NASCAR needs to hear its fans

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – NASCAR fans are reluctant to change, even when tweaks are made to grossly outdated policies and procedures. They like how things were done “in the old days” and are quick to criticize new ideas.

So there’s been a decent amount of consternation about the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, the 10-race format adopted in 2004 and altered three years later.

Now NASCAR chairman Brian France is again considering a tweak or two, and it’s imperative that he keep in mind just how fans will react. After all, every move of late has been made with a focus on stopping the slide in both attendance and television ratings.

And while many recent changes have greatly improved the on-track product, NASCAR is not receiving an overwhelming return on its investment.

“There’s always a number of things that are working against you or for you at any one time,” France said last week, citing competition from the Winter Olympics, World Cup and the economy for underwhelming attendance and ratings this season.

What France didn’t address is the faction of race fans who simply have lost interest in the sport. Although NASCAR has in past years received favorable feedback from its “fan council,” there remains a large group of one-time enthusiasts who just don’t like what’s become of the series.

Time and time again they rail against the Chase, which they blast as manufactured entertainment. After 29 years of crowning a champion based on a season-long accumulation of points, NASCAR devised a 10-driver, 10-race “playoff” that would create excitement when auto racing goes head-to-head with college football, the NFL and the World Series.

In 2007, France expanded the field to 12 drivers and tacked on a “seeding” system that ranked drivers based on 10-point bonuses they earned by winning “regular-season” races.

The results under both formats have been mixed: The inaugural year had five drivers in mathematical contention heading into the season finale, and Kurt Busch edged Jimmie Johnson by eight points. In the first year of the expanded field, Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon waged an epic championship battle that resulted in Johnson beating his mentor by 77 points.

Those two years were the exception, not the rule, and Johnson’s reign of four consecutive championships hasn’t helped drum up excitement for the Chase.

So now NASCAR is taking another look at what could be done differently, and ideas being bandied about are a 15-driver field, elimination rounds, different Chase tracks and a system that could send a handful of drivers into the season finale for a winner-take-all situation.

“The big design is to have playoff-type moments that only can be, in any sport, created when there’s a lot on the line at any one moment, right? That’s what the essence of Game 7s, eliminations, and all that are,” France said. “What we’re talking about is enhancing it in a way that will bring out more of the … big moments that happen in sports.

“And if there’s a way we can do that – and there are a couple of ways – we’re going to give that a lot of weight.”

It’s absolutely the right thing to do, even if the initial reaction wasn’t overly positive.

Denny Hamlin immediately jumped on Twitter to blast any changes, while Johnson and Carl Edwards expressed fear of doing anything too drastic. Current series points leader Kevin Harvick was more cryptic about his opposition toward change.

“I have thoughts on it, but I don’t know that I should express them,” he said. “We’ll see what they come up with, (France) knows my thoughts on it.”

But France needs to make decisions based on what’s best for the sport.

For too long things have stayed status quo because NASCAR falls back on the tired “that’s how we’ve always done it” excuse, even though the original reasoning for so many systems no longer applies. It’s often more about not wanting to upset the apple cart than it is about making thoughtful decisions that can better the sport.

The old way of crowning a champion based on a 36-race body of work was boring, and a driver wrapping up a title with two or three races to go isn’t very interesting. And it’s not coming back, ever.

The Chase is here to stay, and it’s a very good thing for the sport. However, France cannot continue to tweak the system every few years and expect fans to accept the changes.

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