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 existence 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.