No track in NASCAR is more spectacular than Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. With grandstands that rise 21 stories into the Thunder Valley sky and wrap around the half-mile banked oval, the towering venue looks from afar like the Colosseum in Rome. Inside, the racing is heart-pounding as drivers routinely slam into one another as if they were piloting carnival bumper cars. Last Saturday night at Bristol, Kyle Busch (box) dominated the 500-lap Irwin Tools Night Race, an event that is annually one of the most compelling on the schedule.
Which is why NASCAR needs to include Bristol in the Chase. With TV ratings down in 18 of the 24 regular-season races and attendance down at more than two thirds of those events, the sport needs an adrenaline shot. NASCAR has talked to owners and drivers about possible alterations to the Chase in 2012 (last week NASCAR released its schedule for '11, and only one new track, Chicagoland, had been added to the postseason), but according to Cup sources no decisions will be made until the off-season.
What follows is SI's Change the Chase plan:
1. Move to an elimination-style format: Fifteen drivers would qualify for the Chase, up from 12 in the current format. After three races the five drivers with the fewest points would be eliminated, and the rest of the drivers' point totals—except the bonus points awarded to race winners—would be reset to zero. Another five drivers would be eliminated after six races, setting up a four-race shootout among the remaining five drivers. "That's something we discussed, but then it was too radical," says Mark Dyer a senior VP at IMG, who as NASCAR's VP of licensing and consumer products back in 2003 first conceived the idea for a playoff series. "But we never would have thought one guy [Jimmie Johnson] would win four straight. NASCAR could benefit from forcing its champ to come through in the crunch like champions do in stick and ball sports."
2. Make winning matter: As it stands, a driver earns only 10 bonus points for winning a race in the Chase. Under the SI plan, that would swell to 30 points. Drivers would be more inclined to brazenly charge for the checkered flag.
3. Spice up the schedule: NASCAR should periodically shuffle its Chase races. A key to Johnson's four titles, after all, is that his best tracks all happen to fall in the Chase. The inclusion of a road course, such as Watkins Glen, would add an intriguing wild card, and Bristol would immediately be the postseason's most exciting venue.
"The Chase hasn't connected with fans the way NASCAR had hoped," says Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway. "We're pulling our hair out trying to figure out what to do."
Easy there, Eddie. Just follow SI's three-step remedy, and NASCAR's ills will start to heal.
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Kyle Busch has been making history his entire career. When he was a rookie on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2005, he became the youngest driver (at 20 years, 125 days) to win a race in NASCAR's highest series. Last Saturday night at Bristol, Busch (below)—currently third in the Cup standings—added to his already impressive résumé, becoming the first driver in history to win a race in the Truck series, the Nationwide Series and the Cup series in the same race week. It was the equivalent of a baseball player homering in consecutive at bats in Double A, Triple A and the majors in the course of four days. Said Busch as he celebrated on Saturday night, "I'm out of breath. I've been screaming [over the roar of my engine] the whole time."
TODD WARSHAW/GETTY IMAGES (BRISTOL)
BRING THE THUNDER Adding Bristol to the Chase schedule would give NASCAR a riveting spectacle at a crucial time.
DAVID J. GRIFFIN/ICON SMI (BUSCH)