It's Chase time again. Five years later, the Chase has proven to be an exciting addition to NASCAR, even to many of its most insistent detractors. Despite an exciting debut, it's gone through many changes over five seasons, becoming the steel cage match of professional sporting playoffs - a gimmick and sort of joke. That being said, here is the perfect change that NASCAR needs for new and thrilling playoff format...
...After the fold!
When the Chase first premiered in '04, NASCAR had its most exciting championship run sans 1992. Six drivers entered Homestead with a mathematical shot at taking the Nextel Cup. That format featured ten drivers and delivered fall ratings (against the NFL and MLB playoffs) unseen in years. Things have gone well for NASCAR since the inclusion of a playoff format. However, problems persist.
That old proverb says, "If it's not broke, then don't fix it." So, why make the addition to 12 drivers plus a silly seeding system based on wins? When the Chase was first incorporated, many felt that 10 stars were already too many. The expansion to 12 is absolutely ludicrous when you crunch the numbers.
Twelve out of the 43 teams that race each week is 28 percent of the field included in NASCAR's annual postseason. Aside from the parity-laden NFL, only the horrendously disorganized NBA and the extremely irrelevant NHL allow more than a quarter of their league the chance at a world championship.
Playoffs should only involve the best and most qualified players. Major League Baseball allows only roughly 25 percent of their teams in. The NFL does allow 38 percent (thanks NASCARPools!) but are excused based on their excellent business model. Anything more opens than 10 opens the door for mediocrity.
Step two: Remove the ludicrous seeding system. You don't see one organized major sport giving a team a one-game-to-none advantage based on regular season performance. The seeding system amounts to the same thing.
Look no further than this past weekend. Entering Saturday night, Mark Martin was barely a contender and a fringe playoff hopeful. His extreme hit-or-miss season did allow him four victories but Martin almost lacked the consistency to even make the cutoff. Now, because of the seeding system, Martin has gone from a fringe wild card team straight to home field advantage and favorite for the Cup. How balanced and even does that seem?
NASCAR should just reset the top ten drivers after 26 races with no driver having an advantage over another. The best guy over ten races wins.
Step three: Qualifying. NASCAR has done a great job at making Fridays relevant for teams fighting for the Top 35 cutoff spot. However, there are no championship implications during qualifying for the contenders. Offering five bonus points to the pole sitter will accomplish just that. It will also increase the number of eyeballs on the tube come Friday afternoons, something Speed and FOX wouldn't mind one bit.
Complicating the Chase has made a mess of the final ten. The sanctioning body has confused and alienated both fans and NASCAR newbies and it's time to remove the clutter. Perhaps 2009 will be the season that returns the Chase to its 2004 roots but don't count on it. If fans see a repeat of the past four seasons, NASCAR must consider changes. If that becomes the case, follow these recommendations and keep it simple, stupid.