In November, NASCAR simultaneously dodged a bullet and ended up with one of the best championship races in its history. Kevin Harvick won the final race at Homestead, Fla., and the 2014 series title, too.
It worked out splendidly – and it was very close to working out badly. Ryan Newman had somehow made the final four of the newly revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup, and he very nearly won it all without winning a race.
Newman finished second that Sunday, and only Harvick edging him by exactly half a second kept it all sounding OK for the average sports fan.
To my way of thinking, NASCAR’s new Chase format remains terrific for the most part. But it needs to close that one obvious loophole – no one should be allowed to win the title without winning a single race.
To NASCAR’s way of thinking, though, nothing needed to change. Brian France, NASCAR’s CEO, said Monday in the kickoff event of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour that everything this season about the Chase would stay exactly the same.
“One of the magical parts of this Chase, and we want to make sure we keep it this way, is the simplicity of it,” France said. “Win and you get in.”
That’s the thing, though – Newman didn’t win, but he still got in. He qualified for the 16-driver playoffs not with a victory, but with a slew of good finishes.
As the field kept shrinking throughout the playoffs, he kept making the cut for the same reason. Newman did nothing wrong. That’s the way the rules were written, and that’s why they need to change.
I believe in the format that Dale Jarrett, the NASCAR Hall of Famer and TV analyst, envisioned when I spoke to him just before that race in Homestead.
Jarrett said the Chase should be tweaked so that if a driver made it to the final four without a win all season, he would only get to claim the championship with a win in the last race. Otherwise, the title goes to the highest finisher in Homestead who has won at least one race that season.
NASCAR didn’t take Jarrett up on that one, or anybody else on any other suggestion. It is operating on the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy, while I am operating on “if it’s a little bit broke, do fix just that one part” philosophy.
France said nothing needed fixing, though, because NASCAR’s fans had so embraced the new format. And there’s no doubt that resetting the field for the Homestead finale, so that the top four enter the race with an equal number of points, was a stroke of genius.
“It’s overwhelmingly popular with the most important stakeholder: our fans,” France said of the Chase. “The research and data that we’ve got in over the winter not only suggests that, it determines that loud and clear. They like the fact that it tightened up competition.
“They liked the drama down the stretch. They liked the emphasis on winning. And one of the things they told us that they really liked is the idea that we weren’t going to change anything, and they strongly suggested that we didn’t. And we’re not going to.”
France told me once that a possible champion without a race victory wouldn’t be a black mark on the sport, but should instead be considered like an NFL team that enters the playoffs with a losing record, then gets hot and wins the Super Bowl. I understand the argument, but I don’t buy it.
With that said, NASCAR under France’s leadership is generally in good shape. Reports of the sport’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Yes, important tracks such as Charlotte and Talladega have torn out thousands of seats that are no longer needed because of declining attendance. Yes, TV ratings have been mostly dropping for a decade.
But sports events are one of the few things people will watch live, rather than DVR-ing them so they can skip the commercials. That means advertisers will pay a premium for ads on those telecasts, and that means networks will pay NASCAR a premium to broadcast them.
NASCAR’s new set of TV deals with Fox and NBC are for a staggering amount – a 10-year contract that, reports say, will net NASCAR a combined $8.2 billion through the 2024 season. It’s a huge increase in TV money.
So NASCAR is not going away. Instead, it is becoming a reality TV show. There’s no shame in that. The NFL is going that way, too. High-definition TVs have made the at-home experience so good that it is getting harder to attract fans to pro sports venues across America.
I just think the Chase could have benefited from that one tweak. Make sure your overall winner actually wins a race. Is that really too much to ask?