photo by Sherryl Creekmore Dale Jarrett is among the big-name drivers not in the Chase who feels forgotten.
Photo by Sherryl Creekmore
DARLINGTON, S.C. Joe Nemechek earned his spot in front of the television cameras and in NASCAR's mindset by winning the race last month at the Kansas Speedway.
He wasn't that lucky after finishing fifth at the Lowe's Motor Speedway or fourth at Atlanta.
While there's never a bad time to win a race on the Nextel Cup Series circuit, it won't be an easy time for the other 33 drivers in Sunday's Mountain Dew Southern 500 who aren't in the Chase for the Championship.
"It's absolutely tough," Nemechek said of stealing the spotlight away from the 10 drivers competing in the made-for-television program that will determine the series champion. "Fifth at Charlotte, fourth at Atlanta and nothing. I don't know how you fix it, but it's something NASCAR and the networks need to keep in mind. If we're not in the Chase, we're still running just as hard and our sponsors are spending just as much money."
It's been easy to focus on the 10 drivers who qualified to compete in the final 10 weeks for the championship. Not only do they seem to have the most-compelling storylines, they've combined to win seven of the first eight Chase races.
The Chase has proven to be every thing NASCAR and NBC hoped with four drivers lumped within 48 points of the lead, including three of the sport's biggest names Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
But several drivers, including Nemechek, Greg Biffle, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace, don't believe that's a reason to ignore everyone else.
"All I see in every newspaper and everything is only the top 10," Wallace said. "I don't see anything about any other driver at all. If I do, somebody would have to really dig deep and prove to me it's out there. The only time you see anything about another driver is when he does something.
"I think NASCAR, when the year is over, will have to evaluate what they're going to do and I think some things will definitely have to be changed. No way in the world can you go next year with exactly the way it is this year. A lot of the drivers that are fan favorites Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray, myself, Dale Jarrett, guys like that are out of it, and I think they lost a huge fan base by that happening."
Proponents of the new system argue little has changed in the way NASCAR promotes itself or the way the media covers it. Instead of compiling points throughout a 36-race season, NASCAR decided to spice up the final three months which compete with the National Football League on Fox and CBS by taking the top 10 drivers after 26 races and having them race for the championship during the final 10 weeks of the season.
NBC insists there's no strategy to exclude non-Chase drivers.
"Our job is to tell the story of that race who's winning, who's losing," said Benny Parsons, a former NASCAR champion who now works as a commentator at NBC. "Do you go back to a car that finished 18th and is 19th in the points standings and do a story on it? Probably not.
"There are four or five cars competing for a championship right now, and a year ago we had one. I argue there are more cars being covered now than in the past."
NBC's ratings seem to support the Chase. After ratings dropped in the first two Chase races races that came when thousands of fans in Florida, Alabama and Georgia were without power following a series of hurricanes the numbers have improved over last year's rating in each of the next six races.
Biffle, however, said things are definitely different.
"The coverage is of the Chase for the Championship," he said. "That's what everybody's talking about. I finished third (at Kansas) and got out of my car cooling off there and there wasn't (any reporters) standing around. Not one guy. So I made my way back to the truck, changed my clothes and got ready to go. That's what NASCAR wants they want coverage to be of the 10 drivers, so that's what the coverage is of."
Wallace, who's 17th in the current standings, said one solution might be to expand the Chase field to 15 or more drivers.
"There's going to have to be more room for everybody to get in," he said. "To be quite honest, there's a lot of drivers in it right now that some of them just don't have the popularity of some of the others I mentioned when it comes to the fans."
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