All righty! NASCAR has finally determined the final four for Sunday’s “championship” race: Martin Truex, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski. Good luck to all! Hope you don’t get wrecked out by a non-contender in a race that will look like any other race.
In a perfect world, the four drivers left in the field would race alone on the track Sunday in the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and the winner would be the champion, as in any other sporting competition. Only those four drivers and their race teams would determine their fate.
NASCAR does not want to do it that way because corporate sponsorship rules over all, so 40 cars are to participate in the “championship” race, even non-playoff drivers. Imagine if North Carolina would have taken on all six teams it beat in the NCAA tournament ― at the same time.
But there is more. The four drivers in the title race will have all of their playoff points taken away before the race, and the best finisher among the four drivers takes the championship. No winning needed! This will be a race within a race, rather than the race itself.
If one of the contenders falls to a mechanical problem or a lousy pit stop or even driver error, that is one thing. But there is the possibility that the title could be determined by a lapped car ― driven by, say, Derrike Cope ― that can’t get out of the way in time and causes a two-car or even multi-car wreck.
This is just as inane as “stage racing,” which fans clearly don’t like. Races have been cut into thirds, with points being awarded after each stage. But a caution period follows each of the first two stages, bunching the fields back up. It is like an NFL game starting each quarter at 0-0.
(But those yellow flags do give the networks a chance to build in more commercial breaks, and that is what this is really all about.)
Back in the old days, the Winston Cup was awarded to a driver who was consistently good, if not a consistent winner. Matt Kenseth won one race in 2003 but won the Cup. Ryan Newman won eight races but finished sixth because he did not finish seven races.
In addition, championships were sometimes clinched before the last race of each season, producing an anticlimactic finale. Instead of shortening the season, NASCAR added crashing cymbals and fireworks to the end of the season. Hence, “The Chase” in 2004.
Of course, the season is still too long. Fans tune out around Labor Day. The current “playoffs” feel as if NASCAR is simply running a con to stretch the season. There were several hundred tickets to the championship race available on StubHub on Monday, some as low as $41 (and going down).
The season won’t get any shorter anytime soon because NASCAR is locked into its television contracts until 2024. NASCAR has tinkered with its schedule and plans to run a race next fall at Charlotte on a “roval”: part of the existing oval and a new road course in the infield.
The original 10-driver, 10-race “chase” is now a 10-race, 16-driver “playoffs,” with four contenders trimmed after the third, sixth and ninth races, giving it a sort-of elimination feel, kind of like the playoffs in major sports.
But a corporation would be less likely to want to spend money to splash its logo on a hood of a stock car if the car were in only 26 races ― or, for that matter, 29 or 32 or 35 of 36 races. So everybody gets to race all season long, even in the playoffs.
Until NASCAR can trim its season to 30 or even 24 races, maybe it can just return to deciding its champion using the essentials of the points system that Bob Latford drew up on cocktail napkins at the Boot Hill Saloon in Daytona Beach, Fla., before the 1975 season.
Or this: Whoever wins the most races in a season wins the championship, because winning is what it is all about. That beats this tarted-up, cheapo, crap-shoot “championship” that NASCAR is foisting on its fans now. This sport’s loyal fans deserve a lot better than that.
But it will also be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race, so there is at least that.
More Info: www.forbes.com
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