Is NASCAR’s new Chase mis-firing?

This year’s NASCAR Chase format has seen a further evolution of the concept. Instead of the top 12 drivers being eligible through the final races, the ‘eliminator’ is whittling the drivers down to 4 who will contend for the title at Homestead. The burning question: is it working or is it starting to backfire on the USA’s premier auto racing series?

Not packing them in anymore

Over the last decade, NASCAR attendances have been off the scale. From short tracks to the super speedways, grandstands have been packed to bursting point. Take a look at footage from the last round at Texas and you see a different picture: empty seats.

Chase events, and not just Texas, have regularly featured significant gaps amongst the crowds this season. Times are still very tight in the US economy however a similar scenario is not being played out at top-flight NFL or NBA matches. That is worrying for NASCAR.

Junior Nation

As long as Dale Jnr is involved in the Chase format, NASCAR can be assured that it’s biggest and most ardent fan base are attending and tuning in. This year’s eliminator format has severely compromised those guarantees.

Junior took an emotional victory at Martinsville but it was also an empty one. Out of the Chase after Talladega, the win contributed nothing to the season climax aside from denying one of the chasers victory. Putting Dale Jnr to one side, in general there is something exceptionally strange about wins in the late-season meaning nothing in the championship race. To this spectator, that seems to undermine the essence of the Chase concept: to force drivers to go for the win and consequently maintain interest until the very last race.

Who needs the big names anyway

An unwelcome side-effect of the eliminator Chase format has been the gradual loss of many of NASCAR’s biggest names. Like him or loathe him, the final Chase races without Jimmie Johnson are devalued. Similarly a Chase missing the Busch brothers and Tony Stewart, despite his tumultuous year, gives reason for their sizeable fan-bases to miss the final races.

Arguably this makes no difference; in the traditional championship format, drivers fall out of contention as the races roll on. That is however a natural process, it is the artificiality of the new Chase format that appears to be damaging. Recently some commentators, cynically or perhaps accurately, have suggested the spate of pit-lane dust-ups between drivers and crews are an attempt to reignite interest in the Chase.

It might take a while to bed down – the Chase format is messing with decades of tradition and history in not only NASCAR, but auto racing in general. Whether NASCAR can afford to give it the time to really determine if it is the right decision, is debatable.

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