Murto: New chase is worse than feared

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the rumored changes to the NASCAR Chase; as it turns out, the truth is worse than the rumor.

In the rumor, the points were reset before the final race of the year, in which only four drivers battle for the championship among a full field of cars. As it turns out, the points get reset every time cars are eliminated from the Chase.

The Chase begins with 16 cars, the cars with the most number of wins followed by those with the most points. Chase points for the 16-car contending field are reset to 2,000, with an additional three points for each win during the regular season.

But that’s the end of bonus points for wins. After three races, the top 12 cars advance with their points reset to 3,000. After eight races, the top six advance with their points reset to 4,000. After nine races — with one race to go in the Chase — the top four advance and have their points reset to 5,000.

Winning is important to continue moving through the Chase. But in racing, it used to be that every win — every race — was as important as any other. Now we actually have a system where a driver could win every race of the year and lose the title in the final race of the season.

Proponents argue that it’s not unlike football. A team can have a remarkable, record-breaking season and get trampled in the Super Bowl. It happened this year. But unlike racing, those teams vying for the title didn’t have to compete with the rest of the teams in the league in the final game. It’s not like the season-ending race at Homestead is going to be a four-car shootout; any one of 39 other cars on the track can have an incident and collect one of the title contenders.

Also, racing is dependent on equipment much more than a sport such as football. A part supplied by a third-party manufacturer could break, destroying a team’s race through absolutely no fault of their own. We don’t see football players’ cleats rip apart during a play, or watch as a quarterback’s pass is thwarted because the ball deflated in mid-air.

It is not as if results in auto racing are determined solely on the performance of the team. Too many outside factors come into play. That’s why auto racing championships have always been the result of an entire season of racing, and why this new system seems gimmicky and illegitimate.

Interestingly enough, a number of people have taken the results of last year’s NASCAR Cup races and applied them to this year’s point system. The result? Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have been the Sprint Cup champion without winning a single race. So much for a system that rewards winning above all. It seems all you have to do is be good enough to slide your way into the top four, then have a lucky day in the finale.

But it is what it is. NASCAR felt the need to do something, especially since some studies indicate that the average age of race fans today is 43 and getting older. They need to attract younger fans. Without younger fans, the sport certainly will continue to decline.

The new Chase format will certainly draw some attention, and may please a lot of casual fans. But the challenge is to turn those casual fans into diehards, as casual fans’ tastes change and they move on to something else.

Personally, I’d do something — anything — to get rid of the dreaded aero-push, which seems to allow the leader to remain up front even after a faster car has caught up. The other issue is the length of the races; they need to be shorter. Keep the Daytona 500 and the Coke 600, but put a two-hour time limit on other races just as Formula One and other series implement.

NASCAR’s new Chase will be different. It is unlike anything else in auto racing. Will it bring back the sell-out crowds and incredible TV ratings? We’ll see. You certainly can’t accuse NASCAR of being afraid to make changes. Only time will tell whether the changes are positive.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.