Once upon a time, there was a dramatic race to the finish. Six drivers raced each other hard for the NASCAR Cup championship- including two sons of racing legends, a popular redhead who wheeled a mean machine, a smooth southerner whose persistence paid off, a steady veteran and a slightly odd, but brilliant underdog. In the season finale, that underdog had his day, the cerebral independent providing the Hollywood ending. The season was 1992. The competitors were (in order of mention above) Davey Allison, Kyle Petty, Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Harry Gant and Alan Kulwicki. It may very well have been the best NASCAR season ever, as Richard Petty made his farewell tour, Jeff Gordon made his debut and the starting grids were peppered with names like Earnhardt, Wallace, Labonte and Jarrett.
NASCAR had its Game Seven finish, minus all the manipulation and gimmickry. The champion was determined with no “playoff system,” points resets or elimination rounds. It wasn’t needed.
The word is out NASCAR is considering more changes to the points system and to the format for the “Chase For The Championship.” For over a decade, the racing brass have been scheming and tweaking to create the magic, and a couple of times, it actually worked; and yet then, there have been all the other seasons of discontent and that feeling you sometimes get when you go to a much-hyped restaurant, only to walk away unfulfilled.
NASCAR can be commended for attempting to be innovative and visionary. If the wheels aren’t spinning forward, they are going back; but let’s face it, like the Car of Tomorrow, the Chase was a nice sounding idea that didn’t deliver. While reaching for the stars, they have overlooked the diamonds at their feet.
For the fan, it’s the race- the one that is happening that day- that matters. There’s no need for Pythagorean formulas to determine a champion. Quick- how many Indy 500 winners can you name? If you are a real racing fan, you can easily rattle off five or more. How many Indy car season champions can you name? Do you see what I mean? Is it really the seven championships Richard Petty won that were impressive? Or was it the 200 (!) races he won. The seven titles Dale Earnhardt won were impressive, but what his fans really remember are no less than bushel full of his 76 victories, such as the 1998 Daytona 500. In most racing circles, all the way down to the local dirt track level, the really impressive thing is winning races. A season points championship is a fitting exclamation point to a season well run.
Oh sure, for every 1992, there was a 1967- where Richard Petty dominated by winning ten races in a row. In more recent history, Jeff Gordon spanked the field with 13 wins in 1998, leaving Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace in the dust. No matter what you do, there will be beatdowns. Major League Baseball has had its share of World Series sweeps, for some number of years, the Super Bowl was a super stinker.
NASCAR needs a restoration of its identity, the one built a perhaps smaller, but much more loyal following not so many seasons ago. NASCAR is not the NFL, so don’t try to be that. It hasn’t and it won’t work. It’s THE RACES that matter. Put all that energy in making EACH race a memorable (and yet affordable- anoither issue for another time) fan experience. The sport needs its personality back.
Put another way, who DOESN’T race to win? Hello? The drivers don’t need an additional incentive to win; that’s hard-wired into a competitor’s DNA. No change to the system will make them race any harder. Put another way- it’s the racing stupid! We don’t need one season of 36 races, we need 36 races of one. That’s the point. With good race, exciting championship chases (not “the” chase) will follow