Lost in all the Super Bowl pre game fanfare and the countdown to the opening of Major League Baseball spring training camps, less than two weeks after the NFL Championship game, is that other harbinger of spring, the opening shot of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the “Great American Race”, the Daytona 500, Sunday, February 23rd.

The approach to the pursuit of the Sprint Cup comes with much trepidation this year, among both drivers and fans.  On the surface NASCAR’s alteration of the Sprint Cup “Chase” format may seem minor to the uninitiated, but there’s a lot of concern, particularly among the drivers, that it will alienate a lot of the most ardent fans in sports, especially as it approaches the final race, which this year cuts the rooting interest from 12 drivers to four.  Happy with the response to the “Chase”, in which 12 drivers, based on points earned for everything from wins to qualifying positions and laps led, compete for the Sprint Cup championship with a separate accumulation of “Chase” points, NASCAR has decided to take a lead from the PGA Tour and take it one step further.  The number of drivers who will qualify for the “Chase” has been increased to 16.

In a sport in which fans are fiercely loyal to their individual favorites the greater participation of drivers should enhance fan interest down the stretch.  The other change inspired by the PGA Tour reduces the field of chase participants to four by the time they get to the final race, and some drivers feel this will unfairly penalize drivers who have put together an outstanding body of work for the entire season, only to lose the shot at a season title with one or two bad days during the chase.

Leading the challenge from the drivers to the new format is Carl Edwards, who lost out to Tony Stewart in the most thrilling “Chase” finish yet, on a tiebreaker in 2011.  He understands that NASCAR’s mission is to put more emphasis on winning, but he doesn’t think drivers can try much harder to win than they already do and he offers some legitimate counterpoints.

Edwards feels if the champion is finally determined from among four drivers instead of 12, or in the new format, 16, it cheapens the championship.  He also made a Super Bowl analogy in arguing against the format.  While the championships in team sports are determined with just two teams on the field, the Sprint Cup championship is determined over 12 races with 43 drivers on the track, 27 of them with no chance to win the championship but with an opportunity to effect the outcome.  Edwards feels with only four drivers racing for the title and 39 others with a say in the matter it makes it easier for teammates to help each other and drivers with season long grudges, a common occurrence with the bumping and drafting that goes on in the most heated moments of this sport, to take out those grudges against those still in contention.

While I like the increase to 16 drivers in the “Chase”, I’m not sure about four drivers with targets on their backs on a crowded track going for all the marbles in one race.  But it is intriguing enough that it’s worth at least one look, on an experimental basis, then, if need be, go back to the tweaking board next season.  Not everyone liked the idea of the “Chase”.

With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.


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