Ryan McGee, ESPN.com
NASCAR swings for the fences
NASCAR chairman Brian France finally unveiled on Thursday afternoon what had been reported, rumored and debated for nearly two weeks. In 2014, the Chase for the Sprint Cup field will expand from 12 to 16 cars, those cars will qualify by way of races won versus points scored, and the field will be whittled down via formal eliminations every three Chase races until a final four will battle winner-take-all in the season finale. It's the fourth overhaul of stock car racing's postseason since the Chase was introduced in 2004.
Now that we finally know the details, the questions about the extreme makeover have shifted from what to why. Why now? Why so much? And why so soon?
To some, many, it feels like too much all at once. A swing from the heels during hard times. After all, it was just three years ago when NASCAR overhauled its entire points scale, ditching a basic structure that had been in place for more than three decades. That led to arguably the greatest season finale in American motorsports history. It was only one year ago that the completely overhauled Generation-6 race cars were rolled out. That led to the first genuine excitement about auto branding and looks in a decade.
And, oh by the way, the new Chase will be accompanied by new frantic-paced "knockout" procedures for pole qualifying.
To others, the postseason makeover feels like a knee-jerk reaction to Jimmie Johnson winning his sixth Cup series title in eight years, a stretch during which the sport has experienced a decline in television ratings and attendance. (Johnson, for what it's worth, doesn't believe he's being targeted.)
NASCAR argues that what might feel like a last-minute wintertime decision is actually the end result of several years of investigation. In fact, NASCAR's competition and marketing departments poring over stacks of feedback and numbers, much of which has been sitting on their desks for more than four years. They weren't ready to pull the trigger on most of those ideas then (though they thought about it). Now they are.
"Whether you agree with the changes or not, you have to have faith that they are being made with the big picture in mind," Johnson said this week. "I know they talked to me, about the Chase and lot of other things. I know they talked to just about everyone."
Indeed, much of that equation came from racetracks, broadcast partners (including ESPN before they knew they were out) and the competitors themselves, current and former, during an autumn of phone calls and private garage conversations. (Though as Kyle Busch so vehemently informed us Thursday morning, he was not.) Immediately following Thursday's announcement, Dale Jarrett said he, too, had been contacted months ago and asked to share his ideas. He was a fan of eliminations because he's a fan of golf and the PGA Tour, which modeled their FedEx Cup on NASCAR's Chase, included eliminations.
But NASCAR says the vast majority of the data came from the customers, culled through NASCAR's Fan Council, an online community of racing fans who have routinely answered surveys sent out by the sanctioning body since 2008 (listed as more than 10,000 fans). Other data was gathered through outside polling sources.
The 2014 Chase changes – and the 2011 points restructure – are based on the results of that feedback, from people who describe themselves as "Avid NASCAR Fans" to what the sanctioning body commonly refers to as "Casual Fans," those who spend their time following "stick and ball" sports, but might be willing to flip over to a NASCAR race if there's compelling reason to.
Thursday's announcement was about creating those reasons.
"That's the line that we walk as a sport and it can be tough one to balance," team owner Chip Ganassi admitted earlier this week. He also fields teams in IndyCar and sports car racing. "How do you attract new fans, but still remain true to the fans that have gotten you here in the first place?"
During its research, those longtime fans told NASCAR that they had grown tired of drivers talking about "a good points day" and acting satisfied with a solid fifth-place finish instead of agonizing over not winning. In other words, they wanted more of an emphasis on Victory Lane. That was not a surprise. Neither was their expressed confusion over the old points scale, a staggered grouping of five points here or and three points there with bonus points tossed in.
What was a bit of a surprise was the overwhelming number of "Avid Fans" polled who said they liked the idea of formalized eliminations throughout the Chase.
"Really, I think those two issues are directly related because people hate math," observed a laughing Tony Stewart, unknowingly foreshadowing Brian France's frequent "No math" message Thursday. Stewart's three Sprint Cup titles have come via three different championship formats. "No one really knew how the points worked. Simplifying points and then going on crossing guys off the list instead making us do math to figure it out each week of the Chase, for a dummy like me that's getting rid of a lot of math."
The polling covered the other aspects of the 2014 changes long before they became reality. The jury was split on the winner-take-all final race and it still appears to be, certainly based on this week's reaction from both the public and the NASCAR competitors. Again, not a surprise. (This is the part where College World Series fans roll their eyes and warn us all about the NCAA's CBS Sports-insisted, 10-year experiment with a one-game championship that flew in the face of the sport's double-elimination culture.)
But it was one last part of NASCAR's data mining that ultimately led us to Thursday's announcement. When asked about the overall importance of the Chase in general, the number was big, but it wasn't unanimous. Not even close. Now imagine if the same question was posed to baseball fans about the World Series or NFL fans about the Super Bowl, and it's hard to imagine it being much lower than 100 percent.
That's curious if you're a NASCAR fan, follower, or just love to analyze polls. If you're a NASCAR executive, it's downright terrifying.
"You look at other sports and they evolve," France said Thursday, citing college football's BCS Championship, which will transform into the College Football Playoff in 2014, due in no small part to the demands of the public. "Evolving means you get the best ideas of the moment. If they don't work, then you deal with that then."
If the new Chase model does stumble out of the gate, or if people once again start screaming for changes, then no one should be surprised if we're sitting at another press conference one year from now being told of another round of changes.
If we've learned nothing else about NASCAR over the last decade, it certainly isn't afraid to do that.