Commentary

Is 12 drivers in the Chase evolution or dilution?

Does having 12 drivers in the Chase dilute the field? What do a 25-year-old Alabama song, Bristol Chaseology and Scott Riggs have in common? Marty Smith has some ideas.

Updated: August 27, 2008, 12:56 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

No one, it seems, is ever satisfied with NASCAR. The formats and the rules and the cars and the tracks and the decisions and the penalties. Something always is being questioned. This week's lead topic has been broached by hundreds of folks in The Six over the past two years …

Marty,

I wrote to you about this last year and my opinion hasn't changed: Increasing the Chase from 10 to 12 drivers dilutes the field, in my opinion. First of all, it seems really awkward talking about the "top 12" instead of the "top 10," and second of all, when you let more guys in, it erases some of the drama that Brian France was looking for when he created the Chase.

Does a 12th-place driver really deserve a shot at the Cup?

-- Jamie Miller, Huntingdon, Tenn.

Initially I was opposed to the expansion, Jamie. I, too, felt it diluted the achievement of making the playoffs. Less is so often more.

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But now I'm largely indifferent on it. Twelve seems to work. Any more than that, though, is too many. The race to the Chase is really good right now, with the seventh through 14th positions separated by 145 points and with three very different tracks remaining.

When NASCAR expanded the Chase field, I felt it was an attempt to help ensure the Jeff Gordons and Tony Stewarts and Dale Earnhardt Jr.s of the world had greater leeway in the quest to qualify for the Chase. Each of those drivers had missed the cut in the years prior to the expansion -- Gordon and Earnhardt in 2005, Stewart in 2006.

NASCAR contends the sport is bigger than any one driver. I agree that's true, but rest assured, the boys in Daytona want the marquee players in the hunt.

The NASCAR format is fundamentally different than that of stick-and-ball sports, including the playoff scenario. In NASCAR, no one is eliminated from competition. Even if a team fails to make the playoffs, it still races each week, so Jeff Gordon fans know they'll watch Jeff Gordon 38 weekends a year, whether he makes the Chase or not.

Think about Major League Baseball: Its officials would never say it publicly, but if they had their druthers, it'd be Red Sox-Yankees every year. The hatred between the two is tangible -- and that drives television ratings.

I'm a baseball fan, and the playoffs are amazing television, no matter who's playing. But I'm much more inclined to seek out Yankees-Sawx than the casual Mets-Diamondbacks tilt.

I have zero proof that NASCAR TV ratings are altered by who is and who is not in the Chase. I don't think fans much care. Gordon fans are going to be Gordon fans whether he makes the Chase or not.

Of course they want him in title contention -- everyone is more excited when their team is successful -- but if he's not, they're no less inclined to watch him race.

Ultimately, the last two positions in the Chase are akin to wild-card teams. And wild-card teams have won several World Series, not to mention this past Super Bowl.

So yeah, if a 12th-place team puts it all together at the right time and makes a run, I say it deserves the right to win it all -- especially given the fact that it likely will have a mountain of bonus points to overcome at the outset of the Chase.

Song of the week: "40-Hour Week" by Alabama. One of my daddy's favorites. It's 25 years old, but the message certainly still resonates.

Marty,

A few weeks back you wrote about Scott Riggs' future as a driver. With Ryan Newman now in at Haas, where will Riggs end up? Are his days as a Cup driver over?

-- Rodney Sacko, Fayetteville, N.C.

In my opinion, Riggs' days as a Cup driver aren't over, Rodney. I spoke with him Wednesday, and he feels confident he'll be able to land a decent ride. He is speaking with a few teams but isn't giving up names just yet.

He did say some rides that folks don't realize are available are opening up. He said his biggest concern is the direction the team he chooses is headed. He wants a long-term deal with a progressive organization that is moving forward and has something to prove. He won't do stagnant.

Marty,

You look like a cartoon. That hair is terrible. How do you leave the house like that? Aren't you married? How does your wife let you leave the house like that!

-- Sammy, Dayton, Ohio

Yeah, I definitely have some cartoonish features. I get everything from Woody from "Toy Story" to Jimmy Neutron.

My wife is sitting right here -- laughing so hard her face hurts.

Hey Mart,

I enjoy most of your articles but disagree with your greatest comebacks for the Chase. You gave no props to Jeremy Mayfield -- having to win the last race for the Chase to get in. Come on Mart, give my man Jeremy some props. Keep it coming Mart. Go Colts.

-- Harold, Oklahoma City

That statement was based solely on the math, Harold. With four races remaining before the 2004 Chase, Mayfield was in 10th position -- qualified at that time. Three races later, following the California race and with just one race left to make the show, Mayfield was 55 points out of 10th. He essentially was in a win-or-go-home scenario. He won and qualified for the Chase -- a captivating comeback, indeed. There you go, props bestowed.

But mathematically, Matt Kenseth's four-race march was greater. He was 162 points out with four races left before the 2006 Chase and tallied three top-5s and a seventh in the those four events to qualify.

On that note …

CHASEOLOGY: BRISTOL
This little experiment was well received last week, so we're going to continue it for the rest of the season. (Or at least until The Six say otherwise.)

Marty,

Like you, I'm a stat geek, and Chaseology was awesome. Feed the beast! Give me more!

-- Jackson Sewell, Chattanooga, Tenn.

  • TENNESSEE WHISKEY: The No. 07 team is struggling mightily. Judging by Clint Bowyer's recent performance on intermediate tracks, Fontana doesn't bode well. That makes Bristol crucial. Bowyer currently is tied with David Ragan in 13th position -- 26 points out of 12th. This should be a separation race for the 07 -- Bowyer's past three Bristol finishes are eighth, third and third. Ragan's, meanwhile, are 26th, 41st and 21st.

    And remember: Bowyer won Richmond in May. This weekend is critical for him.

  • WE BELONG: Denny Hamlin is losing his cool. He has dropped five positions in five races, and his frustration is palpable. After a blown engine relegated him to a 39th-place finish at Michigan, he dropped to the precipice of falling out of the Chase and questioned whether his team belongs there.

    It does, and it'll make it.

    Hamlin nearly won Bristol in the spring before a fuel pickup issue foiled his day, and he was the class of the field at Richmond, leading 380 laps before a tire issue stole his dream.

    Bristol poses a daunting task for drivers on the bubble. Accidents happen fast and furious in Thunder Valley. Positions six through 12 aren't safe, although Stewart, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick look stable. Stewart and Harvick both were in contention to win Bristol in the spring.

    Ninth through 12th are dicey. Gordon has five wins at Bristol and an 82-point cushion on 13th, but the No. 24 continues to struggle. Kenseth is great at Bristol as well and must continue that trend with just a 74-point cushion. Kasey Kahne is 11th in the standings and has finished second and seventh in his past two trips to Bristol, but the No. 9 bunch needs to regain the midsummer form that propelled them back into relevancy.

  • CLINCH WARMER: To clinch a Chase spot after Bristol, drivers must carry a 391-point lead over 13th place to Fontana. Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson already are well ahead of that pace and likely will clinch this weekend. Earnhardt needs to gain 16 points on 13th place to clinch, and Jeff Burton must gain 20 points.

Speaking of Junior, the Nation is concerned about his recent performance.

Marty,

How is it going, Sir? First of all I would just like to tell you how much I enjoy your stories and the work you do -- it gives me something to look forward to while sitting over here in the desert.

As for my question, what in the world is wrong with Dale Jr.? Why is he struggling like this? I know that he is still in fourth place, but he is a better wheel man than any of the guys ahead of him. Sure, Kyle is having a dream season, but Jr. shouldn't be fighting loose cars every single week.

What is HMS doing to right this ship? I am a firm believer that once the Chase starts, they can all three [Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson] make a run, but they need to bring their "A" game.

-- Sgt. Chad Campbell, Qatar Residence Office

First and foremost, Chad, thanks for what you do. You boys stay safe over there.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesJunior Nation is growing concerned with the performance of the 88.

As for Junior, it's really not that bad, man. The No. 88 team isn't performing at the level it was earlier in the year, but if you ask Junior, that's a product of the midsummer schedule. Sonoma is his worst track, and he's not especially good at New Hampshire, Pocono or Watkins Glen, either.

But with Bristol and Richmond on the horizon, I expect a resurgence in the next few weeks.

"I am looking forward to the last third of the season," Earnhardt said last weekend at Michigan. "We seem to do really well at all them race tracks. We seem to gain a lot of points, or have the ability to gain a lot of points, in those two stretches, the first and last part of the season.

"I figured the summer would be rough, and it was. I don't know why that is other than there aren't any favorite racetracks of mine in that little stretch. That is one thing I know for sure. We tried the best we could to get through that stretch pretty good and do better. I don't know, I wasn't no happier about it than I have been in the past."

Marty,

What do you make of Darlington bringing back the Southern 500 name? To me it will never be the Southern 500 again unless it's moved back to Labor Day. It seems cheap. Why would they do it?

-- Willie Kennedy, Athens, Ga.

Cheap? How do you figure, Willie? It's not cheap. Not at all. But I understand your concern, to a degree. The Southern 500 brand is Darlington's alone, and hence it is its prerogative to use it whenever and however it pleases.

The Southern 500 always has evoked memories of Labor Day weekends of yore, and millions of fans will never forgive NASCAR for taking that away. Obviously it was a failed initiative to move the date to Fontana. No one will ever convince me otherwise.

Fact is, the Southern 500 brand is Darlington's strongest and most recognizable, so the only thing I can't figure out is why they're just now deciding to use it.

I asked track president Chris Browning that very question this week, and he said they'd been contemplating bringing back the Southern 500 name for a couple of years, but it just didn't seem to work until now.

Next season is Darlington's 60th anniversary of racing, and track officials like their position in the schedule. Darlington's brand is built on history and tradition, and bringing back the Southern 500 name only bolsters what and who they are.

Fan note of interest: Ricky Hendrick was my friend. Most anyone he came across will tell you that. He was a beautiful soul, generous and kind and classy. I don't want folks to forget him or Randy Dorton or any of the other fine people on that plane. Ever.

The fourth annual Ricky Hendrick Memorial Charity Ride is set for this Sunday, Aug. 24, and will benefit the Levine Children's Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center. The ride, which spans 48 miles and welcomes fans, departs Knights Stadium in Fort Mill, S.C., at 11:30 a.m. (staging begins at 7:30 a.m.) and concludes at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord. Cost is $25 per rider, and each ride participant will be entered to win a Suzuki Boulevard motorcycle courtesy of American Suzuki. Lunch is included. This ride has raised nearly $200,000 during the past three years.

That's my time this week. Kenny Chesney's in town, Poets & Pirates Tour. Tailgate Troubadours. Saddle up.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.