Mark Story: In Kentucky, fan reaction divided over NASCAR's 'radical' Chase changes

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 1, 2014 

Whatever else you may think of NASCAR CEO Brian France, you have to give him this: He is not afraid of change.

For the fourth time since 2004, NASCAR last week made significant alterations to how the Sprint Cup champion is determined. USA Today described the changes as "radical."

Under the new plan, the 10-race "Chase for the Sprint Cup" will now include 16 drivers, not 12. Rather than season points, the number of races a driver has won will determine (in most cases) whether or not one qualifies for the NASCAR "playoff."

The Chase itself will now be divided into four elimination segments. After the first three races, four of the 16 eligible drivers will be eliminated. After the sixth race of The Chase, four more drivers will be out. At the end of nine races, the number of drivers vying for the championship will be reduced from eight to four.

Whoever among that quartet finishes highest in the final race at Homestead/Miami Speedway will be your season champion.

"This will promote compelling competition for wins all season long," France said Thursday in Charlotte, while announcing the new format. "Ultimately, it will reward a very worthy champion at the end of each season, with the best-of-the-best, winner-take-all showdown."

As you would expect for a change so dramatic, opinion here in Kentucky among the NASCAR community is mixed.

Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger has been saying for years that track promoters wanted more emphasis on winning races and less on "points racing." "I think this system should produce that," Simendinger said Thursday.

Andy Vertrees, formerly a longtime racetrack promoter here in the commonwealth and an ex-Kentucky Speedway official, said he thinks NASCAR, with its TV ratings and attendance in decline in recent years, had to act boldly.

"I think they needed to change," said Vertrees, 67. "I think it is good for the sport. ... It's about adding excitement, and we need to rejuvenate motorsports. The whole scene has just had a bad vibe."

Among NASCAR fans with whom I spoke, feelings were running from lukewarm on the changes to staunchly opposed.

Lexington's Stan Ryle, 62, called the new format "sad. Like a lot of things nowadays, it doesn't reward excellence. A system that determines a champion off one race does not, in my opinion, reward excellence."

Georgetown's Will Bledsoe, 36, said the latest changes are the most extreme example so far of what he sees as NASCAR's penchant for undermining the integrity of its competition in favor of "manufactured excitement."

Bledsoe, a social studies teacher at Scott County High School, said old-school racing fans understand that the measure of a champion is consistent performance across a full season. He decried the new NASCAR championship formula as one "that will reward the driver who is putting his car in the wall one week, winning maybe three out of four races, but putting the car in the wall again the week after that. That runs against the whole history of the sport in terms of what being champion has always been about."

Conversely, Mickey Moore, 50, a veterinary technician from Vine Grove, said his initial reaction to the NASCAR changes is hopeful.

"I know people say they don't like the championship coming down to (the outcome of) one race," Moore said. "But I still think it will be a worthy champion. You are still going to have to be a consistent team, a consistent driver, to make that final four. I think people should keep an open mind."

Chuck Hughes, 55, a Lexington businessman, said he believes the new format "adds a little excitement to it. I have some mixed emotions, I really do, about deciding the champion that way. But I do think it will add excitement."

My initial thought is that NASCAR has long needed to put more emphasis on winning races. Still, I am not a fan of having a one-race, four-driver showdown determine the season championship.

In Sunday's Super Bowl, the two teams vying for the NFL championship will be the only ones on the field. A Sprint Cup race has 43 cars competing. Wrecks and the actions of other competitors can have a dramatic impact on outcomes in any one race. Deciding the season championship based on a single race seems way too random to be fair.

In my view, NASCAR is trying too hard to ensure a "Game Seven moment" every year.

Georgetown's Bledsoe, that rare racing fan who follows many disciplines from IndyCar to sports cars to Formula One as well as NASCAR, thinks he'll be less interested in Sprint Cup competition now.

"I'll still watch the Daytona 500, the other races at the tracks that are historic, like Martinsville, Bristol," he said. "But I don't see me giving one hoot about a championship that may as well be decided by throwing confetti in the air and seeing which piece lands in a cup."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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