The Frontstretch: The "Epic" 12th Place Battle? Sorry, Ain't Feelin' It by Kurt Smith -- Thursday August 12, 2010

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The "Epic" 12th Place Battle? Sorry, Ain't Feelin' It

Kurt Smith · Thursday August 12, 2010

 

As I write this, NASCAR.com’s main article showcases large photos of the soulful faces of Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer as the headline grabs us with the words “RUMBLE FOR 12TH”. They even provide links to Martin’s and Bowyer’s driver pages and store pages, just in case the prospect of Clint Bowyer making the Chase makes you want to buy a No. 33 T-shirt.

NASCAR isn’t the only one. Fox Sports ran an article Tuesday called “Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer In Epic Battle For Chase Berth”. On Monday, the Binghamton Press & Sun noted that Martin had moved into the 12th spot last Sunday at Watkins Glen. Racin’ Today ran a piece called “The Fight For 12th Heats Up”. And there was ESPN’s coverage of the Watkins Glen race, where several times we were treated to the graphic that showed how many points ahead Martin had moved in front of Bowyer, as the announcers intensely speculated at the earthshaking prospect of the Chase field changing.

I can’t make this stuff up. It really says “Rumble For 12th”.

No matter how clearly it’s demonstrated that the dogs don’t like the dog food, NASCAR still insists that the Chase is a marketing bonanza. If it’s reached a point where they’re calling a battle for 12th place in the standings—with 14 races left to go in the season—an “epic rumble”, I’d say it’s time to admit that there are limits to what marketing can accomplish.

I get that all of us need something to write about. And Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer are both well-liked drivers that people would probably want to read about. But “rumble for 12th”? “Epic battle for Chase berth”?

There are four whole races to go before the Chase starts a month from now. It’s a little soon to be making a big deal out of a 10 point differential between the two drivers. At the end of the Michigan race the points margin will very likely be larger; after two races it could be almost decisive. With a big enough wave of bad luck Denny Hamlin could be on the Chase bubble in three weeks.

One scene like this over the next few weeks, and Jeff Gordon may well take the points lead until the Richmond reset. Chances are fans haven’t read much about that potential scenario.

People who defend the Chase on the grounds that it’s boring if a driver gets a 200-point lead in the standings don’t realize that a 200-point lead can be wiped out in two races. And rarely does a driver go a full season without a DNF. Should Kevin Harvick crash and finish 35th while Jeff Gordon wins at Michigan this Sunday, Harvick’s lead will become just 53 points.

And, I might add, it’s a hell of a lot more exciting to watch another team catch fire and start cutting into a big lead over a stretch of four or five races than it is to just equalize 12 drivers by legislative fiat.

Kevin Harvick is 185 points ahead of Jeff Gordon thanks in part to two restrictor plate wins. Gordon finished 26th in the Daytona 500 and 22nd at Talladega. Plate race finishes are mostly determined by luck. (No driver seriously disputes this.) Throw the plate races out and Harvick would be just six points ahead of Gordon—so Harvick certainly would not exactly be able to call his lead a comfortable one.

Except, who cares? Both Harvick and Gordon, by beating everyone else, have only cemented their position in a playoff, where one blown tire could likely end their chances at a championship. These guys can cruise for the next four races, so there isn’t any point on discussing the great years both drivers are having. Instead, the focus has turned to drivers having mediocre seasons, especially by their standards.

Does anyone really think Mark Martin or Clint Bowyer is going to seriously challenge for a championship in the last 10 races? Martin did finish second last year after barely making the Chase cut, but his season was an unusual one, with several DNFs that were no fault of his own (those blasted plates) knocking him down in the points before Richmond despite four wins. It wasn’t consistently weak runs that put Martin on the bubble. This year Mark has zero wins and is fighting for his playoff life because he hasn’t been running as well, for whatever reason. If he does make the Chase, he’ll need a serious turnaround to be a factor in the championship hunt.

Clint Bowyer won at Loudon in 2007 after just making the Chase and ended up third in the standings, but Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were so crushingly dominant that season that no one thought Bowyer was going to get near them, and he didn’t.

And those are exceptions. More often, the guy that is 12th after 26 races isn’t going to even be a blip on the radar in the last 10. Brian Vickers eked into the Chase at Richmond last season; in the Chase he did not finish in the top 10 once. Matt Kenseth cleared the Chase bar in 2008; he finished 11th in the standings (although I grant that some of it was DNFs and he in fact did run fairly well). Remember Jeremy Mayfield just skinning his teeth into the first two Chases? That was back when only 10 drivers made the cut. Mayfield finished 10th in 2004 and ninth in 2005, ahead of only Kurt Busch, who didn’t run the last two races.

This is what the Chase has wrought. Rather than sitting down in front of the TV and watching to see if Jeff Gordon can cut into Kevin Harvick’s lead as the two drivers finish near the front each week with every reason to fight for every spot, the big story is two drivers who have not smelled victory lane all season and that almost no one considers to be title contenders. Martin vs. Bowyer, at least this season, isn’t exactly Yarborough vs. Waltrip. An “epic rumble” the 12th place battle is not.

And this begs another question.

If NASCAR and ESPN believe they can convince us that we should get excited over who is going to be 12th, then why didn’t they think they could sell a 36-race season where the driver with the most points at the end became the champion?

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Much as I love Atlanta, I get one of their races being moved. Same with Fontana, and I like that track more than my cohorts do. Short-term, it will bring in some cash to the sport; long-term, NASCAR still has a venue problem that should be addressed and hasn’t been. Maybe in a future column.
  • Inasmuch as I’ve accepted the Chase, I actually think starting it at Chicagoland is a good idea. Chicagoland has little history and produces generally dull races by comparison, so NASCAR giving the race there some weight may be a good thing. If we must have a Chase, it ought to focus at least somewhat on tracks that need a boost in importance.
  • How, exactly, was Rick Hendrick able to work a deal with Red Bull to put Kasey Kahne in one of their Toyotas for next year? I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but does anyone think something doesn’t compute there?
  • My first NASCAR race was at Michigan in 2002. I remember about three-quarters of the crowd being Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, and not even being able to hear Jeff Gordon’s name being announced over the boos. Good times. It’s sucked so much life out of racing having those two as teammates.

Contact Kurt Smith

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Michael in SoCal
08/13/2010 12:49 AM
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Regarding Nascar’s venue issues, I say bring on the 8-track! Or the Dogbone, if that’s what you want to call it!!

Dave
08/13/2010 05:10 AM
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I agree with you the 12th place battle is a little over hyped. At the same time, many fans complain about not enough drivers receiving the spotlight and this is a perfect case of providing more coverage for teams. Same goes for the “epic” battle for the 35th owners spot every year. I would say the most interesting storyline would be McMurray nabbing the final spot and launching himself to the top of the standings because of his victories.

VaBlueGrass
08/13/2010 06:46 AM
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Remember the first year of the chase? The battle for 10th at Richmond was unbelievable! Oh, what a little crystal meth can do!

Sal
08/13/2010 07:08 AM
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Remember when the cut off for the crapshoot was 400 points, because in all of Nascar’s history no driver had ever come from more than 400 points behind to win the title in the final 10 races? at least that gave a smidge of legitimacy to the winner. Now it doesn’t matter how far behind the leader a driver is, as long as they are in the top 12. And Nascar wonders why the fans aren’t excited about JJ winning 4 in a row with this format?

DoninAjax
08/13/2010 09:46 AM
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NASCAR still insists that the Chase is a marketing bonanza.”

You hit the nail on the head right there. The brain-deads in NASCAR keep thinking if they try to sell it long enough people will buy into it. It hasn’t worked and it won’t.
What is the difference if the leader after 35 races has a 200 point lead or the leader in the chase has a 200 point lead with one race left? Most of the time the original points system is closer than the chase.
Brian France said “I’d love for all 11 drivers to be within 25 points of (the leader) myself,” France said. “The reality of it is, that’s sports. There are World Series that are not as exciting as others, that’s just the nature of a dominant performance quite frankly.” Now tell me again why we got the chase. A cow patty by any other name will smell the same.

jerseygirl
08/13/2010 09:47 AM
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according to rumors NASCAR’s change to the chase will up it to 15 driver’s — wow, so next year we can have an epic battle for 15th place. I continue to have a total lack of interest in the chase. And the next wow thing we’re supposed to embrace is starting the chase in 2011 in CHICAGO! Really, I don’t think so, oh well, it gives me another Sunday in Sept with the chance of nice weather and something else to do – I can tell you I won’t be inside watching TV unless it is raining cats & dogs.

4EVER3
08/13/2010 10:25 AM
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Drop the chase!

Sue Rarick
08/13/2010 10:49 AM
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The first Nascar race I remember watching was the 1960 Datona 500. And remember that for many years it was all about just winning races. Actually winning the Championship gradually became important to fans. But for the most part the winning of individual races was more important to us fans.
Rather than try to hype a made for TV show like the chase they’d be better off cutting the season to 30 races and have the season end in the first half of September when there is little other sports excitement.
Even baseball has extended their season to the point a game can be cancelled for snow (???) Older sports fans can remember the buzz when school started was all about the world series and now there really is no real sports excitement at the beginning of the school year. The reason for this mention is this is where life long fans come from.

The Mad Man
08/13/2010 12:40 PM
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The Chase has proven to be a disaster, even when it comes to marketing. It’s become like the boy who cried wolf. You can say whatever you want about it from a marketing perspective but it’s still a sow’s ear trying to be passed off as a silk purse.

Kevin in SoCal
08/13/2010 01:08 PM
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So, without the Chase we would be talking about Kevin Harvick vs Jeff Gordon. Now with the Chase we’re talking about all 12 guys plus the 2 or 3 outside the Chase that might make it in and bump someone out. How is that bad? And yes I understand once the Chase starts ESPN only focuses on the 12, but we’re talking right now before the Chase.
And if NASCAR increases the Chase field from 12 to 15 it will weaken my opinion of it from “in favor” to “disapprove.” In 2007 they increase the field to 12 to make sure Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon made it. Do we call the increase to 15 the “Dale Jr” rule? We dont need to increase the players to make it more exciting, we need to DECREASE IT! 5 drivers, 5 races, have at it boys!

Connie
08/13/2010 02:04 PM
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The odds of a driver in the 12th spot of winning the championship is super slim h*** might freeze 1st. The fight to be within the top 12 is WAY WAY over rated.

Bill
08/13/2010 11:41 PM
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I like the chase format because now I really only have to watch two races: Richmond to see who gets in and Homestead to see who wins. Nothing else matters.

mkrcr
08/14/2010 02:08 PM
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This just in, NA$CAR is rumored to announce exciting new changes for the Chase in 2012. Thought to be at the forefront is the field will be expanded to 43 drivers with a bonus for winning, leading the most laps, and having the most points to win the Championship. One other change being considered is all drivers must qualify on time and must make up their lap through strategy and racing.
One can only dream…

Adam
08/15/2010 08:47 PM
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LOL@mkrcr….ACK! Race for a lap back? Are you insane? ;-)

mkrcr
08/15/2010 11:59 PM
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Connie, getting into the Chase isn’t just about the Chumpionship. If you ain’t in it, there’s no exposure for your sponsors. TV only shows the top 12.

Contact Kurt Smith