Only four races now remain before the Chase field is set to see which drivers will have the opportunity to run for the title over the course of the last 10 races of the season. The Chase has been the topic of a lot of conversation over the last couple of weeks, after NASCAR CEO Brian France hinted that there could be some changes coming to the sport’s system for determining its champion next season.
Reasons for a change to the Chase might be a reflection of the sport’s inability to rebound from its current slip in TV ratings and sagging ticket sales at the majority of stops on the schedule. Tracks have been hard hit by the slumping economy, and the only real way of putting fans back into the seat is to tweak the Chase to include more drivers, maintain a points battle all the way to the final race, or somehow do both.
NASCAR has been hard at work, both last season and this season, to make the racing better. The double file restarts and the addition of the green-white-checker finishes have added excitement on race day, but with the exception of the last couple of drivers, the Chase line up seems to already be set by the time the sport rolls into Charlotte for its Memorial Day race.
There are now four drivers fighting it out for the final position in the Chase, and with stops left at Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond, there is still plenty of racing left to claim that final transfer spot. The problem being that once the field is set for the Chase, NASCAR quickly loses much of its excitement before it even reaches the halfway point.
Every driver starts the Chase with the same number of points, with the exception of those that have won a race. Drivers who have made their way to a victory lane during the season are rewarded with 10 bonus points for each win. That gives them an added advantage going into the first race at New Hampshire. The bonus points do not assure a driver that he will be in the hunt as the schedule winds down to the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami, as drivers with multiple wins have gotten off to such horrible starts in the past that their bonus point lead quickly became a distant memory.
That raises a question on just how NASCAR can keep the battle for the title going on throughout the fall until the final race. One school of thought has the number of drivers making it into the Chase being increased, with the Chase becoming more of an elimination event as the final 10 races go off the board.
A larger number of drivers included in the Chase field would allow drivers to be eliminated from running for the title, as the number of races dwindle leading to the final event. That would assure the sport of having a set number of drivers still in contention for the championship when the green flag waved to start the last race at Miami. Every other major sport in the country is set up so its championship isn’t determined until the final event, and such a format would go a long way in helping NASCAR keep its fans interested for the entire season.
Of course, this is only speculation at this point but whatever NASCAR decides, you can be sure that the Chase will see some tweaking before next season. This may turn out to be the best Chase battle since its inception in 2004, but it still might not be good enough to help turn the sport around to where it is once again filling seats and its TV ratings are climbing.
PIT NOTES: NASCAR is also going to be changing the schedule next season, and apparently there is going to be some tweaking of those races that presently make up the Chase. Chicagoland Speedway will be moving into the Chase lineup of tracks next season as the first race. New Hampshire has had that slot since the beginning of the Chase, but next season it seems to be moving to the second weekend. Auto Club Speedway in California now host a Chase race, but next season the rumor has it that the track will see one of its two races taken away and its spot in the Chase be given to another track.
Event: Carfax 400
Track: Michigan International Speedway (two-mile D-shaped oval, 18 degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: Aug. 15, 1 p.m. TV: ESPN
Radio: MRN Defending champion: Brian Vickers