Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday April 12, 2007
If you listened to some prognosticators blabbering all over the web, NASCAR has decided who's going to win the Nextel Cup. That’s right; yep, they have it all mapped out. With a well-timed caution here, and a rain delay there, the sanctioning body has every race plotted out down to the last detail. They can make a car go bad with the weather and another mysteriously improve at the end of a race. It's all one big, huge conspiracy.
Oh, and by the way, I have a really nice bridge for sale, cheap. It's been speculated for years that NASCAR is somehow "fixing" races to get the outcome that they want. And at first glance, there have been some mighty interesting coincidences over the years, like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. winning at Daytona in the very first race back at the track after the race that claimed the life of his father, or Jimmie Johnson beating a dominant Mark Martin to the checkers at Atlanta, just one week after the tragic plane crash that took ten lives from the Hendrick Motorsports clan. But that is all they are: coincidences. Uplifting, gratifying coincidences, but coincidences nonetheless.
The conspiracy theory is ridiculous on so many levels. The last couple of years, it's been about Hendrick Motorsports. Before that, it was Roush Racing or Dale Earnhardt, Inc. When a team is successful, especially more than one car of a multi-car team at the same time, someone wants to point the finger at NASCAR for "making" it happen. There’s just one problem; for NASCAR to predetermine the outcome of a race, the planets would have to align in the shape of a perfect tri-oval.
First of all, someone would have to persuade all 43 teams to play along. It's silly to think that not one team would use an opportunity to make a pass for position to snatch a win if the opportunity arose. Second, even with a caution thrown in, there is no guarantee that any driver can make the big pass or hold off the next guy or not get caught up in someone's mistake. Even if NASCAR tossed a caution so that a team low on fuel would have enough to make it to the end, it's unlikely that only ONE team will benefit, enough to gain the decided end, and by closing up the field, it makes it more likely for that guy to get passed or crashed.
And if the caution was to benefit the driver in second so that he could catch up, there is still no way to guarantee that he can get by, short of paying off teams, and that's so far in left field it's on the Massachusetts Turnpike. In short, racing has too many variables to manufacture the outcome of a race. Does NASCAR manipulate the race to make the end artificially close or dramatic? Probably. But that's the extent of it.
Think about this from a marketing standpoint. If NASCAR was manipulating races and in effect, the season, to determine a champion that they somehow deem fitting, why would they not tip the scales toward Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? After all, he is the sport's most popular driver; the man who not only attracts a veritable sea of red in the stands but would be fulfilling a family legacy with a championship, and who has the richest sponsorship in the game? Why choose Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, who are criticized by fans at every turn for being everything from too good to masters at causing crashes or at bending the rules? Sure they're well-spoken, but is their practiced political correctness really what NASCAR wants as their poster child? And what about Tony Stewart, resident bad boy? Sure he's a great driver, but would NASCAR choose him for their top spot over, say, Kevin Harvick, who drives for one of the most storied teams in the modern era?
From that standpoint, it doesn't make sense to believe that NASCAR is favoring Hendrick Motorsports when it's likely that the merchandising dollars from an Earnhardt championship would all but drown the France family, the driver, and the Sponsor in dollars.
It isn't about who NASCAR wants to win. It's about who is the best at a given time. When Dale Junior won the 2001 Pepsi 400, he was driving for a team head and shoulders above any other on restrictor plate tracks, and he deserved to win that race. He drove it brilliantly and won. End of story. Ditto Jimmie Johnson at Atlanta in 2004, and Johnson and Gordon in 2007 so far. Right now, their teams have it figured out better than anyone, and they're having fantastic luck; not to mention, they’re both two of the best wheelmen in the game right now.
A few weeks or months from now, someone else will start dominating races, and the conspiracists will turn their attention that way. Once Toyota figures things out, they'll be a likely target. Or perhaps another team will win races from seemingly impossible odds; even stranger yet, maybe someone will find solace in victory after a tragedy, and be the latest to receive "special treatment" from NASCAR. In any case, the conspiracy is an illusion created by fans when things happen under certain circumstances, particularly in favor of someone they don't like. And just like an illusion-it isn't reality, only a manipulated version. NASCAR doesn't fix races and championships. They only feed the illusion.
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