Like most things NASCAR has tinkered with lately, stock-car racing's inaugural Chase for the Championship worked to perfection last year -- generating unprecedented buzz about the sport; churning out a last-race, last-lap drama over who would claim the 2004 title; and, in the process, winning new converts to a fan base that already includes one-third of American adults.
But the sophomore season of NASCAR's so-called "Chase" is hurtling toward a conclusion no one envisioned: a postseason without its biggest stars, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Three races remain before the cut that culls the top 10 drivers in the standings from the also-rans. Only the top 10 will qualify to compete for the championship during the 10-race "postseason," while the remaining 33 are relegated to window-dressing -- still allowed to race but shut out of the title hunt that's worth more than $5 million and a marketing bonanza for the winning driver, car owner and corporate sponsor.
Unless there's a reversal of fortune by Sept. 10, when Richmond International Raceway stages the final race before the cut, Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. -- the two drivers who transcend stock-car racing's traditional bounds -- will be among the also-rans. Gordon is currently 12th in the standings (58 points out of 10th place); Earnhardt Jr. is 16th, 158 points back.
With four NASCAR championships on his resume, Gordon has overcome bigger deficits in the past. Insiders are betting he'll squeak in on fumes. Earnhardt Jr. faces more daunting odds, with more ground to make up and a race team that has spun its wheels in turmoil much of the year.
Their absence from NASCAR's postseason could put a dent in what Fortune magazine's current cover story hails as "America's Fastest Growing Sport."
More than any other form of motorsports, NASCAR thrives on the cult of personality that's fueled by obsessively loyal fans. But even sports fans who don't care a lick about NASCAR find it hard to escape its stars, their image and likeness are so ubiquitous.
"Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. are the home run hitters, or the Montanas and Namaths in their prime, who provide the mystical background for the sport," Charlotte-based sports marketing executive Max Muhleman said. "These two are pretty much on a level by themselves in that area -- kind of '1' and '1A' -- and then there's everybody else. Every sport when it's at its zenith has those: [Joe] Montana, [Joe] Namath, Reggie [Jackson] and all the way back to the Babe. There are just a few of them. And NASCAR seems to have two right now, and these two seem to have their feet caught in the cobwebs of this new championship system."
The idea behind NASCAR's new system for crowning its champion was to inject more excitement in the final stretch of the 36-race season, when TV ratings typically suffer as the NFL gears up. It works like this: All 43 drivers collect points through the first 26 races. Then, the 10 drivers with the most points qualify for the "Chase for the Championship," and their point totals are compressed to heighten the competition over the last 10 races.
The goal was three-fold: Encourage more aggressive racing as the season wound down; prevent runaway championships that had brought previous seasons to an anticlimactic thud; and limit the ratings drain when the NFL kicked off Sundays in the fall.
With Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. shy of the postseason cutoff, the concern is that TV ratings for this year's Chase could take a hit.
Says Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, which hosts one of the final 10 races: "I don't think it's going to hurt the gate [if Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. don't qualify]. But I do think it has the potential to hurt TV ratings. Jeff and Dale are our Tiger Woods. And you see what happens in TV ratings when Tiger isn't in the running. That's where I come to the conclusion that if it has an impact, it'll be in the TV ratings."
It's hard to imagine Gordon missing the cut. At 34, he is the sport's most accomplished racer, with four championships, 72 career victories (including three Daytona 500s) and more than $70 million in winnings.
A native Californian, Gordon was also the first NASCAR driver to break out of the good-ol'-boy stereotype. His rainbow-colored car made him a magnet for kids, his telegenic looks made teenage girls swoon, women loved his polished manners and pure race fans couldn't deny his talent.
It's not as if Gordon has suddenly lost his skills. He opened the season by winning the Daytona 500. But after picking up two more victories, he has been mired in bad luck -- blown tires, transmission woes, run-ins with other drivers -- that has sent his point standings tumbling like an "F" does a grade-point average.
Unlike Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. has yet to win a NASCAR title. But his prospects for 2005 took a hit before the season began when his car owner (and stepmother) announced an offseason swap that sent his crew chief (and cousin), as well as his fleet of racecars, to teammate Michael Waltrip in exchange for his. The move proved calamitous. Earnhardt's new crew chief was fired before the season's midpoint, Waltrip's contract wasn't renewed for 2006 and neither driver is among the top 10.
Despite his struggles, Earnhardt Jr. is by far the sport's most popular driver. He carries the sport's most famous name as son of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. The 30-year-old "Junior," as he's called in the garage, inherited his father's keen peripheral vision, his knack for working the aerodynamic draft and, after his death, his legions of fans. To that he added younger, hipper disciples through his all-too frank interviews in Rolling Stone and Playboy; cameos in music videos by Sheryl Crow and Three Doors Down; and a 2002 autobiography ("Driver No. 8") that spent 17 weeks atop the New York Times Best Seller list.
NBC producer Sam Flood, whose network is broadcasting the Chase, plays down any concern about a postseason void of stars.
"We'll react to whatever storyline we're given," Flood said. "You always would prefer to have your stars. But the beauty of this is, these stars will still have an opportunity to win every race."
As Flood points, in major stick-and-ball sports, teams that miss the postseason go home. In NASCAR, they keep racing.
"In a sport like the NBA, when the Lakers don't make the postseason, at that point, they don't exist," Flood says. "So if you're a Lakers fan, you're finished. Whereas if you're a Dale Jr. fan, and he doesn't make the Chase, you can still root for him."
Flood predicts, with three races to go, that Gordon will qualify. He's less sure about Earnhardt. That said, Flood can easily imagine a scenario in which Earnhardt Jr. misses the cut and then races like crazy down the stretch to win nearly every race that remains.
"A lot of controversy would be stirred up about why he shouldn't be the champion if he won all those races!" Flood says, giddy over the prospect. "Suddenly you're going to have a nice big outcry, and your interest is going to increase. So either way, interest can be driven."