CHICAGO — For the second year in a row, the Chase Grid has been set and it’s abundantly clear that 16 participants is simply way too many.
Of all the elements included in the second-year championship format, the sheer number of finalists who are allowed to compete for the Sprint Cup is the most damning. Sure, the elimination bracket feels like a random number generator, but the emphasis on performing when it matters most can be justified.
There was something undeniably pure about the best of the best in NASCAR having to endure the gauntlet over-and-over until only one remained standing. Unfortunately, the current landscape of the Sprint Cup Series shows that the tour is about 12 deep in terms of highly competitive teams.
With all due respect to Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team, the four-time champion isn’t elite and should not be included in the Chase. Despite their best efforts, the same argument could be made for Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard.
These are solid teams but not spectacular ones, and they are not going to win this championship no matter what happens over the final 10. (Editor’s note: Watch this come back to bite me in November.) The obvious rebuttal has always been: if they truly aren’t good enough, then they will be amongst those cut in the first round anyway.
But if they aren’t good enough, then why are they in the playoffs?
The Chase for the Championship should not be a consolation cookie where mostly anyone that has a high-profile sponsor earns a spot. NASCAR has an inclusivity problem right now and it shows in every aspect of its business — from the playoffs to its two exhibition races at Daytona and Charlotte.
A playoff field should be judged based on who didn’t make it rather than who does. In the efforts to combat the NFL and garner as much attention for the final 10 weeks, NASCAR has created a system that attempts to include everyone that moves the needles.
The original Chase felt special because it included only the 10 best teams in the sport. As a result, marquee names like Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick missed the cut over the years. In response, NASCAR expanded the field from 10-to-12 all in the name of inclusivity.
Then came McMurray’s three-win campaign in 2010 that led to the two wild card spots followed by the Richmond debacle in 2013 that resulted in the current knockout elimination format replete with 16 teams.
While NASCAR seems content with that number, the status quo has more consequences than benefits.
The largest drawback to the current procedure is the dilatation of the regular season. It’s a small sample size but Richmond has been a prolific dud two years running because the Field of 16 was all but set leading into the final weeks of the calendar.
With win and you’re in, much of the drama has been zapped from the regular season. Prior to the introduction of the current format, there would be three or four teams with a mathematical shot at cracking the playoff field — many of them with competitive or popular drivers.
Unfortunately, the playoffs are reflective of the sport as a whole, with NASCAR run as a business first and a sport second. Sponsors and partners must be appeased and as a result, the Chase has become an all-inclusive lottery.
Simply put, 16 drivers are way too many.
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