As the stock cars rumbled through the desert sunshine at Phoenix International Raceway last Friday afternoon during a practice session, the most powerful man in American motor sports stood in the infield and felt nothing but good vibrations. "The Chase format has exceeded my expectations," said a grinning Brian France, 43, the chairman of NASCAR. "Television ratings are up five percent this year, and we don't even have our two biggest stars, Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr., in the Chase. Think about it: If the Yankees and Red Sox aren't in the playoffs, ratings go down."
Viewers aren't the only ones who have taken a liking to the Chase for the championship--a playoff system, now in its second year, that recalibrates the point totals for the top 10 drivers with 10 races left in the season so the interval between them is only five points. Richard Petty, a critic of the plan when it was introduced, has come around. "I'm all for change if it's positive, and the Chase has obviously been positive," says the King. "It's grown on me."
So why has the Chase been such a smash hit? Unlike 2003, when Matt Kenseth had the title all but wrapped up in October, there are four drivers mathematically alive for the title this weekend in the season's final race at Homestead--Miami Speedway. Clearly the tightening of the standings has turbocharged the intensity of the drivers in the title hunt, leading to some great theater. Late last Friday afternoon, for instance, Chase driver Ryan Newman was so upset with journeyman P.J. Jones after the two made contact in practice that the normally mild-mannered Newman challenged Jones to a fight in the garage. And after Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart tangled at Martinsville on Oct. 23, Stewart fumed, "They name streets after guys like that: One Way and Dead End.... If he came over here right now, I'm afraid I'd have to strangle him."
But the Chase's chief accomplishment has been to make NASCAR relevant in the fall, when NFL broadcasts traditionally dominate Sunday afternoons. NASCAR execs expect this Sunday's Ford 400 to be the most watched race in the history of NASCAR during football season. "The Chase is all about racing and entertainment," says Gordon. "It's harder to win a championship in the Chase than before, and we put on a good show. So the Chase has done everything it was supposed to do."