For me, the lasting image from the 2014 Coca-Cola 600 was an empty grandstand
Yep, in corner two of Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day Weekend during one of NASCAR's signature events, the grandstand in turn two was inhabited by no one. It was covered by a giant American flag and sponsor tarps. I could pontificate about how NASCAR, if it really cared about veterans could have donated those seats to military families instead of charging absurd prices no one paid.
But that would be too easy. And it would miss the point. NASCAR used to sell those seats and all other seats. However, the first half of the 2014 NASCAR season has been marked by declining ratings and poor attendance figures.
There is plenty of blame to go along. For me, I had pointed the finger at the mainstream attitude of NASCAR, which has surely soured some fans on the sport as the drivers have become pitchmen instead of the outlaw stars that helped the sport grow in the 1970's and 1980's.
Others have pointed the finger at cars that are simply too good, removing the "rubbin' is racin'" and "doorhandle to doorhandle" racing that defined the sport for so long. Indeed, on Sunday, the action at the Indy 500 was far superior to the action at the Coca-Cola 600. But IndyCar racing has been more exciting for about the past decade and that hasn't helped that sport at all – its ratings still lag laps behind NASCAR on a weekly basis
So what is behind the decline of attention? I figured it out as I watched the last 50 laps of Sunday's race. The battle between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson was ostensibly to win the race they were running but all the announcers could talk about was the Chase of the Cup.
That's when it dawned on me – the Chase for the Cup is killing NASCAR.
For the past decade, NASCAR has tried unsuccessfully to manufacture a late-season playoff to stem the rising tide of the NFL. Other sports cried, “Uncle!” The PGA instituted its playoffs, the FedEx Cup, to end its season by mid-September instead of November. The WNBA does so as well. IndyCar now wraps up by Labor Day.
Only baseball can exist in the fall and even that sport has had trouble, depending on which teams make the postseason, of attracting serious attention in October.
So NASCAR plows on, fidgeting annually with its point system and falling further and further behind. But in 2014, they struck a new low – the new points system is now dragging down the entire season.
NASCAR used to have one of the best ways to determine a champion. Every race mattered. You ran every race, collected the points and when the season was over, the man with the most points won. It was very similar to how European soccer crowns a champion with every team playing the same schedule and the team with the most points wins.
Of course, this is not ideal for late season drama. As this year's English Premier League season showed when it was clear that Manchester City would win going into the last week of the season. But it goes both ways – La Liga featured a last-weekend game between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona that determined the league champ. Just two years ago, the Premier League featured Manchester City winning the title in the stoppage time with two goals that provided drama that no playoff ever could.
That's the tradeoff. Sometimes, you can get a legendary finish. Sometimes, you just get a deserving champion. NASCAR knows this – or it should have known this. Heck, Fox Sports 1 just ran a documentary this past week highlighting the incredible finish to the 1992 season, which is the second such documentary, as its forerunner Speed did one as well.
Unfortunately, Matt Kenseth cruised to a yawn-inducing series crown in 2004 and NASCAR overreacted by fixing what wasn't the problem.
The problem with NASCAR by 2004 is that winning had become less important than accumulating points on a weekly basis. The problem here was with the points system, not the setup of the season. The sport needed a points system similar to Formula 1 where there was a clear and decided advantage to winning and one that made finishing 30th or 39th the same.
Instead, NASCAR created the Chase for the Cup, by doing so it created 26 "regular season" races and 10 "playoff" races. Whereas once every race meant exactly the same, there were now 10 races that meant more. Think about it – the October race in Charlotte meant more than the Coca-Cola 600 or the Daytona 500.
And yet, 10 races provided the same problems because it still gave enough time for a dominant driver, say Jimmie Johnson, to establish a big enough lead that he merely had to do okay in the finale. For all the pomp and circumstance, little had changed.
NASCAR kept tweaking. They added wild card spots. They added more points for winning. Nothing changed the fact that the playoff system did not work for NASCAR.
Last year, the sport hit what was then a new-low when Jeff Gordon was inexplicably added to the Chase lineup after not qualifying following some dubious actions in the regular season finale. Imagine if the NFL added the Patriots to the AFC field even though they didn't qualify just to get Tom Brady in there? It would be absurd and not accepted. However, the lack of interest in NASCAR merely meant people shrugged their shoulders and moved on.
This year, NASCAR finally killed the sport.
There are now 16 drives in the Chase for the Cup, which is an insane number since there at most 20 teams that are serious championship contenders. The Chase is now no longer a 10-race mini-season, but a series of "segments" that will eliminate drivers until there are only four left in the season finale and oh my God it should not take this many words to explain how a championship is won.
The cherry on top of this awful sundae is that to qualify for the Chase, all you have to do is win a race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500. That meant with 25 races left in the regular season, he had clinched a playoff berth. Excuse me? Imagine if the Patriots beat my Jets in week 1 and clinched the AFC East. Why would they care about the next 15 games?
The very nature of NASCAR, and car racing in general, is to gain points each week. In 2014, it only matters if you win. Matt Kenseth finished second Sunday night and it basically meant nothing. So why would fans care?
Now that Jimmie Johnson has his win – what is his goal for the next four months before the Chase begins?
By placing all the emphasis on winning, NASCAR has removed the interest in the sport as a whole. They are telling you that these 26 races don't mean anything except to give out playoff spots. And as we sit here in late May, there are already about 10 guys who have clinched spots. If they have little motivation for driving, what is your motivation for watching?
That was all crystalized on Sunday night. Jimmie Johnson won one of the sport's signature events. What was the big takeaway?
Not that he won. But that he had clinched a playoff spot. Now that winning means everything, it also means nothing.
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