When you think about postseason sports, the general idea you have is probably pretty standard: teams in the league play a regular season, a certain amount of them move into the playoffs, and are then systematically eliminated at varying intervals until one champion remains. For all of its 50+ year history, NASCAR didn’t operate that way. Racing is different, it can’t be measured the same way.
During the annual state of the sport address Thursday, NASCAR chairman Brian France announced sweeping changes to the sport’s Chase for the Sprint Cup (NASCAR’s version of the playoffs) that will now look much similar to the postseason play of other sports, with brackets and eliminations. It’s a bold move for a sport that, while still insanely popular, has seen dwindling attendance and television ratings since its heyday in the ’90s. It’s also, if you trust Twitter and Reddit, a stupid move–the NASCAR equivalent of jumping the shark, a gimmick rooted in lunacy that will serve to destroy the sport from within.
Don’t trust Twitter and Reddit. That’s a rabbit hole that will result in nothing but downvotes and a stream of people who feel the need to tell everyone else that they aren’t going to watch anymore, all the while celebrating every thing that happened in the past. Nostalgia’s great, but don’t live your life consumed by it.
NASCAR headed down the path that led to Thursday’s announcement all the way back in 2004. At the time when it dubbed “The Matt Kenseth Rule,” due to Kenseth running away with the championship in 2003 despite winning only one race all season, the Chase was established to make the middle of the season more competitive and exciting for fans. The formats have changed slightly from year to year, but the gist involved a set number of drivers qualifying for the Chase, the final 10 points races of the 36-race season. Those qualifying drivers would have their points reset prior to the start of the Chase, essentially creating a fresh start for those eligible to compete for the championship. It led to some exciting moments, including Kurt Busch taking the title by only eight points in the Chase’s inaugural year, and the battle between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart in the final race of the 2011 season, resulting in a tie atop the points standings that had to be settled by who won the most races.
But that wasn’t enough.
Dogged in his pursuit of “Game 7 moments,” France’s new format introduces the aforementioned elimination style competition, but also puts an even greater emphasis on winning. Under the new format, 16 drivers will qualify for the Chase after the 26-race regular season. Any driver who wins during the regular season is locked in for the playoffs, even if they won a race and are sitting 40th in points by the time the Chase rolls around. If there aren’t 16 unique winners, the rest of the Chase field will be determined by the points standings. Still with me? Let’s continue.
The 10 races in the Chase will comprise a total of four “rounds” to determine the champion. The Challenger Round consists of the first three races of the Chase. After those three races, 12 drivers remain. Any Chase driver who wins one of the Challenger Round races will advance, and the rest is set on points. Then, those points are reset. The Contender Round is the next three races, with only 8 drivers remaining after those are complete. Once again, any Chase driver who wins in the Contender Round moves on, and the rest is set on points. The Eliminator Round consists of races 7-9 in the Chase, and will determine the final four drivers eligible for the title. The same advancement rules apply. The final race of the season is a winner take all affair between the four remaining drivers, with bonus points not applicable. In other words, of those four drivers, whoever finishes the highest wins the championship.
For fans of most sports, it’s actually pretty easy to understand, as it looks a lot like other playoff systems. And for the most part (don’t tell Reddit I said this) it’s a pretty great idea. As more and more options become available for sports fans and other events seek to take their attention, NASCAR needed to do something to show it wasn’t going to sit idly by and lose viewers. Not only will this move bring in more casual fans, it truly will make every race important. Not for all drivers (because if you win the first race, you can technically coast until the Chase starts), but for those who haven’t won yet, every race is an opportunity to make the playoffs. Even for smaller teams like Front Row Motorsports, who got one victory last year with David Ragan at Talladega. With this format, Ragan would have made the Chase. That kind of exposure, even if (and this is likely) Ragan bombed the first three races and was eliminated, does wonders for smaller teams and their sponsors.
What’s more interesting, especially for folks who aren’t the biggest fans of that guy who drives the #48 – Jimmie Johnson – this format would have drastically cut into the amount of trophies he has in his living room. A report by NASCARnomics shows that if all seasons had been contested under the new points system, Johnson would have only two career Sprint Cup trophies, not the six he’s piled up now. Obviously, things would change had drivers been forced to compete under this system, and strategies would differ, but still it’s interesting to look at. And for Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, he would have won the title last year with this system. That fact is ironic considering this new system supposedly places a higher emphasis on winning, and Earnhardt didn’t do that in 2013, but a look at the other years shows this was an anomaly, as to win the title under the new points structure, you’re going to need to visit Victory Lane at least once.
The only thing NASCAR got wrong with this proposal is making the championship-deciding race a single event. This is where the drastic differences between stick and ball sports and NASCAR most comes into play. In the NFL, if you’re in the Super Bowl, you might have a bad game, you might lose your quarterback to injury, but you’ll lose the game because the other team beat you. In NASCAR, those four drivers racing for the title won’t be alone on the track. There will be 39 other drivers still racing for the win, and if one of them screws up and takes you out – looking at you, Danica – your championship hopes are gone, taken away not by you or your direct opponents, but by a non-contender. If you think the epic temper tantrums we’ve seen from the likes of Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch are bad now, wait until they make that final race and lose it because they got caught up in somebody’s else mess.
But, at least for the near future, that’s where we’re at. NASCAR will announce more details in the coming weeks, and hopefully the plan is to change the season-ending race from year to year, to add a new wrinkle for competitors and not have drivers tackling the same track year in and year out.
It’s going to be a big year for NASCAR, one way or another. A new knockout-style qualifying process will make even the race before the race much more exciting, and it’s a change that’s been met with almost unanimous praise. The new points system hasn’t gone over quite so well, but France and co. claim extensive research has shown most fans approve, and I’m inclined to believe them. It’s easy to pine for the “good ol’ days” and say the top brass are ruining the sport, but change is inevitable, and this change was made with the intention of making the season more exciting and attracting new fans to the already loyal backbone of NASCAR. If this sounds like a press release, I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s as doom and gloom as everybody else. This is a new era for NASCAR, and while there are still some things that don’t necessarily seem great, like the single championship race, it’s a step in a new, and very interesting direction.
And if this is all still just too overwhelming to wrap your head around, just remember: Jimmie Johnson will probably just find a way to dominate this damn system too.