As expected, Thursday’s announcement that NASCAR is changing the Sprint Cup championship structure for the fourth time in 11 years sent off a torrent of emotions and opinions among race fans and pundits alike.
Some rejoiced, some screamed, many whined and there was much debate about whether or not the new winner-take-all format is the right way to go. I expect the discussion will continue for some time.
Faced with rancor and contentious disagreement about the validity of the new, four-round Chase for the Sprint Cup, I did what I frequently do when emotions threaten to get the best of facts: look at the numbers.
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If you go all the back to 2004, the whole reason for the creation of the Chase in the first place was to create drama at the end of the season, what NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France likes to describe as "game-seven moments."
Put bluntly, by any objective measure, the old Chase was a dud, at least in terms of producing the gripping, end-of-season drama NASCAR wanted. It just didn’t create enough game-seven moments.
Think about it: In 10 years, the Chase was must-see TV three times: The first year in 2004, when Kurt Busch lost a wheel and still hung on to edge Johnson and Jeff Gordon; 2010, when Johnson rallied to beat Denny Hamlin in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway; and 2011, when Stewart won five of 10 races, including Homestead, to win over Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker.
The other seven years? Honestly, not very good. Certainly not good enough, anyway.
So, France and the other NASCAR top officials felt like they had to do something big to inject excitement back into the series. And that’s exactly what they did.
Now, 16 drivers will start the Chase, with the field gradually whittled down to four drivers who go into Homestead tied in points.
Only time will tell, but I’m certainly willing to give it a chance.
There is now a huge premium on winning races in the regular season, which is a big improvement, and we know the championship will come down to the last race of the season. The new qualifying format and the elimination of minimum ride heights should add some excitement, too.
All told, this could be the most interesting NASCAR season in a long time.
Next year, I’m hoping NASCAR takes the logical next step and shuffles the tracks around in the Chase, something that’s also sorely needed to liven things up.
But for now, let’s drop the flag and go racing. It’s time to settle the debate — and determine the next champion — on the track.