My Brain on NASCAR: Racing’s March Madness comes in the fall

col-cathyelliottAt the time of this writing, the four teams left standing are the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, the Orange of Syracuse, the Villanova Wildcats, and whatever that fourth team is … oh yeah, the Oklahoma Sooners, which many bracketology “experts” predict will be changing their name to the Laters, despite the fact that they started the tournament as a number two seed.

By the time some of you read this, you will already know the names of the two NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball teams that will duke it out (Duke University will not be one of them, sorry about that … NOT) on April 4 for the title of the 2016 National Champion.

When all of you read this, however, you will have no clear idea which four NASCAR drivers will compete for the big gold trophy, and the millions of green dollars that go along with it, that is awarded to the eventual champion at season’s end.

When police captain Louis Renault sent his subordinates to “round up the usual suspects” after a shooting in the film Casablanca, they didn’t hesitate. They knew exactly who to look for.

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has been a lot like that. With few exceptions, the drivers we have seen vying for the title since the Chase was implemented in 2004 have been the same ones we expect to see in Victory Lane each week, guys like Carl Edwards, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and of course, Jimmie Johnson.

The general sentiment in NASCAR regarding rules seems to be that you’re wasting your time if you attempt to learn them all, as they are subject to revision quicker than a lead change at Bristol, and the Chase has generously served as a textbook example of that. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single season that hasn’t introduced at least one amendment to the Chase rulebook.

But despite some initial grumbling from purists who liked the old system – best described as “whichever guy has the most points at the end of the season’s last race wins the title” — the Chase has worked pretty well. TV viewership has increased thanks to the uncertainty it creates, and last year’s season finale enjoyed its largest television audience in a decade. Fans have not only grown accustomed to the Chase, but have actually learned to like it.

The result has surely been greater than even NASCAR might have expected. From day one, the Sprint Cup Series season has resembled a James Patterson novel, full of plot twists and turns, last-minute rescues and unlikely heroes with — also like a James Patterson novel – a brand-new edition every week.

Since 2014, the 10-race Chase has involved 16 drivers selected primarily on their wins during the “regular season”; if fewer than 16 drivers win races during the eligibility period, the remaining field is filled on the basis of points totals. These drivers compete against each other while also racing in the standard field of 43 cars.

There are three three-race segments in the Chase, and four drivers are eliminated from championship competition at the end of each segment, leaving only the top four eligible to win the title in the last race of the season. Whichever of those four drivers posts the best finish in that event is the champion. Yes, we even have our own final four. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, copy ‘em.

The similarities don’t end there. We already have our Sooners, guys like Johnson and Harvick, who have secured their Chase spots thanks to early wins. There’s an Orange or two; Carl Edwards in the #19 Arris Toyota comes to mind.

The Wildcats are too numerous to call out by name, and thanks to the sport’s predominantly asphalt tracks, everyone’s a Tar Heel … or maybe a “Tar Wheel” would be more apt.

What we don’t have is March Madness. In March, the racing season is still in its fledgling stages, with many thousands of miles to travel and dozens of races to run before the last checkered flag waves.

When you think about it, madness is overrated. By the time November rolls around, NASCAR could potentially ramp up to the level of full-blown insanity.

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