Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: NASCAR Announces Chase Changes While Fan Opinions Fall on Deaf Ears

Monday, NASCAR Chairman Brian France announced the long-awaited changes to the points system as it pertains to points awarded drivers for winning a Nextel Cup race. Additionally, France informed the assembled news media that the Chase format would be augmented to include 12 drivers from the present 10. Sounds like something I’d be in full support of, right?

Well, you’re wrong. In the past, I have been criticized for my support of many of NASCAR’s decisions to implement major changes, including the development of the CoT, the welcoming of foreign auto manufacturers into Cup racing and the change to the Chase to the Nextel Cup points system.

Good heavens! I even wrote an article last year praising Brian France for his innovativeness and boldness in implementing the controversial championship playoff system entitled “Thanks, Mr. France.” I bring this up only to illustrate that despite the chuckles and snickering (yes, I hear them!) when I come out in support of an initially unpopular decision by NASCAR, I am open-minded to the notion that their ultimate desire is to give stock car fans a first-class show. But I will not give credit to the sanctioning body when they deliberately ignore and/or deceive their supporters.

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The issue foremost in the fans’ minds was the awarding of more points for a win. The fan reasoning is sound. They have grown tired of drivers finishing anywhere in the top 10-15 in a race and declaring it a good points day, with the perception being that there just are not enough points awarded for wins to be an incentive to race “flat out” for a win. NASCAR’s answer to this concern was to increase the points for a win by an additional, and I might say, paltry five points.

Presently the winner receives 185 points and can gain another five bonus points for leading the most laps. The second-place driver is guaranteed 170 points and can gain five bonus points for leading a lap, and another five-point bonus for leading the most laps, resulting in a 180-point day. But now, under the much-deliberated change it has been determined by the NASCAR’s “brain trust” that adding another five points to the winner’s total will remedy the fans expressed concerns that the points system does not put enough emphasis on winning.

And there is even more to the plan! Drivers winning races will be seeded in the Chase by the number of wins they garner in the first 26 races. A 10-point bonus will be given for each win after the points are reset at 5,000 for the Chase eligible drivers. As an example, Kasey Kahne with his five regular season wins in 2006 would have received 50 additional points for those five wins. Matt Kenseth, with four wins, would have earned 40 additional points.

However, if a driver with, let’s say, two wins fails to make the Chase, there are no additional points awarded to that driver. Why? Or better yet, why not just give the winner the additional points upon winning the race? Those extra points may be what are needed by that driver to qualify for the Chase or to stay within the Top 35 in the owner points standings.

It takes some thought to really see through the smoke that Brian France set off at the announcement of this plan. The bonus is only being increased by five points for winning a race! The 10-point bonus credited at the time that the Chase field is set is a one-time bonus, awarded well after the wins for only those race winning drivers during the first 26 races that also become eligible for the Chase. During the 10-race Chase, a win will only amount to five points more in 2007 than it did in 2006.

Winning a Nextel Cup race in today’s ultra-competitive environment is a big deal, and there is justification for a large increase in points to be awarded for the accomplishment. Fans know that drivers will get a little further up on the wheel to gain, or not lose an additional 25-50 points. That is all they have asked from NASCAR, significantly more points for a win. NASCAR answered with a convoluted system that will not scratch the itch and then had the audacity to tell their fans that they did.

France stated, “We feel this will enhance a competitive environment. Whether there are big things or little, it all goes back to one thing – making wins more important. The new system arrives at that intersection with a perfect balance.”

What Brian France did was similar to a magician’s “slight of hand” trick, wherein you are led to believe you saw something that you really didn’t. In this case, you are being led to believe you heard something is being done that isn’t really being done. There needs to be enough of a points increase for a race in March to make a driver running in second place dive even a little further into a turn than he would otherwise think prudent, just to win a race. Five extra points is simply not enough for that to happen.

What occurred instead with this announcement is NASCAR deceptively tied race fans desire to increase the points margin for a win, with their desire to expand the already widely disliked Chase format. Voila! ‘Look, we increased the points for winning a race by 15 points, oh, and by the way, 10 of those points will be only awarded if the winning driver in the April race qualifies for the Chase. Oh yeah, also, we’ve decided to have 12 instead of 10 drivers in the Chase configuration that you probably already don’t like, but we’re going to rank them by their total number of wins. So see, we did what you fans said you wanted.’

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No, NASCAR did what only they wanted. That’s to increase the number of Chase eligible drivers to 12, in hopes that they have now made more certain that there will be no repeats of the past two championship Chases, which have seen mega-stars such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart fail to make the playoff.

Though admittedly a supporter of the Chase to the Championship, even I know that the Chase’s acceptance by NASCAR loyalists is lukewarm, at best. And even supporters such as myself are not in favor of expanding the Chase field to 12 drivers. Not even the fans of those that have not made the Chase in the past have ever advocated increasing the eligible number of drivers.

France, though, believes that the Chase is a rousing success, “The Chase has been successful because it has done what it was designed to do – give more drivers an opportunity to win the championship,” he said. “It has re-energized our sport. And now, a good thing is about to get better.”

Why on earth would any reasonably intelligent person think that a 12th-place driver, maybe 1,000 points out of the points lead, should be given an opportunity to win the Nextel Cup championship with only 10 races remaining? Granted, there is an argument against even the 10th-place driver ever having been eligible, but 12?

This all leads me to believe that there is a real disconnect between the hierarchy of NASCAR and the common folks affectionately known as fans. The changes implemented for 2007 alone will not impact the sport negatively in any drastic measures. Nor are they likely to in anyway enhance the sport or make it more attractive.

But the sanctioning body missed a great opportunity to mend some fences with a large number of its fans. Some of the sting of losing the Southern 500 at Darlington, the closing of Rockingham, apprehension over the radically different CoT and even the implementation of the still widely disliked Chase to the Nextel Cup Championship could have been soothed by simply doing as fans had overwhelmingly asked for, just give significantly more points to a driver for a win!

Not hocus-pocus.

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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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