Tuesday, November 11, 2014

For NASCAR, 11th Time’s a Charm

The moment Kyle Larson’s car hit the wall on Sunday evening, NASCAR could revel.

It took a decade of tinkering, declining ratings, falling attendance and thousands of negative articles, but NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup finally became an attraction in 2014.

There had been indications the new system had brought the urgency and desperation – two ingredients for any successful auto race – back to the staid NASCAR environment. There was the crapshoot at Talladega, with every Chase driver engaged in a never-before-seen extended game of chicken and roulette at high speeds in close quarters. There was the endlessly repeated scrap between Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski; weeks after Matt Kenseth set his sights on Brad.

kevin harvick chase
While the focus leading into Phoenix was off-the-track, the real story was on-the-track. I would consider myself a lapsed NASCAR fan. I was drawn to the sport as a kid and stay with it until the mid-2000’s and the Chase first appeared. Like a band that had sold out, I stopped watching NASCAR because it felt too corporate. They had whittled away what I loved about it.

I would still check in from time to time. I watched the Daytona 500. I watched the Coca-Cola 600 this year, while battling a flu that ruined my Memorial Day weekend. I kept tabs but rarely kept tabs open.

In mid-October, I was spending a Saturday night with my parents when my dad kept flipping back to the Charlotte race. There was college football on! This infuriated and confused me. What was he doing? Why are we watching this?

“It’s good,” he told me. “It’s getting good.”

That was the night Matt Kenseth attacked Brad Keselowski. That got me hooked. I chose the final third of races at Talladega and Texas over the NFL. On this past Sunday, a dearth of quality football had my television fixated on NASCAR for the most time in several years.

As the field took the white flag, it appeared my viewership would be in vain. Even though Ryan Newman was only a spot away from transferring, it appeared his tires had too much wear and he wouldn’t get past Kyle Larson.

It helped that ESPN – the logo onscreen for its final NASCAR season should be a giant postage stamp – initially missed the final move. It added to surprise and the intensity. Seconds after showing Kevin Harvick winning the race, the camera cut quickly to Larson’s car being shoved aside by Newman’s 31 and into the wall. It was the most dramatic a last-turn move since the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

We watch sports that reward our viewership. Once a sport delivers, we give them more chances to impress. That’s why we always watch the NCAA Tournament even if every year doesn’t provide wall-to-wall buzzer beaters and upsets – it’s the tantalizing possibility. That’s why the NFL and college football bring in millions of viewers. It’s why we watch LeBron and playoff hockey but not the 76ers and November hockey.

The Chase for the Cup, from the moment it was introduced, was doomed to fail. While it artificially added excitement to August and September, it didn’t change much about October and November. With the exception of the Tony Stewart/Carl Edwards duel, the Chase ended in a similar way that most seasons ended – with a champion emerging through consistency and greatness. We love to watch greatness. We get bored with consistency.

It’s a struggle for any individual sport because we are trained to not care about season-long points battles. We value the champions because we respect their accomplishments and specific wins. It adds to their resumes. No one sits around to wistfully remember how exactly Dale Earnhardt clinched those 7 Cup titles, just that he has 7.

The PGA Tour, like NASCAR, has tried and failed to make a playoff system work. The PGA Tour, like NASCAR, seems to tinker every year with the points system and the schedule.

I advocated earlier this year that the PGA Tour should turn its Tour Championship into a match play event, with one-on-one matchups to eliminate players in one final weekend to crown a champion. The PGA Tour would never think outside the box like that. I failed to realize NASCAR already had.

The first graphics for the 2014 Chase featured a bracket and it didn’t quite dawn on me what NASCAR had put into place. The format change was roundly and routinely criticized when it was announced. I’m sure even those at NASCAR HQ had to be wary – did we do the right thing?

With 16 cars, the playoff field may be too big as the first three races and first four eliminations did little to excite the fans. There was no urgency yet to winning. There was no desperation for top drivers. Then everything changed. Then the intensity level went straight to 11. Then people started paying attention.

Time will tell if this is a revival for NASCAR or a momentary reprieve.

Regardless, I will ensure my plans allow me to watch the season finale on Sunday – and I haven’t said that in years.

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