SONOMA, Calif.—It’s as predictable as a good Cabernet in the Sonoma Valley.
Every time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series comes to a road course, whether it’s Sonoma Raceway or Watkins Glen International some 2,700 miles to the east, reporters pop the same question—incessantly.
Should the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup include a road course?
Theoretically, the idea is seductive. As the argument always goes, the Chase should test every aspect of a driver’s mettle, including his ability to turn right as well as left. In order to have a full examination of a driver’s title-worthiness, you have to have a road course in the 10-race playoff, which is top-heavy on intermediate speedways.
From a whimsical standpoint, the idea is equally fetching. If Sonoma Raceway could be gerrymandered into the Chase, in October perhaps, the Cup series would visit wine country at its most magical time—harvest, when even the aroma of ripening grapes is intoxicating.
What is seductive in theory, however, runs headlong into practical reality. Should a third road course be added to an already jam-packed schedule? Or should one of the two existing road courses be moved into the Chase at the expense of another track?
Or should an existing track lose a date to make room for a road course in the Chase, keeping the schedule at 36 races? If so, who loses a race?
As NASCAR President Mike Helton pointed out during an interview on FOX Sports 1’s “Race Hub” last week, it’s hard to move any race on the schedule without having a direct impact on several other dates. That’s why adding a road course to the Chase isn’t on NASCAR’s front burner.
“I won’t sit here and say, ‘No,’ but it’s not on the short list right now,” Helton said. “I’ll never say ‘Never’ to something like that. The road courses have evolved on the NASCAR Sprint Cup side and the Nationwide Series and trucks to be some of our most exciting events.”
You could also argue that, by moving one of the existing road courses into the Chase, you would be removing one significant, diverse opportunity for a driver with road course acumen to qualify for the Chase. After all, isn’t determining who makes the Chase part and parcel of deciding the championship?
Precisely because road course races have become exciting free-for-alls in recent years, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski believes that adding a road course to the Chase would introduce another random element to a playoff that already has wildly unpredictable Talladega in the mix.
“The problem with road course racing in the Chase is that it turns into such a wreck fest,” Keselowski told a small group of reporters over lunch in San Francisco last Thursday. “It’s very exciting to watch, but when you’re trying to award a champion, I think you have to break down the criteria of what makes a champion.
“In NASCAR, for years, it’s been consistency. This year it’s kind of shifted toward wins. If that’s how you define a champion, then, yeah, I think a road course should be in there. If you’re trying to define a champion by consistency, I don’t think a road course should be in there, for the pure reason that it’s extremely hard to be consistent on a road course.
“It’s like a restrictor-plate track. It seems to be either feast or famine.”
Though Helton says “Not now,” remember that he also says “Never say ‘Never.’ NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France has shown a willingness to embrace change if he perceives it’s in the best interest of the sport.
So, who knows? The idea may grow on him—the way the grapes in Sonoma grow to full fruition in October.