Chase delivers, again and again
All these years in, I think you're getting used to this. I'm still not sure you like it.
The Chase, that is.
The howling of 2004, when NASCAR instituted playoffs, has settled down. But resentment is residual -- the thought that it isn't pure, like the old system.
So I will say again what I have said since '04: NASCAR has every bit as much right and reason as any other sports league to have a playoff system.
Is it a gimmick? You bet. But all playoffs are gimmicks. All are, at their deepest roots, unnecessary. All were created to increase interest, add excitement, juice up the publicity, raise the TV ratings and -- absolutely -- rake in more revenue. All run the risk of robbing the best regular-season performers, and rewarding flukes.
In '04, the outcry essentially was that the whippersnapper czar Brian France and his advisers were getting waaaaay ahead of themselves, plunging too far, too fast into the future.
You could say they were 56 years late. The NBA, the same age as NASCAR, had staged playoffs from its outset season of 1947-48.
NASCAR's playoffs were initiated 101 years after baseball's, and 71 years after the NFL's.
The only playoff that ever could be said to have strengthened a game in the purest sense was when baseball created the World Series, between teams from different leagues that didn't play each other in regular season, in 1903.
But now, after years of interleague play during the regular season, the Series is just the final stop in playoffs that are just as hype- and money-motivated as the rest.
The NFL made no bones in 1933 about its first championship game, having seen the interest created by a necessary playoff the previous year for two teams with tied regular-season records.
When I was a kid, the regular-season champions of the American League met their counterparts from the National League in the Series. That was it. No other playoffs in the way.
The NFL was the same. The regular-season champions of the Eastern and Western divisions met head-on, without digressions or stumbling blocks. You knew the best was meeting the best from the regular season.
In NCAA football, not only were there no playoffs, but the bowls didn't even count toward the national championship. The final polls were taken at the end of regular season.
The first Super Bowl, in January of 1967, was widely considered a gimmick game. The stately, established NFL had no business stooping to play that upstart American Football League's champions.
Then came Joe Namath's guaranteed win by the Jets over the Colts in '69, and the Super Bowl was legitimized, and what had previously been the championship games of both leagues were relegated to steppingstone playoff games.
Baseball plunged in, creating more divisions to create more qualifiers for playoffs.
I didn't like any of it. I was a purist. The only playoffs I accepted were the NBA's, because that's all I'd known, all along.
But I adjusted. I got used to it all. I came to like it all. Now, I wouldn't want it any other way, in any league. There is just too much entertainment to be had, over too many weeks.
As for regular-season underachievers knocking off the best of regular season in the playoffs, I got used to that in the 1980-81 NFL season, when the Oakland Raiders became the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl. Clearly, that day in the Superdome, the Raiders earned their title.
By 2004, in virtually every major sports league except NASCAR, playoffs had become widely and fully accepted as just part of the game.
And that's why I figured you, NASCAR Nation, who had known only a season-long point system -- champion determined by the nine-month grind rather than playoffs -- would eventually adjust.
But at first, you wanted -- by analogy -- baseball thrown back to 1902. Whoever pressed on relentlessly through the regular season should win the pennant, period, end of discussion.
How quickly we forgot what a bore and travesty the final full-season points Winston Cup had been in 2003, won by Matt Kenseth with only one race win while Ryan Newman, with a season-high eight wins, finished sixth in the points.
Many believe Kenseth's methodical championship run was what forced NASCAR into a playoff system. That's not exactly true. Brian France, looking around at the other sports leagues during his vice presidency, had been pushing within NASCAR for a playoff system for some years.
Mark Garrow talks about Sam Hornish Jr. admitting that being passed over by Roger Penske was tough to swallow. Plus, Brad Keselowski cuts back his Nationwide Series schedule.
So the droning finish of '03 was largely coincidental to Brian's ascension as chairman that same fall. He had understood for a while that NASCAR was behind the other sports leagues.
Faded now in our memories is that Dale Earnhardt's seventh and last Cup, in 1994, was clinched at Rockingham with two more races left to cruise, at Phoenix and Atlanta. Adjusting for today's schedule, would you want to see a Cup locked up at Texas?
And that largely ceremonial finale of '94 was more the norm under the old system than the aberration traditionalists always want to bring up, Alan Kulwicki's emergence as champion from a group of five drivers with chances going into Atlanta in '92.
Not long before he died in 2007, Bill France Jr. -- the second, most powerful, and most productive czar of NASCAR -- told me he agreed to his son's plan for playoffs "because I knew that if it didn't work, we could always change it back."
There has been no need to. It has worked, by and large, with some tweaking. And there is room for tweaking more.
I'm one of many "win and you're in" proponents. To that, I'd like to add the counterweight, "no win, no way." That is, you can't make the Chase without a race win.
An elimination system would make it more dramatic. Maybe start the knockouts with six or eight races left -- although here, maybe my thinking is weighted by Jeff Gordon's valiant ongoing comeback efforts; maybe, objectively, somebody should have to go from the Chase opener on.
Cutting the Chase to six races, with eliminations, would add a much greater sense of urgency. You'd just compact the drama into six tense weeks rather than drawing it out over 10.
But that's all a matter of opinion and adjustment. To me -- and apparently to the public and media -- the current format isn't bad.
What matters most is that now, well into the ninth Chase, it is rapidly becoming what playoffs are in other sports: It is what we know.
From there it becomes what we accept. And then what we like. Maybe, some year soon, what we love.
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