Sprint Cup Chase needs a road race
Sport Science: Extreme Heat
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Now that NASCAR has convinced Pocono Raceway to shorten its two Sprint Cup races to 400 miles next season, the governing body should focus on adding a road course race to the Chase.
Many fans want it.
Many drivers want it.
It's the only true way to determine the best overall champion. There's a half-mile track, three one-mile tracks, a restrictor-plate track and five 1.5-mile tracks. The only thing missing in the 10-race playoff is a track where drivers make left and right turns, like they will Sunday at Watkins Glen International (1 p.m. ET on ESPN).
As was the case when the Chase format was adopted in 2004, NASCAR chairman Mike Helton says there are no plans to move races just to stack the final 10 a particular way.
Of course, Pocono owner Joseph Mattioli repeatedly said he never would shorten a race at his 2.5-mile facility, but that change was made shortly after his retirement.
Never say never.
You'd get no argument here if NASCAR replaced one of the cookie-cutter tracks -- say, Chicago or Kansas -- for a trip to Sonoma, Calif., or Watkins Glen.
Officials and some drivers will argue that because there are only two road races, 5 percent of the 36-race schedule, it isn't a fair representation to have one in the Chase. But there are only four plate races, 11.1 percent of the schedule, and you won't see Talladega disappearing from the playoffs.
Fans like plate races for the same reasons they like road course racing, because they offer something different. Road course races have become the new Bristol, where you get the beating, banging and emotional outbursts you used to get all the time at the half-mile track in Tennessee before it was repaved a few years ago.
Just look at this year's first road course race at Sonoma. Tony Stewart got into the back of Brian Vickers because he thought Vickers was blocking him. Vickers retaliated by putting Stewart and his car literally up on the fence.
The Chase needs this.
But mostly the Chase needs a road course to provide a full test of driving ability.
"I've always said that in order to make the championship fully complete and find out the true best team and driver, the only thing that I think we're missing in the Chase right now is a road course,'' said Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and four-time winner at The Glen. "I feel like the Chase has about everything right now, from short tracks to superspeedways to intermediates, so I think it's pretty complete right now.
"But if you wanted to look at just one little thing that was missing, it would be a road course.''
Road course racing wasn't always glorified. The events often were among the more boring of the year because the cars were so strung out in single file and passing was extremely tough.
But since double-file restarts were introduced in 2009, road course races have been anything but dull. The tight confines and turns at times make restarts resemble a demolition derby. Passing three or four cars on the first few turns isn't unheard of.
"When they announced that was going to happen you know the rumblings in the garage were like, 'Oh my God. Wait until these road courses. This is going to be disastrous,''' Clint Bowyer said.
What it has done is create a buzz, helped create more passing and made the risk versus reward for aggressive moves worthwhile.
"On restarts, the caution comes out at the end [of the race], and if it does, then all hell breaks loose,'' Bowyer said.
The intensity reaches a new level with a dozen drivers still in competition for either a top-10 spot or wild card to make the Chase. Drivers needing a win or to make up points might be more willing to make a risky move on a double-file restart.
Others will be trying to take it easy to preserve a good finish and maintain their position. The combination can be combustive.
"Myself, I'm outside the Chase,'' said Bowyer, who is winless and 12th in points, 41 behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 10th. "I've got to gain ground. You can come out of Turn 1 on a restart and gain five, six, seven, eight spots on that one corner if the opportunity presents itself.
"All it takes is one car to get into another car and it starts a chain reaction. You can stand to gain or lose a lot of ground in that scenario, but it is what it is.''
The Chase needs more of that type of drama. It doesn't need playing it safe for three quarters of the race then hoping a two- or four-tire stop puts you in Victory Lane.
"The road courses have become wild,'' Kevin Harvick said. "It seems like they have become really rough and fun to watch and fun to drive. You have some guys that are good at it and some guys that aren't.
"If it's not something that you look forward to or enjoy coming to, it can be a long weekend. You can lose a lot of points here."
There was a time when road course races were won by the same drivers every year. Gordon once won three in a row at Sonoma and three in a row and four in five years at Watkins Glen.
He hasn't won at Watkins Glen since 2001 and has an average finish of 20.8 in his past nine trips.
As the car has changed to level the field and drivers have worked harder to improve their road course skills, the advantages Gordon and a few others had are gone.
Gordon has been so "terrible'' -- his word -- at The Glen that he cracked a joke when the track inducted him into the "Legends at the Glen'' on Friday.
"I think they made me a legend here because it's been so long since I've actually done something good here,'' Gordon said. "Looking back on history, I guess my name popped up.''
There still are exceptions to the domination rule. Stewart has won five of the past nine races at The Glen, but the others have provided different winners.
None of those is named Jimmie Johnson, another good reason, one could argue, to add a road course to the Chase, because it would take away one of the tracks where he excels.
This is not a new argument, but with change in the air at Pocono the timing might be right to strike.
"I guess as exciting as the road courses have been here lately with these double-file restarts, I think the fans would be for it,'' Gordon said. "I could see one in there."
Maybe one day NASCAR can, too.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
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