LOUDON, N.H. – The moment NASCAR unveiled its Chase for the Sprint Cup championship prior to the 2004 season, a debate began about its format. On the eve of its seventh incarnation, that debate rages on as strong as ever.
Should there be more than 12 drivers in the field? Fewer? Should there be eliminations throughout the 10 races? Should the Chase drivers compete under a separate points system? Or should NASCAR just scrap the format altogether?
The Chase isn't going away. It's here to stay. Exactly what it will look like, however, isn't so certain.
"I don't know," NASCAR president Mike Helton said when asked if changes are coming, "but we sure are doing a lot of talking about it."
Among the changes that Helton acknowledged are on the table are expansion of the field and an elimination format. He wouldn't elaborate any further, saying those discussions are reserved for NASCAR's associates, including sponsors, owners, drivers and, presumably, broadcast partners.
The fact that so many voices are playing into this decision underscores the complexity of the challenge facing the sport. NASCAR would surely benefit from a Super Bowl-type climax where one race at the end of the season determines its champion. But while that kind of finale is conducive to head-to-head sports, it's not to racing, where championships are traditionally won by being the best over an entire season, not in a 10-week stretch, let alone a single race.
"You can't just say, 'Okay its zero to zero, last two cars have at it in the last race,' " Jeff Burton said. "It's not what our sport has been about."
Burton added, "There is part of me that says, 'Wow, that is really exciting.' How many Super Bowls do you guys go to where there are half the people who aren't even watching the game? You know? But they are there for the party. And that is what is cool about the Super Bowl – it's a national event. And the more we can do those kinds of things, the better it is for our sport."
When NASCAR chairman Brian France introduced the Chase, he anticipated that it would do just that – keep the points race close enough that the season finale would, in essence, be a winner-take-all match. It hasn't turned out that way.
Only once in the six-year history of the Chase has the finale been much more than a formality. Aside from Kurt Busch's 8-point victory in the inaugural Chase, the eventual champion has needed only to finish somewhere near the top 20 in the final race to clinch the title. In other words, there hasn't been much drama.
This is how NASCAR has come to consider an elimination format.
The argument against this idea centers around old-school fans who already feel alienated by the Chase. They don't like change, cling to tradition and will never accept a championship any other way than counting the points over an entire season.
The argument for elimination hinges on sagging TV ratings, a stagnant fan base and general apathy about NASCAR. The Chase was created to keep the public's attention as the Cup schedule dragged on into its eighth, ninth and 10th month. However, for a host of reasons – be it Jimmie Johnson's dominance, a lack of drama, competition from the NFL or a combination of all three – the Chase hasn't produced the results. Eliminating drivers in two- or three-race segments would, conceivably, produce a must-see factor on a weekly basis.
But what would be the cost? Would old-school fans tune out? Would new-school fans find it too contrived? And what if no one new tuned in? Then all you're left with is a ticked-off fan base.
"Every time you make a decision, you have to weigh it out against risk versus reward," Helton said. "The original Chase itself was [implemented] with the same attitude. It changed the way we crown our champion from the 50 years before that.
"At the end of the day, the decision will be made in the best interest of the sport. Not necessarily to create drama and not necessarily to make a change just because we feel like we have to, but because it's to do the right thing about the sport based on current circumstances."
Current circumstances – most notably the declining TV ratings combined with the looming end of the TV contract which expires after the 2014 season – suggests that a change is coming. And with it, the Chase debate will surely roll on.