It is being reported that NASCAR is meeting with drivers and team owners to discuss possible changes for the sport, including changes to the Chase format. The thinking seems to be that the racing has improved so NASCAR can look at other changes.
One of the ideas being kicked around right now is expanding the Chase field again. In 2004, when the Chase was introduced, only 10* drivers made it. In 2007, it was expanded from 10 to 12.
* Technically, any driver within 400 points would have made it, but no one outside of the top 10 was ever within 400 points of the leader when the Chase field was set.
An argument for expanding the field is that it would increase the percentage of teams that make the field, which would put NASCAR on par with other sports. In the NFL, nearly 38% of teams make the playoffs. In the NBA and NHL, 53% of teams make the playoffs. MLB is the only major sport that has a smaller percentage (26.6%) than NASCAR (27.9%).
But, expanding the field is a slippery slope. If NASCAR allows too many drivers in, it will diminish the Chase. If NASCAR were to match the percentages of the NBA and NHL, 23 drivers would make it into the Chase. What would really be the point of having a Chase at all if half the teams make it?
It would seem that a Chase field that large would only serve to eliminate the smaller, non-competitive teams from contention. It would also allow teams with lackluster performances a chance at the championship, which may not be a good thing. The minute a driver not named Dale Earnhardt Jr goes on to win the championship from 23rd position, fans will complain that the Chase is a joke.
But, what about a moderate expansion? What about expanding from 12 teams to 15 teams? That could possibly work. It would allow more drivers a shot at winning the championship, and it would allow the Chase to keep its exclusivity.
But, the point of the initial changes to the Chase was to put more emphasis on winning. Would expanding the field put more emphasis on winning? No. It would also diminish the reward for consistency, because a driver doesn’t need to be that consistent to get into the top 15 in points.
Still, a minor expansion wouldn’t be all bad. It would allow more drivers to compete for the Championship, and that increased competition might make the Chase more interesting.
Another idea floating around is to reset the Chase points heading into the final race. That would put much too much emphasis on a single race, and could make the consequences of a part failure or on-track incident much more devastating. It would also diminish the other Chase races, and would only increase the viewership of the final race of the season, not the entire Chase.
If NASCAR is looking to make changes to the Chase they should consider the tracks that are in the Chase. Perhaps, the stock car racing sanctioning body should look into changing some of the tracks in the Chase. Ideally, to determine a champion, fans would want to see every possible type of race contained in the playoff races. So, the Chase should have a short track race, a mile-and-a-half track, a restrictor plate race, and a road course.
NASCAR should also consider increasing the bonus points for winning. That would put more emphasis on winning, similar to the way that adding bonus points did in 2007. But then the question becomes how many points do they add? How many points would be too many?
Ultimately, is the Chase really that bad? Is it broken? NASCAR should be commended for their willingness to consider changing the format to make it better for the fans. But, if it ain’t broke… don’t fix it.