Amy Henderson · Friday January 31, 2014
Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR to produce a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, the new points system is official, but Amy says there are some aspects that could wind up having the opposite effect from what NASCAR intends.
1. The champion could still be winless.
NASCAR continues to tout the emphasis on winning that the new points format brings about. But the boys at Joe Gibbs Racing did a little math after NASCAR gave them the rules package for the Chase, and came to a surprising conclusion: under the new format, the 2013 Sprint Cup champion would have been… Dale Earnhardt, Jr. You read that right. Because there were not 16 different winners in the first 26 races (and there have not been 16 winners through 26 races in more than ten years), Earnhardt would have made the cut based on points, and from there, the title. So while NASCAR can say the new system forces teams to race for wins, that isn’t strictly necessary, despite what the sanctioning body would have race fans believe.
Also, NASCAR is correct that many fans wanted a greater emphasis on winning… but what got lost in translation is they wanted that as part of a full-season championship format, not a convoluted system that throws consistency out the window completely at critical junctures. It would have been possible to make winning the title without a victory more difficult without being this extreme. In any case, NASCAR is advertising the title as a winners-only competition, although that’s simply not the truth.
2. The Ford Wreckfest 400
During the announcement of the new format, Brian France was asked about drivers wrecking each other for the title. Would he tolerate it? In my opinion, he basically green-lighted title contenders taking each other out. “We’re real clear about this. Whether this format or any format, if it’s late in the race and you’ve got a faster car, we expect some contact. We expect, obviously there are limits, but that’s always part of NASCAR to have some version of contact late in the race,” he said. “Will this bring more of that? I’m sure it will to some level, but that’s NASCAR.”
So, where’s the line? Is it OK for a contender to put his competition into the wall in the early laps at Homestead? Is it OK for a contender’s teammate to put his competitors into the wall? Where will NASCAR draw the line? It appears there are more questions than answers. I asked NASCAR’s VP of Competition and Racing Development, Robin Pemberton, where the line in the sand would be drawn, and his answer was ambiguous at best.
“I think we expect there to be contact throughout the entire season,” Pemberton said Thursday. “Any one race more than another; it happens that way. We know that there is an opportunity that we’ll have to make a hard call, but we also know that there are good competitors out there. We expect them to behave proper and leave the championship out there on the line for the guys that deserve that. You can never rule everything out.”
But is NASCAR willing to step up if a teammate of a title contender takes out a rival during the finale? A points or monetary fine for the aggressor would be insufficient: the season would be over and the fines would be meaningless. Would NASCAR go further and strip the title from a driver whose teammate alters the outcome of the final race, as they did by removing Martin Truex, Jr. from the 2013 Chase after it was revealed his teammates purposely lost track position to help him gain points?
I doubt it. Right now, NASCAR remains reluctant to take a race win away from a team who breaks the rules. The poor publicity from the Richmond debacle, NASCAR’s judgment calls taking center stage still stings. So would they really have the chutzpah to take away a championship title if the validity of that title is in doubt?
I think the answer to that question is no. Until that changes, there’s no reason for teams not to wreck anyone, anytime if it gives them an edge on the title.
3. A mid-packer gets lucky
Under the new rules, David Ragan would have made the Chase last year. Ragan did win at Talladega in the Spring of 2013… but he finished 28th in points for the season. Win or no, was Ragan a championship-caliber driver? Of course not, but he’d have been in the hunt. And while it’s likely that teams like the No. 34 would be quickly eliminated from contention, it’s possible that such a team could get lucky. With a steady midpack average in the first three races, they could move on if a few others ran into bad luck, finished at the bottom and couldn’t regain enough to outpoint them. Then, say the team in question busts off a win at Talladega (and Ragan came close last fall), guaranteeing a pass into the next round. Again, with some good luck, combined with mechanical failures or wrecks for a few others, that team could actually make the final cut… and from there, it’s anyone’s guess what goes down at Homestead.
While it was great for the sport to have a small, underfunded team break through with a race win last year, it wouldn’t be so great if that driver somehow won the title over drivers who consistently outperformed him for most of the year. It’s not a likely scenario, but it’s not impossible. And while the system is supposed to be easier for fans to understand, a 28th-place driver being crowned champion would be confusing for even the most astute fan.
4. Jimmie Johnson still wins
It’s a stretch to say that NASCAR created a new points format simply to make it harder for one specific driver to win (though quite flattering to the driver in question). But did they create a system that makes it much harder for a single driver to win multiple titles in close succession? The answer is yes. And let’s face it; right now, another Johnson title isn’t something many fans want to see.
So why might the No. 48 team still have the edge? Top-flight teams like Johnson’s get there because they are able to adapt to whatever is thrown at them, and this format is no different. It’s still possible for a driver to win multiple titles (just much harder) and for a certain one in particular to reach the milestone set by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
But NASCAR does save a little face if a driver does reach seven titles under this format: most fans will say it doesn’t mean as much because it’s a one-race title. Many are already saying Johnson’s six championships are somehow less worthy than Petty’s or Earnhardt’s because of the Chase format; this adjustment magnifies that by ten. Yes, they’re all playing by the same rules, but it’s hard to say a driver who won the title, ultimately, on the strength of one race in which he beats the other contenders is the same as one who won on the strength of a great season in which he beat the others week in and week out. Race fans don’t look at the sport the way football or college basketball fans look at their games. Hand it to NASCAR; they did find a way to give fans who don’t like a dominant driver an excuse for why his titles don’t count the same as previous ones.
5. The driver with the most wins can miss the final cut.
Not only would a winless Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have taken the 2013 championship under the new rules, but the winningest driver on the circuit would have missed the final cut. Matt Kenseth’s 23rd-place finish, last November at Phoenix would have eliminated Kenseth from title contention due to the points reset after the ninth race. And while that race did ultimately cost Kenseth a shot at his second championship last year, it’s hard to reconcile him not being eligible at all going into the season finale after posting five wins in the first 26 races and two more in the Chase.
Are race fans going to buy a title format that purports to force teams to win but in reality could see a winless champion and the driver with the most wins shut out of contention? That’s going to be a hard sell.
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