Last week, the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour concluded with an announcement from NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France that will forever change the sport. The sanctioning body was overhauling the current Chase format to restructure it into more of an elimination-style grid (or bracket).
In the press conference afterwards and again at the NASCAR Communications and Marketing Summit the following day, NASCAR President Mike Helton used the same phrase. He stated that as fans, teams and media members "digest" the information, they'll come to gain more of an understanding. His connotation is correct.
NASCAR fans are more resistant to change than fans of any sport. Not so coincidentally, they are also more outspoken than fans of any other sport. The passion of the raving fans is what makes this sport so much fun to be a part of, but it can also cause friction due to resisting just for the sake of resistance. With that in mind, it was understood before this announcement that many fans would initially dislike the changes.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. voiced his opinion pretty simply: "I wasn't really excited about change that much up until a lot of change started happening and you kind of had to get used to it." Some fans would agree with this sentiment, although many of them seem to be less willing to accept it.
Here's my recommendation to them: heed Mike Helton's words for a few minutes. Don't just stare at the new system and decide it doesn't look very eatable. Instead, take a bite, chew on it for a little while, and then swallow the food. Perhaps it's good, perhaps it's not, but you won't know until you try it. And, frankly, no one will know how much of a success the new system will be until a champion is crowned in November.
I've found that the more I mull this one over, the more I decide that I like this new format. For the past few years, I've told some friends and co-workers about a playoff system I'd thought up that I called NASCAR Bracketology. It was quite similar to the new system. It started with 16 and then eliminated down to eight, four, and then a champion.
My desire for a new system arose from the common complaint that despite a pre-Chase points reset with 10 races to go, the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway usually starts as a foregone conclusion. In most cases, only really bad luck could open the door for another driver to steal a championship from the points leader. Fans felt the same way.
My dad is a casual fan that just recently got into NASCAR as a convert from traditional stick-and-ball sports. "That's the best thing they've done," he told me in a conversation a couple days after the announcement. The new system makes it a lot easier for someone like him to understand and will make the championship race much easier to market to those that might be interested in learning about the sport.
NASCAR traditionalists can say that they liked the days before the Chase, but they're the same ones that tend to disparage the sport as "boring" because Jimmie Johnson runs away with championships. They claim they don't like points racing and want the sport to be more about wins, but when that system comes about, they want to revert to an old system that was completely focused on points.
Basically, nobody wants anything to change, but everyone wants a system where their driver has an opportunity to win the championship. It's an instance where fans want to have their cake and eat it too; that's just not possible.
So, this is it. This is the system that fits the demands of the fans.
Just like they've been demanding for years, the notion of points racing will be put on a back burner while the necessity to win will be brought to forefront. Points racing won't officially be dead, but the difference between first and second will be more than just a couple of points in the standings. The drivers themselves won't approach it a whole lot differently (they always show up with the goal of winning), but the sport itself will focus heavily on taking the checkered flag.
The Elimination Era has begun, fans, and it provides the best opportunity for your driver to win a championship (unless, of course, your driver is Jimmie Johnson. He certainly had the old way figured out). In years past, the final race of the season has usually come down to Jimmie and the Also-Rans, but that won't be the case going forward.
In 2014, there will be four drivers that enter the final race of the season on a level playing field. Any of the four could step up that day to claim the championship. And, you know what? It's possible that one of those four drivers might just happen to be one of your favorites.
Chew on that thought for the season and you might find that you enjoy digesting the possible taste of victory.