Race Weekend Central

Under Pressure

Nothing like a little tension to turn mishaps into full-blown mayhem. Welcome to the Contender Round of the Chase….

The events themselves are nothing different; they’re the same thing we saw the first 26 weeks of the season. What makes this slate of races so fascinating is the fact that they possess the elimination factor: poor performances for the top-16 teams during the final ten events means falling from championship contention.

And NASCAR could not be happier.

The Chase’s procedure enhances the customary spectator/performer dynamic by infusing it with artificially-induced pressure. Winning races is always the primary goal of Sprint Cup teams, but the format of the Chase circa 2014 added an additional level of stress. Not only did teams need to make the top-16 in order to have some shot at taking home the big prize, but they also needed to survival three arbitrarily-configured elimination points.

The mathematics made it as clear as mud: sixteen teams needed to navigate nine races and survive three reductions in order to make the final four and compete for the title based on the best performance in race number ten, otherwise known as event number 36 for the year.

Simple, no?

In a word: no. Gigabytes of Internet space have been devoted to the unfair nature of such a system. Critics vented loudly and often about the many manipulated methods devised to pump excitement into a practice seen (supposedly) as a dull tradition of determining Sprint Cup champions. Gone are the days when Dale Earnhardt could win a title with two races yet to run. No longer would a driver like Matt Kenseth take home the championship on the merits of a single victory.

Hence the creation of the Chase back in 2004. But even that cull-the-herd-after-26-races approach was not challenging enough. If putting an open manhole in front of title contenders was a good idea back in ‘04, then adding a banana peel in ’14 was a stroke of genius.

The banana peel slipping up Cup teams is the elimination factor. It is this elimination factor that adds the necessary amount of anxiety for the Super Sixteen come race number 27 of the season at Chicagoland.

As Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said of last weekend’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte: “It’s stressful and it’s not enjoyable, but as a fan, I would love the hell out of it. I’d love to watch somebody else go through this (stuff) besides me. So I get it.”

Call it the pressure principle. The process creates a cycle where teams gamble in order to score good finishes and stay active in the Chase, while fans thrill to the actions that result from such gambling (like when side contact and tire rub gives way to tire failure, or when gutsy pit strategy leads to track position in lieu of skipping necessary rubber or fuel). While teams look failure and elimination squarely in the eye and push ahead, fans lean forward and pay extra attention to what might happen next. The fans have nothing extrinsic to lose, just the intrinsic emotional connection they share with a particular driver or team.

Hence the spectator/performer dynamic mentioned earlier. If an animal trainer makes a dog do tricks, that’s good for a certain level of audience attention. If an animal trainer makes a lion do tricks, then the tension level rises. Not only does the audience pay closer attention, but the trainer finds him/herself under greater stress to perform.

Another example: I recently gave a lecture at a conference in Ohio. As it was, the audience listened. They would have, however, paid more attention to my presentation if a knife-thrower lobbed sharp blades at me while I twirled on a wooden backdrop. Same speech, just amped-up tension added for all those involved.

We can only hope tragic mistakes are not made. But then, that’s show business….

This explains the problems befalling teams battling their way to Homestead. Under pressure for a quick stop that gains track position? Tighten three of the five lug nuts on a wheel and save fractions of a second. Running at high speed with a loose wheel? That’s the gamble you take when one position means making the next round.

And the problems multiply. Failed rear axle seals. Broken oil pumps, blown tires, running short on fuel, and running short on patience. Not poor race strategy, but stress-induced, NASCAR-designed race strategy. Stress imposed on teams by the elimination format and the need to separate the haves from the have-nots.

NASCAR might desire a “Game Seven” moment at Homestead, but how many “Hail Marys” does it take to get there? A little race day anxiety might go a long way, but so do ten weeks of sleepless nights and stomach ulcers.

But then, maybe it’s not really about the teams. Maybe it’s all about the fans….

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via