Craig Murto: The Chase is a winner

I have no problem admitting when I am wrong, and when it comes to NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, I was very wrong.

When the Chase first was announced, the motorsport purist in me hated it. And I let you know. It was just a gimmick, I said, and it cheapens the sport.

Now, after years of the Chase and various tweaks, including the playoff system used now, I have a complete reversal of opinion; I think the Chase may be the best thing that ever happened to the sport.

That’s especially true now that we have the playoffs. The pressure to perform is enormous.

Take Kevin Harvick, for example: Would he have gambled on fuel as he did if he were not so far behind in points? And was the gamble really worth it? After all, he had opportunities to pit for fuel and still work his way through the field for a good finish. Was it the pressure of the Chase that made the team keep him out, a decision that caused him to dig an even deeper hole for himself as the tour heads to Dover?

Now Harvick and a few others head to Dover with a win in mind, as it is the only way they can truly ensure advancement to the next round. You can bet that there will be some sort of unexpected drama and excitement at Dover, just as you can expect it in every race of the Chase.

A gimmick? Maybe. But sports are a form of entertainment. And the Chase provides more end-of-season entertainment than any other points system in any other form of racing.

Now, if we can only get NASCAR to be consistent as far as enforcement of its restart rules.

The leader of the race is the control car. He can go anywhere between the two restart lines, but he must go first. If he does not go, then the flagger starts the race. Simple enough. If any of the front row drivers jumps the restart, the penalty is a trip down pit road.

But at Richmond, leader Matt Kenseth jumped the final restart by three car lengths. NASCAR did nothing. At Chicago, Jeff Gordon jumped the restart to grab the lead, and NASCAR took a look at it but handed down no penalties.

Last week at New Hampshire, Brad Keselowski jumped the restart on leader Greg Biffle. But by the backstretch he gave the position back, and NASCAR still forced Keselowski down pit road for a drive-through penalty.

NASCAR told the drivers to police the policy themselves, and they didn’t. They whined about Richmond, then whined about Chicago. So NASCAR told them it would enforce the rule, as written.

Keselowski cried and complained, but NASCAR did what it said it was going to do. The situation does, however, call for an examination of the harsh penalty.

At New Hampshire, Keselowski jumped the restart. But he gained nothing, or at least gave the position back. That’s why the penalty seemed rather harsh after NASCAR’s refusal to penalize drivers the two previous weeks.

So here’s a suggestion for NASCAR: Allow drivers who jump the next lap to give the position back. Race Control can simply radio the team that the driver must back off and give up the position to the driver that he or she jumped on the restart. If the offender doesn’t comply within one lap, then throw the black flag for the drive-through penalty. At least give the offending driver the chance to make it right.

At Richmond, Kenseth would have had to back off and allow Joey Logano to pass. At Chicago, Jeff Gordon would have been made to give up the lead. At New Hampshire, Race Control could have simply radioed a warning to Keselowski; since he gave the position up himself, there was no action to be taken.

Some will argue that it’s so difficult to give up one position that the offender may lose two or three. So what? Isn’t that better than losing a lap driving through pit road?

Restarts are tricky; jumping one shouldn’t be allowed, but it also shouldn’t destroy a driver’s entire race. In the Chase, that could mean destroying a driver’s entire season. After enforcing the restart rule at New Hampshire, NASCAR has no choice but to equally enforce the rule at the remaining races of 2015. But I hope somebody at Daytona Beach is paying attention, and considers revising the rule for the 2016 season.

I was mistaken about the Chase. NASCAR’s been mistaken by not consistently enforcing the rules. But it’s no mistake to tweak a rule during the off-season to make it better.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.