The Frontstretch: For NASCAR, Another Championship Fix That's Anything But by Bryan Davis Keith -- Monday January 17, 2011

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For NASCAR, Another Championship Fix That's Anything But

Monday Morning Tear-Down · Bryan Davis Keith · Monday January 17, 2011


The 2011 Nationwide Series champion will shockingly be a Nationwide Series regular, thanks to a new provision implemented by the sanctioning body that drivers must declare a title to pursue at the start of the season. When the checkered flag waves at Homestead this November, a five-year stretch that has seen Cup stars Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski dedicate their respective talent to stealing the sport’s future’s lunch money – pushing their faces in the mud for good measure – will mercifully come to an end.

For the first time in five years, Kyle Busch won’t be eligible to kiss the Nationwide Series championship trophy in 2011. But will that small, subtle change in NASCAR’s rules make enough of a difference to make the series healthy?

Sounds like just the news that Nationwide fans have been hoping to hear for literally years now. But, as David Caraviello wasted no time noting on earlier this week, the more things change…the more they stay the same. And stay the same the Nationwide Series will in 2011, because NASCAR’s latest championship fix does absolutely nothing to substantively right the issues it was created to address. Though given the sanctioning body’s track record of both ineptitude and utter spinelessness in confronting the sport’s toughest issues, it’s hard when taking a closer look to be anything but surprised at what you find.

Rewind back to 2003, and NASCAR was dealing with a supposedly “broken” championship. Matt Kenseth clinched the 2003 Sprint Cup a race ahead of schedule at Rockingham, on the strength of only one race win coming eight months prior at Las Vegas but also a series high 25 top-10 finishes. The remarkable consistency demonstrated by the No. 17 team over the course of the season allowed Kenseth to stave off Ryan Newman’s remarkable sophomore campaign, one that saw seven DNFs cancel out eight wins and 11 poles that landed the Rocketman not the Cup, but the 2003 Driver of the Year award.

In the eyes of NASCAR’s brass, something was wrong. Having a champion that won only one race and relied on seventh-place finishes to score the crown wasn’t flashy, and wasn’t something that was going to produce a down-to-the-wire three-wide finish on the season’s final lap that would score TV ratings and press worthy of competing with the NFL. Something needed fixing.

And in typical NASCAR fashion, at least during the ever-comedic life of Brian, the sanctioning body amputated a right leg to fix a broken finger. Instead of altering the points system to put more emphasis on winning races and going for broke instead of stroking along to top-10 finishes, NASCAR threw the previous 31 years of the modern era out the window and scrapped the season points title in favor of the Chase, a “playoff” system that is perhaps the only serious rival to college football’s Bowl Championship Series in terms of bestowing a manufactured, meaningless crown atop whoever it happens to see fit when the dust settles.

Say what you will about the Chase, love it or hate it. The fact is, the Chase did absolutely nothing to put more emphasis on winning or to encourage more teams to go for the gusto when the Cup was on the line. Sure, the format created quite a scene with Jeremy Mayfield’s “win and in” charge through the field at Richmond in 2004, but once the format got going, wins meant nothing. Top-10 finishes did. Just as was the supposed “problem” when Kenseth was seventh-placing the Cup field into submission in 2003, Darrell Waltrip would remind every viewer year after year that the driver who could finish seventh and lead a lap during the final 10 races would ultimately walk away the champ.

Nothing changed. It’s possible to qualify for NASCAR’s postseason without winning a race – the antithesis of why the sport changed the rules in the first place. It’s also not necessary to win in the postseason to score the Cup (just ask Tony Stewart in 2005). And though it has yet to happen, it’s still not even a prerequisite that a driver win a race at any point in the season to be crowned Cup champion.

In fact, never in any of NASCAR’s top three national series has a driver managed to win a title without winning at least one race at some point over the course of a campaign. That will likely change when the 2011 Nationwide Series comes to a close, though, because honestly, how many Nationwide Series regulars are actually winning Nationwide races these days?

Justin Allgaier will enter the 2011 season a championship contender. But will this March 2010 trip to Victory Lane at Bristol still be the only win on his resume the end of the season – forced to watch as Cup interlopers still finish well ahead of his car on the racetrack?

Yes, forcing a driver to choose one championship and one championship alone to pursue over the course of a season does mean that even if they choose to run all 35 races, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski cannot repeat as champion in the minor leagues. Even if Kyle Busch is to win all 25, 30 starts he makes in the Nationwide ranks, even if he does start to close in on the 200 national wins marker that ESPN and Co. slobber all over as if Richard Petty’s 200 Cup victory mark is about to be matched, he will not be crowned the Nationwide champ.

But, that said, even if they can’t take home the champion’s trophy, race fans can bet their bottom dollar that Brad, Carl and Kyle will be the face of the series in 2011. They will win the lion’s share of the races. They will dominate the TV coverage. And there will be copious amounts of graphics noting that if they were eligible, one of them would be wearing the crown come November. Along with the more infrequent Cup interlopers, the also-rans on the Jimmie Johnson circuit will win at least 90% of the races run, score 6-9 positions in the top 10 weekly, and carpetbag $100,000s of purse money out of the series. Sponsors will still flock to these drivers, as they’ll still be the ones in Victory Lane, still be ones with the best equipment and crews, still the ones that on most race weekends will have twice the track time as their development counterparts.

Meanwhile, the drivers and teams that actually call the Nationwide Series home will be left to flounder just as they have in recent seasons, running with half tire allotments while wondering how the hell they’re going to pay for the construction and development of a new race car. Think like a sponsor for a minute:

“Hmm, I can’t afford to be in Cup, so I’ll go Nationwide. Wow, I can either sponsor a star driver or an unproven prospect. I can sponsor a car that’s going to run in the top 10 every week or a car that runs in the top 10 on a great week. I can sponsor a team that already has built six new COTs and is raring to go for 2011, or a team that’s buying used COTs as they become available and trying to learn as they go.”

Spot on, Mr. Caraviello, “the more things change…”

Does anyone that doesn’t have a Brian France-sized drinking habit honestly think that it’s going to help the Nationwide Series to have the champion be a driver that based on the past five years and the Cup influx that time will win one race, if that, and finish an average of sixth among drivers in the series in top-5 and top-10 finishes? That’s the type of championship season that’s supposed to both return legitimacy to the AAA trophy and draw needed attention to the series’ regulars? If this is the plan for salvation, NASCAR would probably be better off handing out a bottle of scotch and a handgun to each series regular – along with a bullet for good measure.

All that’s been accomplished here is to create a Nationwide champion in name only, perhaps a title even more devoid of value than the Nationwide crowns of the last five years that saw proven stock car stars with five times the budget of their competitors and pit crews that were scarcely removed from Sunday afternoons pulverizing minor leaguers in much the way most college football powerhouses stomp FCS foes on opening weekend. While that brought plenty of sponsors to the front of the field, it left the back and even the middle of the Nationwide Series in purgatory at best, jeopardizing the long-term viability of a series that, since 1982, has proven to be an invaluable development scene for the stars of tomorrow.

None of those underlying problems that have left half the Nationwide Series field undersponsored, outmanned, outgunned, and even start-and-parking were remotely addressed by the latest “fix.” Again, NASCAR amputated a leg to fix a broken finger.

Unlike back in 2003, NASCAR actually got it right in that the current state of the Nationwide Series championship needed to be addressed. However, just like 2003, the remedy doesn’t correspond with the symptoms. As feel good as it may be to see Reed Sorenson or Justin Allgaier crowned champion in 2011, it’s not going to mean much of anything for the sport’s legitimacy if they turn in a one-win campaign with a smattering of top 5s and top 10s in less than half the races run while Kyle, Carl and Brad win 20+ races just among the three of them. If anything, that likely outcome for 2011 will leave the legitimacy and value of the Nationwide Series championship in more limbo than it is right now.

If there’s one thing the already ailing Nationwide Series needs, it’s more debate and doubt as to whether being the best in its ranks actually means anything.

Because that’s exactly what NASCAR’s last championship fix (the Chase) did; it introduced a sense of illegitimacy to the Cup Series’ championship. And over the seven years that debate has raged, NASCAR Sprint Cup racing has disintegrated from the nation’s fastest growing sport to a declining mess that has scarcely a rival in the history of professional sport.

That continuing disaster has moved the once healthy Cup Series into a hospital room. Imagine what a similar disaster will do to a Nationwide Series that’s already one step from life support.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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01/17/2011 09:45 AM

I don’t think it will be that bad in the Nationwide Series. The solution here isn’t perfect, but I think the champion will have multiple wins. The Cup regulars won’t be out in force at the stand alone events again, especially when they conflict with the Cup schedule. More worrisome is all the reported changes to the Chase format. Classic case of making a bad situation worse.

01/17/2011 11:54 AM

Well put Bryan; this “fix” fixes nothing. In fact, there’s a very good chance that 2011 will be the year that produces a questionable champion in Cup and Nationwide.

To help the Nationwide regulars legitimately, they need to race at tracks where the driver matters more than the aero setup. We know that isn’t going to happen.

Your analogy of amputating a leg to fix a broken finger is dead on. NASCAR has been doing it for years.

Carl D.
01/17/2011 04:18 PM

“… the only real reason to watch NW is to see Kyle, Kes, and Carl beat the cwap out of each other. They will only get more aggressive without having to worry about the friggin points.”

An excellent point, Susan. And those guys, with nothing to lose, won’t hesitate to wreck a true Nationwide contender to score a win in the minor leagues.

01/17/2011 04:59 PM

for me it’s just a little better than it was, if they could limit the number of races a cup driver could enter like 10-15 and limit 3 drivers a race it would be perfect, and how many of you guys heard about trevor bayne before he came to NW, so there still might be major talent still waiting to be seen but since there are less drivers needed, he/she won’t be noticed .

01/17/2011 05:27 PM

I’m against nascar limiting Cup drivers to a certain number of Busch/Truck races. But would like to see more Cup stand alone and Busch/Truck weekends that make the Cup guys have to work to race in both series, not have close to 30 companion events that ENCOURAGE “Buschwacking” and thenblame the drivers for doing it.

How is nascar going to convince us the fans that the driver who scored the most points is not the champion? By not giving the Cup guys points?

This does not work in the chase and will not work in the Busch series either.

01/17/2011 06:17 PM

Every time I think BZF has reached the limits of ineptitude, he proves me wrong. I remember the days when the Busch series had it’s own stars, guys who drove that series only, enjoying the lesser pressure of competing on shorter tracks, making a good living from it. The occasional Cup driver (except Mark Martin) occasionally ran, usually as a testing ground for cars they owned themselves. That’s where DEI started, after all. Now, the series has no identity, and the Rookie of the Year title winner in Cup last year proves that then young drivers are sadly in need of a series where they can truly learn their trade. Nothing has changed.

01/17/2011 10:27 PM

Tracks need to have NW and SC races on the same weekend. Economy of efficiency. They should limit all SC drivers to
50 races a season, divided however they want between the three major series.
The Associated press reprts that the old points system will be scrapped. Unfortuntely, it will be replaced by one that awards 43 points a race, with one point diffeence between each position. STUPID!

I agree with Susan (mostly). Points only for the first ten posotions. Ten points difference between them.

phil h
01/18/2011 12:26 AM

sorry susan,its fans like yourself who want cup drivers in the Nat series because you,“know who they are?”

thats the very thing that killed this series 5 or so years ago! Cup drivers who use the series as a toy,with all the money and resources to take all the money and the learning curve away from those trying to make it in the sport!

I applaude Nascar for at least taking them out of the driver championship.You can bet Harvick and Busch will still be going for the owners title.

It’s the old addage…..I want a job being a racecar driver?
You got any experience?but if we listen to Susan!Most of the NW regulars are hopeless and will never make it in Cup.
You know what? It looks like you got what you wanted.So,enjoy watching Brad,Kyle and Carl!

Bill B
01/18/2011 07:21 AM

This change was meant to be a deterrent to having Cup guys run every race. I don’t know if it will work or not but the easier “fix” would have been to just limit cup drivers to 12 races a year in NW.

01/18/2011 07:49 AM

I’m sick of the namby pamby sissified points racing. Throw the points system and Chase away. The champion should be the driver that wins the most races and participates in all of the races. Like Dale, Sr. said, “Second place is the first loser”.

Sue Rarick
01/18/2011 09:41 AM

I have mixed emotions on this years changes. While I don’t like the fact that cup drivers can still compete, I can understand that they already had sponsor commitments. So for that reason I will give this year a pass.
I totally agree with Susan that the points system as a whole has to change. I thought I was the only one that was getting really tired/bored with all the points racing going on.
NASCAR has a 100 pound monkey in the corner that could once again turn into a 800 pound gorilla, namely Indy cars. With all the changes they are going to have it looks like watching Indy cars in 2012 is going to be a lot more interesting than watching 36 races of nascar with an even more screwed up chase.

01/18/2011 10:16 AM

Your dead on with your analogy. Both the chase and the Nationwide fixes are at best inedept. If they really want to fix the problem don’t let sprint cup drivers to run in the Nationwide, simple. Then you buid a series around the Nationwide drivers and not around bushwakers. If there is no Joey in Nationwide don’t you think a sponcer like Gamestop might then sponcer a guy like Trevor or Justin? To say that you need the sprint cup guys because of the sponcers asks the question of what did they do before 2005? Not have any sponcers in the Nationwide? The real reason is Nascar makes more money with the sprint cup in the series, end of story. If you think Nascar will do anything that would benifit the longterm of the sport and sacrifice a few extra dollars your crazy.
The chase was about selling more TV rights then about making the sport better. Nascar could go to the TV partners and get more dollars because they had a “playoff” now just like football. It didnt make the sport better it made Nascar richer. Everybody could come up with a system that would better. Susan is right they should look at F1 (not baseball or football) for a good model. If it was up to me I would put the focus on wins like F1. The big issue with Nascar is that drivers know that consistence is far more valuable then winning races. Jamie Mac wins 3 races and doesn’t make the chase , and then you have several drivers make it that didn’t win a race, how does that make sence? If you look at the F1 race at Turkey this year, you had teammates in Red Bull take each other out and then Lewis and Jenson almost did the same thing fighting for the win. At the end of the year, there were four guys in it that could take the title and Vettal who was third in the standings won the title by winning the last race. If Nascar wants that “Super Bowl feeling” then they should look at F1 for a point system that makes the race exciting even for eight and ninth place. My suggestion would be points only for the top 15 and it would look like this: 1st. 40 points, 2nd 25, 3rd 20, 4th 15, 5th 12, 6th 10, 7th 9, 8th 8, 9th 7, 10th 6, 11th 5, 12th 4, 13th 3, 14th 2, 15th 1 point. Why should a guy that comes in 32 get any points?

01/18/2011 12:16 PM

It’s a half-fix.

Basically it’s going to be like touring car racing over in Europe, where there’s an overall champ, and then a “Privateer” champ… The best of the non-Works teams wins a championship too. Which is good, because it helps that driver catch the eye of the big league teams.

The downside is that for name recognition and sponsorship, it still isn’t going to help any of the Nationwide drivers. What we’ll see every race this year is the Kyle/Brad/Carl/occasionally Mark show up front, dominating and stealing the limelight, wins and money…. And every so often the broadcast will show us the current points leader, racing for 9th or 10th place, and give him a mention.

It’s a half-assed fix.

01/18/2011 03:22 PM

madhat, your post is perfectly stated. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

01/20/2011 10:52 AM

Nice column. True.

Bad Wolf
01/22/2011 09:55 PM

“And to those who criticized me for enjoying watching the top drivers “have at it,” I understand your point. But the fact is I won’t watch a race featuring Allgaier, Stenhouse, Steven Wallace and Brian Scott. Just like I don’t watch AAA baseball or NFL preseason games. And the sponsors and TV networks know that, and that is why they will sponsor a KBM truck if Kyle is driving it, but not Brian Ickler. Is it fair? Probably not. But it is reality.”

And that is the problem right there. Back in the day before BZF and the Bushwhackers I watched every Busch race to see the new talent, and after a time the names all became familiar and I got to know their tells and the way they raced. Back then it was a real proving ground to see who could transition from the lesser series and have a shot at the big time. Every one of the drivers in Busch were champs from their local tracks, and had made a name for themselves and proved they were ready for a shot in the minors.

Now it’s just a shadow of its former self and the networks play up the cup drivers to get the casual fan to tune in and watch the drivers they know to the detriment of the series. If it were up to me I would limit cup drivers to 5 Nationwide races a year with no points awarded, and change the rules so a driver could not make the jump to Cup until after 3 years in the Nationwide series. Having Cup drivers in Nationwide is like having NFL teams play college ball on Saturdays.