Racing to the Point · Brett Poirier · Tuesday February 18, 2014
Most playoff series don’t reach Game 7. Some go four games, some five, some six, but few go seven. There’s a reason for it: Game 7 is reserved for the playoff series that just couldn’t be decided any other way. They’re destined to have one last winner-take-all moment.
As fans, we treasure Game 7s because we know they don’t come along very often, and we value how special they are. Game 7 isn’t just important because it decides a winner, it’s important because of all the small moments that led up to it. In baseball, it is the 13th-inning walk-off home run in Game 5 keeping a team alive that was on the brink of elimination. It’s the player who stole second in the seventh inning of Game 3, moments before his teammate doubled to drive him in as the go-ahead run. Those moments — along with 100 more — are the reason there is a last one. Without any of those plays, maybe the series goes five games, or six, but not seven.
That concept has been lost on Brian France. NASCAR’s chairman and CEO has been trying to figure out how to add “Game 7 moments” to NASCAR for years — and unfortunately, he’s finally done it. Forget about the first 35 races of the Sprint Cup season because the championship will come down to one race, set with four contenders fighting for the title.
Game 7 is coming in November. In other sports, fans find out two days before that there will be a Game 7, but NASCAR fans have nine months to brace themselves. Even American Idol doesn’t manufacture this much drama. And that’s exactly what it is: manufactured. If Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are banging fenders at Homestead-Miami Speedway, side-by-side in the final laps while fighting for the title, will that moment supplant the 1992 battle at Atlanta as NASCAR’s greatest championship moment?
It won’t for me. The difference between the 1992 battle and whatever scenario plays out at Homestead-Miami this year is the ’92 one wasn’t concocted in a third-grade science lab — better known as the NASCAR offices. The 1992 battle was special for all of the reasons my fictional baseball series was. After 28 races, barely anything separated six contenders for the title. It was the closest thing NASCAR will ever have to a Game 7. No gimmicks need to be added; it was authentic. That’s the reason it’s still talked about today.
When France announced the new championship format last month, many writers referred to his incessant desire for Game 7 in their stories, while others referred to his move as a Hail Mary. Neither term belongs in NASCAR, but they suited the stories well because neither does a winner-take-all final race. Auto racing has variables that stick-and-ball sports don’t. If teams were battling 1-on-1, like the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks did a couple of weeks back in the Super Bowl, a winner-take-all finale would make sense.
Sprint Cup pins 43 teams against one another each week, though. And then there’s the other huge variable: the playing surface. The New Orleans Saints may be at a disadvantage when they travel north to play outdoor playoff games (the Saints play their home games in a dome), but imagine if the size and shape of the field was changed, too. In NASCAR, nearly every week it would get changed into a shape and surface the Saints hadn’t seen all year, much like Cup drivers won’t see Homestead-Miami until the finale.
MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA teams all travel and compete in different places across the country, but the playing surfaces are all pretty much the same. Try looking at Martinsville and then at Talladega — then tell me they are pretty much the same. I will tell you to get a CT Scan. Auto racing is a different animal. The points might be tallied differently, but the top auto racing series in the world all hold season-long championships (without playoffs) for a reason. It’s what has worked best since Morgan Shepherd competed in the first Indy 500 in 1911.
“I don’t think we can take everything the NFL or NBA is doing and say, ‘We need to do it like this because they’re doing it like that and it’s working,’” Ryan Newman said last month. “This is still stock car racing. This is NASCAR. A certain percent of change is good, but we do not need to copy their (playoff systems).”
Yet NASCAR has. Eleven years ago, there was a 36-race championship. Ten years ago, it was shortened to ten races. And now, it’s down to one.
The Chairman and CEO of the most successful American racing series just had to have “Game 7 moments” in a sport that’s never held a game.
The new playoff structure is bound to produce some exciting and intense moments. It’s also going to leave a lot of people asking themselves if NASCAR’s newest champion is really a champion at all. The NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA don’t have to worry about that; but then again, they didn’t schedule Game 7 before the season began.
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