Chase isn’t al­ways fair, that doesn’t make it bad

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. >> When Wil­liam By­ron’s en­gine ex­ploded less than 10 laps away from his sev­enth win of the sea­son, his chance to race for the Truck Se­ries cham­pi­onship blew up in a puff of white smoke.

It was one of those bad breaks that hap­pen ev­ery week at ev­ery level in auto rac­ing. But when it hap­pens to the most dom­i­nant driver in a se­ries and ru­ins his ti­tle as­pi­ra­tions, it ig­nites a de­bate about the fair­ness — flaws, maybe? — of the elim­i­na­tion-style play­offs NASCAR now uses in all three of its se­ries.

Brad Ke­selowski was par­tic­u­larly up­set about By­ron’s mis­for­tune, even though Ke­selowski fields ri­val trucks. He de­scribed him­self as “mad and dis­ap­pointed” for By­ron, and said the elim­i­na­tion for­mat has ef­fec­tively “traded ex­cel­lence for en­ter­tain­ment.”

Ke­selowski learned how harsh the sys­tem can be in 2014, its de­but year at the Sprint Cup level. He won six races that year, but one bad day at Martinsville led to his elim­i­na­tion from the play­offs after the third round. Ke­selowski had been wor­thy of a spot in the fi­nale, but he didn’t earn one of the slots.

Same goes Jeff Gor­don that first year. He won four times in 2014 and should have raced for the ti­tle. Like Ke­selowski, he was bounced out of the third round.

Joey Logano should have made the fi­nale last year but didn’t. Same goes for Matt Kenseth, who was two laps away from vic­tory Sun­day at Phoenix In­ter­na­tional Race­way un­til a cau­tion cre­ated a se­ries of events that caused him to crash. He was all but as­sured of a slot in this weekend’s fi­nale at Home­stead-Mi­ami Speed­way one mo­ment, last in the Chase stand­ings the next.

There have been ar­gu­ments about the Chase since it was first in­tro­duced in 2004. Fans felt it was con­trived and that the tra­di­tional sea­son-long point cham­pion was the truest way to de­cide a ti­tle. The for­mat has been tin­kered with sev­eral times since, but its most rad­i­cal ad­just­ments came three years ago when NASCAR im­ple­mented elim­i­na­tions. That for­mat this year was brought to both the Xfin­ity Se­ries and Truck Se­ries for the first time.

Ev­ery sport has up­sets and un­der­dogs. Ev­ery sport has a Cin­derella story ev­ery now and then that drums up in­ter­est. NASCAR very much needed that el­e­ment when it in­tro­duced the Chase, and chair­man Brian France has long trum­peted the de­sire to have his sport in a po­si­tion to cre­ate “Game 7 mo­ments.”

The en­tire coun­try talked for days about the sev­enth game of the World Se­ries and the Chicago Cubs’ dra­matic vic­tory. Any leader in their right mind would want that same nail-bit­ing ten­sion for their sport. They want to see crush­ing de­feats, ca­reer-defin­ing vic­to­ries, mag­i­cal mo­ments.

So no mat­ter what long­time fans be­lieve, France did the ab­so­lute right thing in cre­at­ing the Chase. Yes, peo­ple claim they stopped watch­ing NASCAR be­cause of the Chase. They blame Brian France for turn­ing to gim­micks over tra­di­tion, claim the Chase has ru­ined the sport they once loved.

Well, those peo­ple are cling­ing to a past that is never com­ing back. NASCAR has plenty of prob­lems and NASCAR does many things in­cor­rectly, but the Chase for the Sprint Cup cham­pi­onship is not one of them.

The Chase in its first year had five driv­ers el­i­gi­ble to win the ti­tle. It pit­ted team­mates Jeff Gor­don and Jim­mie John­son against each other in one of the fiercest cham­pi­onship bat­tles in NASCAR his­tory. The Chase in 2011 pro­duced a mag­nif­i­cent fi­nale in which Tony Ste­wart and Carl Ed­wards ended the cham­pi­onship tied with Ste­wart get­ting the tro­phy on a tiebreaker.

The elim­i­na­tion el­e­ment has raised the pres­sure and forced driv­ers to an­swer the call when the sea­son is on the line. Kevin Har­vick twice won must-win races in 2014 on his way to the ti­tle, Joey Logano has done it twice this year alone, in­clud­ing Sun­day when his vic­tory put him in the fi­nale.

It is ab­so­lutely true that the fi­nal four driv­ers will not al­ways rep­re­sent the most de­serv­ing teams. By­ron learned that the hard way in the Truck Se­ries’ in­au­gu­ral Chase. The most dom­i­nant teams don’t al­ways de­liver when the pres­sure is at its high­est; although Har­vick had per­formed time and again when his back was against the wall, Ste­wartHaas Rac­ing couldn’t come up with the dom­i­nat­ing per­for­mance it needed Sun­day for him to ad­vance.

That’s called sports, and there’s noth­ing con­trived about it.

It’s not al­ways fair, but sports are the great­est re­al­ity pro­gram­ming out there. Any­thing can hap­pen — and did to Kenseth at Phoenix! — and that’s why we watch.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wil­liam By­ron sits in his car after qual­i­fy­ing for a NASCAR Trucks auto race at Phoenix In­ter­na­tional Race­way, in Avon­dale, Ariz. By­ron’s en­gine ex­ploded less than 10 laps from his sev­enth win of the sea­son, his right to race for the Truck Se­ries cham­pi­onship burned away in a puff of white smoke. And that raises ques­tions about the elim­i­na­tion-style play­offs NASCAR uses in all three of its se­ries.

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