth round of changes in 11 years to NASCAR's playoffs more than viewers can handle?
Stop, NASCAR. Just please, stop right now. Hit the pause button. Let’s all take a breath and ponder for a moment.
NASCAR, we know you’re wont to send up trial balloons every so often, and the leaked proposal to drastically alter the Chase for the Championship playoff format — and thus the very sport itself — is obviously a zeppelin-sized stethoscope on the chest of the fanbase.
We know you are closely monitoring fan reaction; that Fan and Media Engagement Center is getting a workout about now. Caller feedback on SIRIUS XM’s NASCAR channel is being noted and measured. Hopefully, folks are filling your inbox with thoughts and opinions via email that you’re tabulating. And hopefully, the brass safely tucked away in that ivory Daytona Beach tower are in the process of measuring twice before cutting once.
All that said, allow me to wander for a bit.
NASCAR, please, just stop. ... You’re not a stick ‘n’ ball sport. However, Your unwavering determination to become one has us teetering on the brink of divorce.
But every now and then a situation arises that challenges those “fan vs. professional” pitfalls that have been dutifully and strategically programmed into my brain. The Charlotte Observer’s report late last week has managed to dodge and weave said mental pitfalls like Indiana Jones carrying a golden statuette in a South American rainforest.
So for the first time in over a decade, I’m putting my professional hat aside. If the Observer’s report is, in fact, a method for CEO Brian France, president Mike Helton, vice president of competition Robin Pemberton, et al, to gauge fan reaction then I’ll bite. After all, my passion for the sport, built over 25 years, led me to where I’ve been the last 12 years and what I do today.
So NASCAR, please, just stop. Your obsession with appealing to a new demographic has cost you the diehards that once filled your racetracks; it has cost you a television audience that was once there, but no longer is. You’re not a stick ‘n’ ball sport — and that’s why we fell in love with you in the first place! However, your unwavering determination to become one — and line your already deep pockets in the process — has us teetering on the brink of divorce. These points, though, have been discussed ad nauseam over the years, so I will not dwell.
France has often cited “Game 7 moments” as the goal for what his 10-race Chase format would provide. There have been a couple: Kurt Busch’s wheel coming plum off in the inaugural edition and the classic 2011 clash of Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are two unforgettable moments in the first 10 years of your playoffs, NASCAR.
That isn’t a bad percentage as “Game 7 moments” go. In fact, it’s just about right. After all, Joe Carter — though technically a Game 6 moment — doesn’t belt a walk-off home run to win the World Series every year. If he did, “the amazing” would become “the expected” and the wonderment of “Game 7 moments” would render said moments non-existent.
See NASCAR, that’s what has perplexed me over the last 10 years. As a fan, the ‘80s, ‘90s and early part of this century were magical times. Cars were racy, drivers were renegades and crew chiefs were salty, stubborn men I’d never cross. You truly didn’t know what mayhem would transpire each week, and every so often something like a Kulwicki vs. Elliott season finale mesmerized us all — I mean absolutely topped any crazy scenario I dreamt while using Hot Wheels to run the Kitchen Table 500. Your sport was still niche, but I was part of the niche, so it was high times. I was hooked, I’m telling ya.
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But then you went and started taking yourself too seriously, NASCAR. You’re like the rock ‘n’ roll bands of my youth: There was an edge and excitement that drew me in, but once you felt you’d hit the “big time,” it was more about the money, merchandise and endorsements than the music. As the great racing scribe Ed Hinton once noted, “greed does not regress.” The outlaw nature of the sport that appealed to me had been replaced by a safeness that guaranteed middle-of-the-road semi-popularity and lots and lots of cash.
However, NASCAR, once you realized that you didn’t actually have 75 million fans, sponsors were no longer plunking down $30 million to back teams and television ratings were no longer in the stratosphere, a playoff system was hatched in an attempt to mirror what worked for the National Football League. I was never fully sold because I was more interested in a rightful and deserving champion than how much money could be made. And I’ve never felt that tournaments work in a sport like auto racing. Make no mistake, the NFL playoffs and the NCAA’s basketball tourney are about making money just as much as they are about crowning a winner, but they work organically. The old “apples and oranges” adage applies well here.
Oh, but that first Chase was a doozy; I’ll give you that, NASCAR. It actually worked. But then you started tinkering with the system. And you haven’t stopped. Any changes that are announced over the coming weeks — and changes are coming — will mark the fourth points tweak in 11 years. That averages to a change to the playoff format — the way you determine your champion — once every two and three-quarter years! How are fans expected to view the championship (not the champion, mind you) with legitimacy if it’s ever-changing?
That brings me to the present day. Potentially, we could see an expanded Chase field (it’s gone from 10 drivers up to 12, then 13 and now possibly 16), built-in eliminations (although those happen naturally as-is) and, worst of all, points resets that would climax in a four-driver, winner-take-all, one-race setting for the championship.
NASCAR, a scenario such as this is nothing more than a blatant gimmick to attract viewers who, at best, will give you a ratings bump in four select races. Oh, you’ll have your “Game 7 moment” each year, but at what cost? At what point will those moments become the norm and not the memorable? And therefore, at what point will you, NASCAR, conclude that further tweaking must be done once again to satisfy your short-term advertising and ratings goals in an effort to wow the masses?
An emphasis on winning is great, but these reported changes are about much more than that. These changes shine a light on a sanctioning body more concerned with its bottom line than a sport’s credibility. And competition without credibility is simply entertainment, not sport.
The truth is that we don’t know what changes will be made to the Chase, only that change in some form seems likely. It may play out in the radical terms that the Observer outlined or fan feedback may talk NASCAR off the ledge. I hope it’s the latter. I so hope it’s the latter that I’m willing to push aside my professional duties and speak purely as a fan.
If gauging fan reaction is the goal of this most recent report then NASCAR, consider this article feedback from a life-long fan.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro