A four-man, winner-take-all finale. That is what will determine the Sprint Cup championship in 2014 and - presumably - beyond, as announced by NASCAR during Thursday's "State of the Sport" address.
To paraphrase as best as possible a golden quote by Rusty Wallace as he opined on the implementation of Green-White-Checkered finishes in 2004, I love NASCAR but it feels like they all held hands and jumped off the cliff together on this one.
Once again, NASCAR has sacrificed its history and its true fans in order to appease the attention deficit-riddled masses. Once again, they have further diluted and de-legitimized what is supposed to be the greatest and most prestigious of auto racing championships in North America.
Maybe this new format will be what NASCAR needs to fix their ratings and attendance problems. They have to do something to reclaim their status as the flavor of the day, which is what led to the huge boom among the mainstream in the early 2000s. People saw that NASCAR racing was the "in thing," jumped on the bandwagon, stuck around for a few years, and then moved on to a new flavor. Who knows where they are now. That UFC stuff seems to have quite a burgeoning fanbase, so I figure a bunch of them have taken up residence there.
It is frustrating, disheartening, and downright insulting that NASCAR's attempt to recapture the hearts of those lemmings has come at the expense of the real, true fans who have been watching all this time - before, during, and after the boom. We didn't just hear the tales of what Dale Earnhardt did on the race track, we watched him do it. We don't need YouTube to show us Ned Jarrett's wonderful call of the last lap in the 1993 Daytona 500, because we were tuned to CBS that Valentine's Day.
The format in its entirety isn't all bad. The win-to-get-in aspect is good, and there is a bit of intrigue to the in-Chase eliminations. The issue is with the winner-take-all finale. You can't take a season-long racing championship and dictate that it be decided by a single race. If that occurs naturally, like the 1992 Hooters 500 and the 2011 Ford 400, then great. But to make that the standard, that four men will leave penultimate race and whoever has the best finish in the last race becomes our season's champion, is ridiculous. Too many goofy things can happen in a single race. It would be terribly disappointing to see something like rain determine the champ.
A winner-take-all format just doesn't work, period. Sure, the fourth-place guy will have had a pretty good year, or at least a pretty good nine weeks, but there is a reason he was fourth and not first or second or even third. The fact that he can go into the last race and simply finish ahead of the other drivers to take the title, without overcoming any kind of points advantage they have built by being the better teams, goes against what a racing championship should be all about.
There has already been plenty of struggle in reconciling Chase-era champions as having the same prize as men like Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, Cale Yarborough, and David Pearson. It will be downright impossible, under this format, to equate those triumphs with the 2014 titlist. Yet, you will have overly-ambitious writers and social media coordinators jumping make the comparisons and acting as though whoever hoists the trophy at Miami will have taken a place alongside those legends. No, he will have taken a place in a wing that is perhaps adjacent to but entirely different from the one in which the crowns of the past. Never again will the words "Cup champion" be in the least bit relatable from this day and age to the days gone by, when a team won a championship by being the best at what they did over the course of several races - first a full season, then 10 events (still more than a quarter of the campaign).
If someone is going to criticize, they should offer up a solution that can be scrutinized in turn. Given the chance to decide the format - under the assumption that the Chase will be a part of Sprint Cup racing until there are no more races to be run and the eliminations, etc., are going to be included henceforth - I would have the final remaining combatants battle over the course of at least three races, perhaps has many as five, to determine the champion. That would keep things plenty close while also avoiding a potential (and perhaps inevitable, if this format remains in place for any length of time) farce in a winner-take-all finale.
I am going to try to give the system a chance. That was NASCAR Senior Vice President Steve O'Donnell's advice to me when I asked him on Twitter to convince me that it would be a good thing for our championship to be decided in such a manner. However, it is difficult - and painfully so, given my lifelong love of NASCAR racing and the premier division in particular - not to feel that the Sprint Cup Series has been taken down a few notches with this latest tweak to the system.