NASCAR can liven up the Chase by adding road course to the schedule
The final road course race of the Sprint Cup season had everything that makes NASCAR great -- cars banging into each other, spectacular crashes, flaring tempers, post-race brawls and controversy.
These are all qualities needed to create more interest in the 10 races that make up The Chase for the Championship.
Sure, there is the sheer terror that comes with restrictor-plate racing at Talladega on Halloween weekend, the short-track slugfest at Martinsville Speedway and Dover's Monster Mile, but the other seven tracks in the Chase often yield ho-hum racing.
Consider Chicagoland and Kansas, which are sister tracks that opened the same year with the same design. In the early days of these tracks the only way to determine the difference was whether the heartburn was from Kansas City barbecue or from a Chicago-style hot dog.
Then there's New Hampshire. The addition of transitional banking has changed the racing to a more traditional style of single-file racing -- the same that will be on display at Phoenix in the penultimate race in the Chase. The playoff has the cookie-cutter 1.5-mile ovals at Charlotte and Texas, both of which were designed and created by the man who runs Speedway Motorsports, Inc., Bruton Smith. The Chase concludes at Homestead Miami-Speedway which has had plenty of makeovers over its history and is now another 1.5-mile, high-banked oval.
With the exception of last year's three-driver battle heading into the final race and the first year of the Chase (2004), when seven drivers were still in contention to win the championship, the final race of the season has been more or less a coronation for Jimmie Johnson than anything.
NASCAR has done plenty of tinkering with the format to make it more exciting, but one additional tweak might be throwing a road course race into the Chase mix. The past few seasons, Sonoma and Watkins Glen have produced some of the most action-packed races of the season.
Due to climate reasons, Sonoma would be the best venue for the fall. The weather in Northern California in late September and October is fantastic, and it would be more ideal than the colder, rainy conditions of upstate New York.
While many racing purists don't believe a road course should be involved in determining the championship in the final 10 races, there are plenty who think it would be a truer indicator of a champion's all-around racing ability.
"I've always said that in order to make the championship fully complete and find out the true best team and driver, the only thing that I think we're missing in the Chase right now is a road course," said Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion. "I feel like the Chase has about everything right now, from short tracks to superspeedways to intermediates, so I think it's pretty complete right now, but if you wanted to look at just one little thing that was missing, it would be a road course."
While Gordon may be a proponent of including a road course, 2003 champion Matt Kenseth doesn't believe that style of racing should be in the Chase.
"There are only two road courses throughout the year, and that's less than 10 percent of what we do," Kenseth said. "If you asked somebody what they think about NASCAR racing, I don't think road courses would be near the top of their list. I don't think that's really what we do every week. It's kind of a novelty and it's fun to come and do because it's something different and changes the pace up, but I don't think it really needs to be in the Chase, but that's just my opinion."
But a road course would certainly break up the monotony of the tracks during that stretch. It would also be a great indicator of a driver's true versatility.
With the addition of double-file restarts there is more action on the road courses than at some of the fabled short tracks, where beatin' and bangin' has been replaced with follow the leader.
"When they announced [double-file restarts] was going to happen, you know the rumblings in the garage were like 'Oh my God, wait until these road courses, this is going to be disastrous,'" said Clint Bowyer, who is still fighting to get into the Chase. "It's pretty much held up to that.
"On restarts, the caution comes out at the end and if it does, then all heck breaks loose. Again, put yourself in that situation, you're getting off into [Turn] 1, you're three- and four-wide -- myself I'm outside the Chase, I've got to gain ground -- you can come out of Turn 1 on a restart and gain five, six, seven, eight spots on that one corner if the opportunity presents itself. All it takes is one car to get into another car and [it] starts a chain reaction."
Kevin Harvick believes part of the appeal of the road courses is there are just two of them on the schedule.
"The road courses have become wild, it seems like they have become really rough and fun to watch and fun to drive," he said. "You have some guys that are good at it and some guys that aren't. If it's not something that you look forward to or enjoy coming to, it can be a long weekend. You can lose a lot of points here."
Gaining a lot of points and losing a lot of points is what is needed in the Chase. For the most part, the 12 drivers in championship contention can scramble the points at Martinsville and Talladega but the racing holds true to form at the other eight tracks on the schedule.
So, why not shake it up a bit and add an October trip to Sonoma?
The driver who wins the IZOD IndyCar Series championship is one that has to excel on superspeedways, short ovals, road courses and street courses, making it one of the most diversified championships in all of racing. Formula 1 is entirely a road and street course series and NASCAR is 34 ovals and two road courses.
Making the drivers fighting for NASCAR's championship compete on a road course in one of the final 10 races of the season would be a truer way to determine a champion's versatility.
Besides, it might add a little more excitement like fans were treated to this past Monday at Watkins Glen.
Sounds like a winner to me.