Monday, October 19, 2009
NASCAR Chase has created a big, boring monster
Jimmie Johnson leading the Chase is great for Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports, bad for NASCAR.
By my account, the Chase has cost Jeff Gordon at least one, most likely two, more Cup championships.
It probably cost Tony Stewart his third this year.
About the only good thing about this year’s Chase is that it put Mark Martin in the lead for a while and gave him another great shot at a championship. After this, it really wasn’t meant to be for him.
But let’s look at how different the NASCAR would be if the Chase didn’t exist.
First Gordon would be knocking on the doorstep of NASCAR immortality. There aren’t that many polarizing figures in NASCAR. Stewart, Gordon and Kyle Busch are probably the only drivers who have as many fans as detractors.
If Gordon had one more Cup championship, that would make five for his career. In the best-case scenario, Gordon would have six career Cup championships without the Chase format and be one Cup championship away from being mentioned in the same sentence with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. That would drive his detractors, most of the state of Alabama and at least half of NASCAR nation crazy.
Before the Chase started, Stewart was in control of the Cup standings. He was going for his third Chase championship. He is still the only driver to win a Cup championship the old way and win one with the Chase format.
But would have made his pursuit of a third Cup championship so compelling is that he is doing it on his own. The likelihood of that happening, with a team that a year ago was struggling to finish races, let alone win them, and was more associated with the top-35 bubble than the top-12 Chase field, was remote.
Stewart proved the nay-sayers wrong. He brought his experience, savvy, confidence, whatever he wants to call it, to a team that was in desperate need of it. Other drivers will try to duplicate it (see Kevin Harvick), but it won’t work nearly as well for them. Stewart was in the midst of a monumentus season that was ruined because of the Chase.
Martin was the sentimental favorite to finally win a Cup championship. After four runner-up finishes, after retiring, after years of being known as the best driver in NASCAR never to win a Cup championship, he was in perfect position to erase all that.
It’s not like he can’t turn the Chase around and make a run at it, but Johnson is hard to beat at this time of year.
That’s the frustrating part of the Chase. Johnson is so good at this time of year it’s unlikely he and his team will make any mistakes that will cost him another championship. Even racing safe, he’ll end up winning a couple more before the season is over.
But what makes Johnson’s success so frustrating is that he is hard to root for or against.
There are NASCAR fans out there who want to see anyone other than Johnson win the Cup championship. It’s not because they don’t like Johnson, they are just tired of seeing him win.
It would be different if they hated seeing him win. Hated it like seeing Busch or Gordon win races. But it’s not hate, it’s boredom. Fans are bored of seeing Johnson win.
That’s why it’s bad for NASCAR. The last thing NASCAR needs is a tired viewing audience. Part of the problem is NASCAR's fault for creating this playoff system. Part of the problem is that the rest of NASCAR, including the other three teams at Hendrick Motorsports, suck at this time of year.
It would be great for NASCAR if someone other than Johnson won the Chase. But it’s not going to happen.
Photos: At top, Jimmie Johnson celebrates winning the NASCAR Banking 500 only from Bank of America at Lowe's Motor Speedway. With the win, Johnson ties Buck Baker for 13th on the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins list. (Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
In middle, NASCAR Banking 500 only from Bank of America Grand Marshals Brian France, Richard Petty, Teresa Earnhardt and Junior Johnson prepare to give the command to start engines at Lowe's Motor Speedway. (Photo Credit: Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
At bottom, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin race side by side during the early stages of the NASCAR Banking 500 only from Bank of America at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Johnson won the race, extended his lead in the Chase standings and is halfway to his fourth Cup championship in a row. (Photo Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)