Since 2004, we have seen NASCAR steadily do more to attempt to create exciting finishes. First there was the chase, created in an attempt to manufacture an exciting finish to the championship. More recently we have green-white-checkers and late-race cautions which are used in an attempt to create more dramatic race finishes. But are these things actually creating the excitement that was intended?
Before going any further, I will admit that I am more of a traditionalist. Seven years after its inception, I strongly dislike the chase. I'm okay with the "lucky dog" rule and perhaps one attempt at a GWC finish, but I do not care for many of the newer rules. However, stating those opinions is not the purpose of this article. Instead, I want to take an intentional, logical look at why I believe NASCAR's attempts to create excitement have actually been counter-productive.
I also want to note that I do believe NASCAR readily throws caution flags late in the race to bunch up the field. To clarify, I do not believe the cautions are completely fake or just for entertainment. I am not big on conspiracy theories; most are just plain silly. However, I do believe that they are quick to throw the caution for a minor spin or tiny piece of debris that they may have ignored earlier in the race.
NASCAR has completely missed one crucial point as it has made these changes over the last several years. Some drivers are better in the short run, while others come on stronger towards the end of the run. This point can be applied in two different ways.
When we have a green-white-checkered finish or an ordinary restart with less than 10 laps to go, it obviously favors cars and drivers who do better on restarts and the short run. Often a GWC finish is only about the restart; the driver who gets the best restart gets out front and usually cannot be caught. That does not produce good racing. In contrast, a race that has a long green-flag run near the end can produce better racing. Typically during a long green-flag run, some drivers will run faster early on while others come on strong late in the run. By the end of the run, those two groups of drivers have often caught one another on the track, and that can create a great battle for the win if it occurs at the end of the race. No, it won't happen all the time, but by throwing cautions and bunching up the field late in the race, NASCAR does not even give this a chance of happening.
Similarly, some drivers do better early in the season while others do better as the season wears on. Tony Stewart is known for coming on strong later in the season, as has Jimmie Johnson in recent years. By resetting the standings for the chase, NASCAR does not allow this to happen. The chase format benefits drivers who can have a strong 10-race run but does not allow others the opportunity to catch up. Therefore, NASCAR's own chase format simply ends up stifling the competition.
Let's take a look at some statistics to back this up. In the six seasons we've had the chase, here were the final point margins between first and second: 8, 35, 56, 77, 69, and 141. Of special note was the 2007 season which featured a 77-point gap between first and second, but third-place Clint Bowyer was an astounding 346 points behind.
Now, let's look at some statistics prior to the inception of the chase. The following figures come from the seasons between 1990 and 2003. Yes, there were some very wide point margins (195, 444, 364, 201, 265, and 349). However, more frequently, the margins were much closer: 26, 10, 80, 34, 37, 14, 38, and 90. Of particular interest is the 90, which was Matt Kenseth's final margin of victory during his championship season. People often point to that season as the reason why the chase was instituted, but the final gap at season's end was actually rather small. Again, it's because it was allowed to play out naturally, and Kenseth's consistency took some hits late in the year.
The average gap between first and second place in the six seasons of the chase is 64 points, and 6 of the 14 seasons prior to the inception of the chase featured closer point battles than that. The reason? Different drivers performed better during different parts of the season, and by season's end, they had worked themselves into a tight battle for the championship. There was no need for the points to be reset.
Whether on the race track or in the championship standings, NASCAR needs to let battles play out naturally. History shows us that, more often than not, the finishes were still very exciting.
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