Ryan: ‘Erase the Chase’ is an idea whose time had come

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CHARLOTTE – It was time to erase the Chase.

No, Monday’s announcement by NASCAR didn’t eradicate the 10-race stretch that has determined the champion of its premier series for the past 13 seasons. The structure remains largely untouched aside from a new wrinkle that carries over points from the regular season to ensure less arbitrary title outcomes.

But Monday did mark the death knell of what had become the primary pejorative in a NASCAR vernacular littered with unwieldy and unappealing terminology.

They are seemingly innocuous words that stoke the most hateful, negative and ugly reactions from passionate fans who claim precious ownership of racing like no other sport.

The Car of Tomorrow.

The top-35 rule.

The Chase.

Each of these terms, however well-intended, became the third rail for hyperbolic fan outrage on satellite radio and social media

And each of them now has disappeared into NASCAR’s dictionary dustbin of history.

The Car of Tomorrow was reconfigured and then renamed as the clever “Gen 6” car.

The top-35 rule essentially was erased and then replaced by the more benign charter system.

And now …

“I think that for all the folks that have been asking us to get rid of the Chase for years,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said with a sly smile, “this is a great day for them.”

The Chase is dead.

Long live the NASCAR playoffs.

Slapping a new title on a championship structure that has been maligned during its 13-year existent won’t be a cure-all for those who never have been fans of the format.

This admittedly is a PR and marketing exercise. It will have no impact on competition or the opinions of those who already believe the Latford points system of 1975-2003 shouldn’t have been abandoned.

There are Jeff Gordon fans who remain steadfast in their opposition to the Chase because they believe it cheated their hero out of multiple championships.

And there are others who actually will lament the disappearance of “Chase,” because they believe the term helped differentiate NASCAR.

But in an image-conscious sport desperate for corporate sponsorship, the switch to “playoffs” still matters even without an iota of on-track impact.

This isn’t a rebranding a la the Gen 6.

It’s about appropriating an existing sports term that carries major-league cachet.

The mere utterance of “Chase” became a dismissive rallying cry for many who hissed its name while railing about the system.

It’s harder to sound so disparaging when complaining about the “playoffs” (unless you’re Jim Mora). In fact, it sounds silly.

“Playoffs” are synonymous with indelible moments and must-see drama.

They connote an appealing sports conceit with an elegance and simplicity that always eluded “Chase”.

“When they’re talking about sports, people understand playoffs,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “We introduced a new word, i.e. the Chase, and we liked it at first, but when you really talk about it, when (Hendrick Motorsports president) Marshall Carlson is out talking to a sponsor, well, it’s ‘What’s the Chase?’  Well, it’s our playoffs.  And people immediately get that and they understand that.

“This is a big sport built on sponsorship for sponsors to understand, for fans to understand, and it’s a common word that most sports fans know.”

Some of us have been lobbying for ditching the Chase since NASCAR most recently overhauled it three years ago (and ratcheted up the action, intensity and pressure as a result).

But there always had been resistance to calling the Chase a playoff, despite how natural it seemed.

NASCAR heavily messaged the January 2004 news conference that introduced the Chase for the Championship. Reporters repeatedly were told by officials that “this is not a playoff” because “all of our events will continue to be Super Bowl-type races with 43 drivers competing.”

No one wanted to hurt the feelings of longtime fans asked to absorb a sea change that was antithetical to some core principles that were preached as gospel for decades.

There was major pushback on anyone who intimated that the Chase created two distinct seasons. When the Chase was introduced, NASCAR tirelessly emphasized there were no knockout rounds or points resets or anything analogous to how other pro sports handled their playoffs.

But things have changed. All that stuff has been happening in NASCAR since 2014.

There are eliminations. There are points resets (and still are with a few caveats). There is segmentation from the regular season.

It’s a playoff in every sense of the word – which is why the word changed.

The Chase is dead.

Long live the NASCAR playoffs.

Staff picks for Coca-Cola 600

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Martin Truex Jr. Feels as if the previously used Kyle Busch Rule applies in reverse: I’ll pick Truex until he doesn’t win on a 1.5-mile track.

Dustin Long

Kevin Harvick. He becomes a three-time winner of this event and scores his first victory of the season and first for Stewart-Haas Racing since the Daytona 500.

Daniel McFadin

Erik Jones becomes the second first-time winner this season, following in the footsteps of Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth in getting his first win at Charlotte.

Jerry Bonkowski

Charlotte Motor Speedway is Jimmie Johnson‘s track. In 31 career starts, he has eight wins — including four in the Coca-Cola 600 — plus 15 top-5 and 19 top-10 finishes. He won there last fall, and he doubles up Sunday night.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Winning Coke 600 in final attempt ‘would mean a lot’

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CONCORD, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. “couldn’t have told you what year it was.”

It was 2011 and it was the Coca-Cola 600.

In his fourth year with Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt led two laps in the race. On his way to lead a third – the last lap – his No. 88 Chevrolet ran out of gas in Turn 3. He finished seventh as Kevin Harvick went to Victory Lane.

He’s had better finishes before and since, but that was closest Earnhardt has ever come to winning a Cup points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“(That race) doesn’t really weigh on me that much,” Earnhardt said on Thursday. “It was tough to get over for a few weeks, but I believe (former crew chief) Steve Letarte might still talk about it today, but a lot of things, a lot of water under the bridge since then.”

Earnhardt said two weeks ago at Kansas Speedway winning tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 is the one box he’d like to check off the most during his retirement tour, which has 25 races remaining in it. Earnhardt will visit nine track he hasn’t won at.

“The 600 would be awesome,” Earnhardt said. “Any of them that we haven’t won at would be great. Any win this year, right, would be good. But if I had to pick Charlotte would be … winning the 600 would mean a lot.”

While the tracks in Daytona and Talladega carry a lot of weight in Earnhardt’s history, it’s the 1.5-mile track in his own backyard where he first got a taste of what the sport he would one day be the face of.

Dale Earnhardt poses in Victory Lane with his two sons, Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Kerry Earnhardt, right, after winning the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24, 1992. (Photo by Dozier Mobley/Getty Images)

“I grew up here and went to all the races here when I was a little kid,” Earnhardt said Thursday. “I used to go to the dirt tracks with Dad when I was very small, but the first memories of actually being at a Cup event were here. The Eury’s and the Earnhardt family would park up on the hill of the road course, about the tallest peak of elevation there.

“And we had these plastic cars, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, and we would roll them down the hill of the road course and spend the whole weekend there watching Dad race the Xfinity race and the Cup race.”

The 14-time most popular driver watched his father win at Charlotte five times, including three times in the longest race in NASCAR.

But in 33 of his own Cup starts here, Earnhardt hasn’t driven into Victory Lane.

Even Earnhardt can’t quite believe it.

“I thought, considering we’ve had some decent success in the sport, I would have guessed I’d have got a win here in a point race at some point, but it just hasn’t happened,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had some close ones, but the way we ran out of the gate as a rookie, we ran pretty good.”

Earnhardt made his Cup debut in the Coke 600 on May 30, 1999, starting eighth and finishing 16th. A year later, he claimed his first career pole in the race. Earnhardt led 175 laps before finishing fourth.

“I thought that this would be a good track for us, but since the repave (in 2006), for whatever reason it’s really been tough for me,” Earnhardt said. “We just really haven’t been able to hit on how to get around here. Either how to set the car up or what I’m looking for or what I need to be doing with the car driving it.”

Earnhardt has six top fives at Charlotte, the most recent coming in the 2015 Coke 600. In his 33 starts, he has an average finish of 19th, which is his third worst among active tracks.

Earnhardt’s bumpy retirement tour hasn’t smoothed out during the season’s two-week layover in Charlotte. Last week, Earnhardt’s final start in the All-Star Race ended with him 18th in a field of 20 cars. He start 19th in tonight’s race.

“We totally eighty-sixed all that stuff we ran last week and we put in Jimmie (Johnson’s) set-up, we’re just like him,” Earnhardt said.

If the No. 88 team should lean on anyone, its Johnson’s team, which has won at Charlotte eight times.

“(Crew chiefs) Greg (Ives) and Chad (Knaus) got real close this week and me and Jimmie have been in communication and Jimmie has come by the car a couple of times in practice already looking at notes and printing out our driver traces and trying to figure out whatever we can do to help me,” Earnhardt said. “One of the things about Jimmie that I’ve always thought was pretty cool was he was always open to looking at other drivers traces and adjusting how he drives.

“If he sees a guy go through the corner and does something different with the gas or the brake he will try it.  And he encourages me or any other teammate to do the same thing.  He comes over with these print outs and says this is what I’m doing with the gas and this is what you are doing and this is where the time is getting lost and maybe try this and that and the other, he is a super teammate.  I’m lucky to be able to work in the same shop with him.  He has certainly been an influence on my success and my enjoyment in the sport.”

If Johnson’s help turns into the desired win for Earnhardt, it will be only his second top 10 finish of the year. His first came with a fifth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, a sister track to Charlotte.

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How an encounter at NASCAR Hall of Fame changed Ryan Newman’s view of the military (video)

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Ryan Newman‘s appreciation for the military and its purpose was strengthened by a chance encounter with a service member at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

In an interview with NASCAR America, the Richard Childress Racing driver spoke about the meeting, which resulted in a friendship.

“He came up to me and introduced himself and looked me square in the eye and says ‘You’re who we fight for,” Newman said. “I’m like, ‘what are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘You. You and your family, that’s who we fight for. That’s why we go do what we do. Because you represent America. You represent the freedoms that we try to keep and have for our kids. You’re who we fight for.'”

“It hit me and it hit me hard,” Newman said.

Newman and the rest of the drivers in tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 will feature names of fallen soldiers on the top of their windshields.

Newman’s No. 31 Chevrolet will honor Lance Corporal Daniel Freeman Swaim of the United States Marine Corps.

Swaim is the cousin of Cruz Gonzales, the gas man on Newman’s team. Swaim served in the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. On Nov. 10, 2005, he passed away from wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device while conducting combat operations against enemy forces during Operation Steel Curtain in Iraq.

Tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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Kyle Busch seeks to follow his All-Star win with the first points win of the season tonight for Joe Gibbs Racing. Martin Truex Jr. won at Kansas earlier this month, the last points race before tonight, and will look to repeat his dominance in this event last year.

Before they and others take the green flag, Charlotte Motor Speedway will honor military members on this Memorial Day weekend.

Here are the particulars for today’s Xfinity race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Channing Tatum, co-star of the upcoming movie “Logan Lucky,” will give the command for drivers to start engines at 6:10 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 6:18 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 400 laps (600 miles) around the 1.5-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 100. Stage 2 ends on Lap 200. Stage 3 ends on Lap 300.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: The Cup garage opens at 12:30 p.m. The drivers meeting is at 4 p.m. Driver introductions are at 5:20 p.m.

AMAZING GRACE: Charlotte Fire Department Pipe Band will perform this song at 6 p.m.

21-GUN SALUTE: Fort Bragg Firing Party will perform this at 6:02. It will be followed by the playing of “Taps” by a bugler from Fort Bragg.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: The 82nd Airborne Division All-American Chorus will perform the Anthem at 6:03 p.m.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the race at 6 p.m. Its coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at gorpn.com. PRN’s coverage begins at 5 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts 83 degrees at race time with a 38 percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Martin Truex Jr. led a record 392 of 400 laps to win last year’s Coca-Cola 600. Kevin Harvick was second and Jimmie Johnson third. Johnson won at Charlotte last fall in the Chase. Matt Kenseth was second and Kasey Kahne third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Coca-Cola 600 starting lineup