For all of NASCAR's tweaks to the Chase, drivers think there's one more big move to make.
This story appears in the Oct. 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
THE CHASE FOR THE CUP has been both criticized and hailed for its fluidity. Over eight editions, NASCAR has expanded the field from 10 to 12, tinkered with the points system and this year added two wild-card spots.
Now those who race in the Chase are lobbying for one more tweak.
"A lot of people would like to change the Chase tracks a little," says Matt Kenseth, who's made the cut seven times. "We run the same races pretty much each year."
He's right. Save for a couple of exceptions, NASCAR's 10 postseason stops have remained static. Taken together, it's a nice mix, but the start of the Chase has never matched the excitement leading up to it. Instead, it's a poorly timed letdown, coinciding with the arrival of football and a defection of media and TV viewers. "We're not too far off," says Kevin Harvick, who won the final pre-Chase race at Richmond on Sept. 10, "but it'd be cool to see some marquee events moved in, certainly at the beginning."
After seven years of starting in rabid but rural Loudon, N.H., this year's postseason began with a big-city bang at Chicagoland Speedway. If Harvick & Co. got their way, that momentum would roll into similar large markets, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, or to races that bring their own buzz, like the night race at Bristol, traditionally run in late August. Track mogul Bruton Smith's idea to let his Las Vegas Motor Speedway host the finale as a prelude to the awards banquet has also gained support.
"Bookend the Chase with some of our biggest races and markets," says former Charlotte Motor Speedway president and uberpromoter Humpy Wheeler. "Then it won't matter what races you run in the middle."
The most vehement push has been to add a road course to the all-oval Chase lineup, particularly as Watkins Glen and Sonoma have become two of NASCAR's most entertaining events. "The Chase should represent the regular season," says Jeff Gordon. "The one little thing it's missing is a road course." (This is where we note that Gordon has the most career road course wins with nine.)
Drivers who have raced the Nationwide Series in Montreal insist that Cup could add a trip north, and there's heat surrounding the new Formula One track near Austin, Texas, slated to open next summer.
For all the lobbying, though, NASCAR isn't quite ready to shred the current lineup. President Mike Helton says he doesn't want to "stack races for the benefit of the Chase," adding that the idea was always to build it around the final 10 races, not the other way around. Not every driver is gung-ho about tweaking things either. "There's always excitement when you change things up," says Jimmie Johnson. "I think if some guys had their way, they would have us change the Chase tracks every year, but logistically you can't do that. Too much goes into putting on a race. And at some point you're messing with fans who buy tickets and plan vacations around certain race dates."
When Johnson's rivals hear his reasoning, they laugh. Why? Because it's a widely held garage theory that the schedule is a big reason for JJ's historic five-year title run. His 19 Chase wins are more than double that of his closest competitor. He, of course, denies an advantage.
"I'm all for talking about new races, but I'll say this," he says, fighting back a smile. "If they leave it alone, I'm good with that too."
Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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ESPN The Magazine: October 3, 2011