Earlier this year NASCAR created a blizzard of discussion ranging from ecstasy to despondency (which is one of NASCAR's core talents) by announcing a new playoff qualifying system.
With one race to go before the playoff (aka Chase for the Championship), NASCAR has to be pleased with how the new system is working.
First, you gotta separate analysis of the new win-and-your-in, 16-driver grid playoff system with analysis of if NASCAR should have a playoff at all. Two separate issues. Given the fact that NASCAR does have a 10-race playoff, I’ve found this current qualifying system rather compelling.
It encourages drivers to go for the win. The biggest attraction to and success of the win-and-your-in approach is that it will encourage drivers to go for the win. There seems to be far far less “good points day” mentality out there this year. That has created more exciting racing in my view, winless drivers in P2, 3, 4 are far less likely to just settle for the points. They will be far more likely to attack attack attack.
Drivers who win have NOT slacked off. One of the fears/predictions was that drivers who win a race will slack off and save the equipment, etc. the rest of the season. Hasn’t happened, at least not that I can detect. NASCAR has several multiple race winners this year. Plus coasting into the playoffs is not the way you want to enter the playoffs. You want to enter on top of your game, because the eliminations start quickly. In fact, once drivers are in the Chase via a win, they have very little to lose by going for another win. You’re in the Chase, so what the hell? Drive it hard, blow it up, go for the win from P3, there’s no points position to lose.
It has created some Game 7-ish moments. “Creating Game 7 moments” was one of the reasons NASCAR went to the new system. Creating a Game 7 moment is a bit of an overstatement, but there have been some Game 6-like moments. Placing such a high premium on winning all by itself sets off some dramatic closing laps, especially when there is a late yellow. Last week at Atlanta, Kyle Busch’s antics created a trophy dash in which Kasey Kahne was fighting to maintain the win that appeared to be his before Kyle did what Kyle does. There’s legit debate over if it was contrived, but less debate over if it was dramatic. I was entrhalled, anyway. Look for another Game 7-ish deal tonight at Richmond late in the race when the chrome horns may come out up front.
It sets up bracket fever. NASCAR continues to hold clinics on how to involve fans, and by setting up a 16-driver playoff complete with elimination rounds, it creates a bracket situation similar to the NCAA basketball tournament. In fact, NASCAR already has a promotion going offering $100,000 to fans who pick a prefect bracket. Many NASCAR fans will be all over creating brackets for fun or as part of a pool. Fan engagement. BOOM.
Given the fact that NASCAR has created the playoff system in the first place, the new format seems like a big success. And, since we’re talking about it, I’m decreasingly distressed over the existence of a playoff at all. The legit argument against the Chase in the first place is that the traditional points-per-race approach to crowning a champion rewards season-long performance. Fair enough. And some dislike the elimination element of the new playoff system that results in only four cars in the entire field being eligible for the title in the last race. So a driver could win every race in the regular season and get bounced from the title shot by a blown engine or one bad race. Fair criticisms. But …
The reality of a dominant team losing early in the playoffs is readily accepted in many other sports. Also, the objection to the Chase at all and the new format in particular, to me, comes down to an argument over tradition and entertainment value. NASCAR’s harshest critics dismiss it as gimmicky and WWE wrestling-like due to things like the Lucky Dog rule and the aforementioned playoff system. Again, these things are question of personal preference, so I understand that argument. But, professional racing is business, and business only survives by attracting and retaining customers who provide profit, so you have to balance tradition and “purity” with survival in today's harshly competitive entertainment marketplace.
The final analysis for me is I want to be entertained. I respect tradition and history a whole bunch, but I need more in return for my viewership than knowing it helps continue that history and tradition. Others place a far larger on contributing to the continuence of the non-"gimmicky" form of racing. Again, fair enough. But I need more. It’s fantastic that people who find NASCAR gimmicky and pro wrestling-like have alternatives, chief among them IndyCar. I’ve long encouraged IndyCar to market itself as a more pure, traditional form of the sport to present that real option to consumers. As for me, when it comes down to it, the new NASCAR format has held my attention more this year, and made me look forward to the races from now until Miami.