Ingram: Summertime Blues Strike In February
From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:
On the cusp of the new season, it’s worthwhile to ask if the changes to the points system and Chase for the Sprint Cup formats were worth the trouble?
There’s not much difference from the preceding systems after there was so much expectation built up last year by a summer-long public discussion led by NASCAR’s CEO Brian France. It was suggested the sanctioning body was looking at sweeping changes. Or maybe not. The end result was more like a pop-gun going off than a canon.
In the days of yore under Bill France Jr., NASCAR was run by a small collective of top officials who usually discussed the state of the sport aboard one of the company’s jets en route to and from races. Ideas were written down on a yellow legal pad, most of which were never given much thought once on the ground. Ultimately, France Jr. was the only one who had a vote.
The one thing similar to the current methodology for how to improve the sport concerns Brian France being the only person with a vote that counts. His methodology is certainly different. In the current scheme, the media and fans as well as participants in the garage were all invited into the process by the CEO. He hosted a media conference to announce a relatively vague framework of his intentions, sat down with fans for “town hall” style meetings, otherwise known as focus groups, and consulted directly with participants in the garage about some of the new ideas he was considering.
Is this any way to run a sanctioning body?
It sounds a lot more like a democracy than the iron hand/velvet glove dictatorship of France Jr. But at
least one has to give credit to Brian France for doing things differently. Alas, it’s a messy methodology at best. Does it work?
Let’s go down the check list of what went right and what went wrong.
First, consider the suggestion of an elimination-style Chase. The idea was to gradually whittle championship down to two drivers at the finish, adopting the methodology used by American professional sports leagues where two teams face off in post-season brackets until a champion is crowned. There was no way, it was discovered, to make this concept work fairly for the Sprint Cup and the teams all hated it. (Imagine what eliminated sponsors might have thought about this method.) It was finally concluded that motor racing, due to the fact all teams compete against each other weekly, is indeed different from other sports when it comes to championships.
It was silly to even include an elimination-style system of choosing a champion as a point of discussion, which was accelerated by France’s references to game seven of the World Series. This was truly a concept better off left scribbled on a legal pad and discarded.
Second, the public airing of NASCAR’s intentions to re-examine the Chase certainly led to a lot of discussion, quite a bit focused on whether it detracts from the importance of winning races. (Those who hate the Chase format when it comes to determining a champion have always voiced their opinion, so nothing new there.) NASCAR has tried various ways over the years to deal with the perception that winning races was not as important as gathering points – by increasing the winner’s bonus and by giving drivers in the Chase a bonus if they’ve won races.
This year’s airing of what to do with the Chase format became a useful tool, perhaps, when it came to figuring out how to make the Chase more relevant to the sport’s longtime faithful and sports fans in general. The latter may have known Jamie McMurray was having a great season but couldn’t understand why his name never came up in the championship. But I doubt it really took six months of public debate to figure out it was a good idea to add the two drivers with the most victories to the Chase not already in it via points.
Thirdly, on the subject of the points system itself, last year’s debate was a set-up. Two things will always be true of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup points system. First, it must reward regular participation in order to sustain full fields. Second, it must predict, or point to, a relatively close championship at the end of the season. Both tenets favor a conservative system.
NASCAR’s appeal to ticket buyers and TV ratings began to climb in the 1980’s in no small part due to closely contested championships. What was true then continues to be true now. For the sake of ticket sales and TV ratings, those in charge of the sport will never choose a system that is anything other than conservative when it comes to who wins and who finishes close to the top on any given Sunday or, increasingly, Saturday night. No matter which way you count the points, or what kind of “bonus” is given the winner, the system is never going to truly reward a race winner when it comes to bonus points or making a victory really valuable.
Does this make sense? Not in a sport where winning is everything and second place is the first loser. It makes even less sense to float ideas about changing the championship to the contrary when the final methodology chosen by the sanctioning body is going to end up in the same predictable place.
Quote of the Week: “It’s different because there’s 43 teams, not one or two, two or three, some tournament thing here. We’re in a situation where, you know, in some cases winning can’t be possible. So we can’t have a winner take all, per se, like some of the other playoff systems. On the other hand, we’d like to have it balanced correctly. We’re going to look at that more carefully than ever because we also have some historical things we thought would have allowed winning and big moments on a big stage. Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t. What’s important is we got a chance to look at a lot more seasons than we have up until now. So it wouldn’t be surprising for us to take back the original objectives. We’re happy with the Chase. It just means that if we can enhance it in a pretty significant way, we may do that. So that will be the thing that we decide in the next couple of months.” – NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, addressing the media in Daytona Beach in July about possible changes to the Chase format
See ya! …At the races.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments