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Is NASCAR stagnating? Is the championship chase really all that exciting? Is it time for NASCAR to shake things up?

  Alan Kulwicki's championship run in 1992 was high drama, right down to the final moments of the last race. Will this season's title chase be as thrilling? Is the chase format making for more exciting championship battles? (Photo: Getty Images/RacingOne for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   DOVER, Del.
   Remember 1992?
   One of the best championship battles in NASCAR history.
   Going into the final race of the season five men – on five different teams -- had a shot at the title, the fifth within just 113 points of the leader. And three men were hot-and-heavy for the championship, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki, within only 40 points.
   Under the old point system.
   Will this year's championship format provide just as much drama?
   Well, NASCAR's title chase has just gotten underway and already there is controversy -- because of mediocre TV ratings for the Richmond playoff cut race two weeks ago and even more mediocre TV ratings for the first race of the chase last weekend at Loudon, N.H.
   The two questions about the chase: Is it fair? Is it good entertainment?
   And is it helping NASCAR (and ABC) battle the National Football League?
   Rezeroing the standings and pitting the top 12 men in points in a 10-race playoff chase is the format NASCAR has used since 2004 to determine its champion.
   Is that a fair way to determine the tour champion?
   And is that format good entertainment?
   This is the setting:
   -- A packed house at Richmond International Raceway for the final event of the 26-race 'regular' season. Great weather, nice race, intriguing drama with the Richard Petty-Doug Yates merger and Kurt Busch learning of the pending loss of crew chief Pat Tryson…and homeboy Denny Hamlin finally wins at RIR. TV ratings: a mediocre 3.5, meaning about 5 million viewers…on the same weekend that college football's USC-Ohio State pulls a TV audience of 11 million and the NFL opens to huge ratings, best since 1988.
   -- A packed house at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the first race of the chase. Great weather, great racing, super finish, Mark Martin edging Juan Pablo Montoya…and more good behind-the-scenes drama in the NASCAR garage. TV ratings: a more mediocre 3.2 (down from last year's rather mediocre 3.8)….on the same weekend the NFL sets TV records. Some five million viewers for NASCAR, some 24 million viewers for the NFL.
   First, is the chase a fair way to determine the champion?
   Consider this – Tony Stewart roared through the regular season, his first as owner-driver, with a brilliant run, finishing the first 26 events nearly 300 points ahead of his closest rival, and nearly 600 points ahead of Mark Martin. NASCAR rezeros the standings, and Stewart instead of leading the Sprint Cup tour, is now second behind Martin heading into the chase (because Martin has won more races). Then at Loudon Stewart, in something of a slump (since winning Watkins Glen, he'd finished 17th, 33rd, 11th and 17th ), has another weak run, 14th.  And Stewart comes out of Loudon sixth in the standings, 74 points down.
   Shades of 2007, when Jeff Gordon blew through the regular season, more than 300 points ahead of his nearest rival, and more than 400 points ahead of eventual champion Jimmie Johnson. Gordon would have won that title by 353 points over Johnson if the series championship were determined by the traditional scoring system.
   Hence there is a case to be made that the new 'chase' system is not a fair way of determining the champion.
   But don't expect Martin to shed any tears at the moment. "Not feeling any real sympathy right now, not really," Martin says, of Stewart's plight. "They did the chase to make it more exciting.
   "I didn't make those rules. I'm just racing."
   So, second, is the chase good entertainment?
   If TV ratings are an indicator, there is a question there. And TV ratings may be the best window on the American sports world that we have to judge from.
   Yes, the NFL is the big cheese in the American sports scene, but at the moment there appears to be a significant disparity right now. (Some even sense that the NFL has a quiet campaign specifically to counter-market against NASCAR; consider that NASCAR moved the Daytona 500 pole day from Sunday to Saturday in order not to go head-to-head with the Super Bowl.)
   Will that even out, somewhat, as the fall goes on?
   Maybe, maybe not.
   Still right now it appears that NASCAR execs may need to rethink some things about the championship chase:
   1. The points system, most obviously.
   2. The tracks in the chase too. (The 10 tracks in the chase, for the most part, just happened to be in the chase because they were the final 10 races of the season back when the chase format was devised, not because they were the best 10 races or the best 10 markets).
   3. And maybe the starting point for the chase.
   Well, there is a strong sense that too much is made about the championship itself, to begin with. Are 100,000 fans going to show up here Sunday at Dover International Speedway to watch a good race or to watch 'the second race of the chase'?
   One big problem with NASCAR's championship -- and it's not a new one – is that the scoring system disproportionately penalizes a driver and team for a bad race, a blown engine, a crash, whatever, but the system does not offer a proportionate reward to a driver and team for a great day at the track…and does not offer a driver and team any good way to easily make up for that bad day. And that situation is particularly acute with 12 men in the title hunt down the stretch, because 11 men have to have a bad day for the 12th to make up any significant ground.
   The current scoring system was devised in the mid-1970s by the late Bob Latford, and it was designed when there were only three or four legitimate championship contenders each season, and the sport's execs wanted a system that would strongly persuade drivers and teams to run the full tour, and not cherry-pick.
   However these days there are a legitimate dozen or more drivers and teams that could win the championship in any given season, and most sponsors – at least up till this season, when the economic recession hit so hard – have wanted their teams to run the full tour, to maximize the marketing and promotional impact.
   NASCAR's TV viewership has been in a slump for two years now over the whole season, and most races so far this season have been down in ratings from last season.
   Will another championship by the awesome Rick Hendrick empire – and he's got five of the 12 men in the chase – be good for the sport, or not?
   So it may well be time for NASCAR to reassess the point system, and not simply tweak it, time for NASCAR to reconsider the tracks and markets in the chase, and to rethink the starting point for the chase – why not Labor Day, instead of the middle of September, for example.
   Without changing some things, there is no reason to think that TV ratings will change.
   Or maybe those 1992 rules weren't so bad after all.


Simply said: I am a West

Simply said: I am a West Coast NASCAR fan that goes to the races to see the race and the championship doesn't matter much. I prefer the points system from 1975 to 2003. Though I prefer the spread from 1st to 2nd now, as opposed to then. It was 175 for 1st and 170 in those 29 years and now it's 185 for 1st and 170 for 2nd. I prefer races start before 10am pst. I love racing and I love football. Ratings, shmatings. Jeff

Changing the point system

Changing the point system won't make a difference in viewership.

I think that viewers are becoming burned out from NASCAR hence the changeover to the NFL. NASCAR needs to consider shortening the season so that racing doesn't compete with the NFL past week two or three of the NFL season. Also, well folks want to watch football too. Why be spectator hogs?

NASCAR is also competing with the World Series at this time of year, so a shortened season would be better for the sport if the Championship was run during the months of July, August, and September rather than September, October, and November.

Perhaps backing the start of the season to January 15 to avoid the Superbowl but take advantage of the final playoffs for Speedweeks then break for the Superbowl would also generate more tv viewership for NASCAR.

NASCAR needs to bring in a

NASCAR needs to bring in a fresh approach to the races, the championship determination method, marketing its stars, and the type of TV/internet coverage. The many long time sponsors leaving Nascar provide 'happy talk' reasons for going but the bottom line reason for their departure is dropping TV ratings. No point of spending $100 Million on sponsoring a team if only five million people are watching on TV nationally. Sliding attendance at the tracks doesn't help and was it a coincidence that two major sponsors left during the week that Danica Patrick announced that she was staying with the IRL? NASCAR sure fumbled the ball there! The sponsors who are leaving also must feel that 2010 and 2011 won't be any better, likely worse, or they would have stayed (although maybe in a reduced role). Mike's commenters and others provide a lot of good ideas....let's home that NASCAR gets it head out of the sand to reverse things before it goes into a prolonged and nasty slump/downward spiral.

"Was it a coincidence that

"Was it a coincidence that two major sponsors left during the week that Danica Patrick announced she was staying with the IRL? NASCAR sure fumbled the ball there." Huh? NASCAR fumbled the ball because a talentless little nitwit who got into racing because she posed in racey photo shoots is staying in IRL? NASCAR should thank its lucky stars - Danifraud has helped damage Indycar racing and won't amount to anything.

The problem is NASCAR has

The problem is NASCAR has done too much shaking already. They shook it up by making all the cars the same. They shook it up by making all the tracks look alike. They shook it up with the Chase. They shook it up with spring/shock rules that are too restrictive. They shook it up by telling drivers to behave themselves and act like gentlemen at all times.
Fans liked NASCAR because their cars looked like our cars. The drivers were guys who worked hard like we did. When they got out of the car, they were dirty and angry. They wore their hearts on their sleeves. The tracks were special because they were different and the crowds reflected the local personalities.
Now there's too much money involved. The drivers all act like millionaires - flying private jets and helicopters in and out of the tracks - staying in million-dollar busses in the infield.
There's no good racing in NASCAR anymore. It's all at the local short track. When short track season ends, racing is done and it's time to watch football.

Yes; yes; yes; yes; yes. I

Yes; yes; yes; yes; yes.
I agree; I agree; I agree.
Yes; yes.
You might be right about all this, but instead of just changing the channel, i still believe we can change some of the dynamics and get the sport back in gear. The COT may be safe, but as a race car it's a dog, yes; change the rules and let the teams build race cars again.
The tracks -- well, i don't know what to do about that. We're really stuck with what we've got, since it takes $250 M to get anything up....though maybe a street course -- don't laugh -- might be an option.
The chase -- it's different, but it hasn't boosted interest and it hasn't boosted ratings...we spend too much time thinking about the chase and the championship and not about each race itself.....
You're exactly right about the Dale Earnhardt Sr. view --
and you're right, there's too much money involved....and too many of these drivers are prima donnas; i cannot believe JPM dissed that TV station like he did (no wonder brian france's first stop sunday morning when he got to dover was to stop by montoya's hauler)....
but jimmie johnson isn't one of those prima donnas. he's a real honest to goodness dude, like you'd want for a next door neighbor. but, like bruton smith says, maybe jimmie needs to punch somebody out.....the trouble with Jimmie is he's too darn nice and too darned good.

Yeah... we're stuck with the

Yeah... we're stuck with the tracks we have, but I don't have to like them. With all due respect, Mike: A street course? Seriously!? I love all forms of racing including road and street courses, but those forms of racing are about nimble suspensions, exotic braking systems and road-hugging chassis. Stock car racing is about brute force. These are muscle cars, not Miatas.

Your comments about JPM and JJ are interesting. On TV JPM comes across more gritty than JJ. I forget that JJ got his start racing off-road.

I haven't completely given up on NASCAR. I keep flipping into races while watching football. I would love to see NASCAR get back to it's roots. [Didn't Junior Johnson race on mountain roads before he raced on dirt ovals? Maybe that's your best argument for more road and street course.] That's why I love sites like this. I keep hoping that the Frances read this and hear our complaints and take our suggestions to heart.

Keep the faith, brother.
+ Leonard

yo, dude (LOL). I know street

yo, dude (LOL). I know street courses suck, but hey cities are where the people are, and my thinking is if we can't get Los Angeleans out to Fontana then we should take our stuff downtown and do something with the Long Beach Grand Prix, for example. Sure, these cars right now arent quite nimble (he-he-he), but remember when billy jr first looked at watkins glen he had richard childress design a special LR (left-right) road racing car. Why not again? And why, for pete's sake, can't we tweak these road courses anyway and make for more passing zones? Golf courses can be changed; why not our road courses. just make a couple of corners wider and a second groove banked. heck, if we can get two grooves at Martinsville, we can get two grooves at sonoma and montreal. plus, if nascar is to expand (dare i suggest that), then unless somebody (maybe one of those saudi princes that wants to buy richard petty motorsports) has hundreds of millions to spend on a new track, we're going to have to figure out something else. (Hmmm...just thinking, remember that F1-sort-of stock car tour that just died, with some ex-F1 drivers racing on F1 courses on Saturdays as a prelim? maybe there's something to be learned there. let me try to check that out.....while i'm eating some of that good kansas corn this week).

Saudi Princes? NASCAR on the

Saudi Princes? NASCAR on the Long Beach street course? F1 drivers in stock cars? I think I need to lie down for a while...

OK. You got me with Long Beach for Fontana agrument. Let's run these Colorful, Overpowered Tanks (COTs) on the Long Beach course. But only if we can get Jimmy Spencer in the race. I'd enjoy the specticle of watching "Mongo" bounce from wall to wall in corner after corner.

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