First, let me preface the following article with what appears to be the required disclaimer before voicing any criticism(s) of reigning Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart; “Don’t get me wrong, I think Stewart is a great driver, but…”
Stewart, in spite of having participated in the Nextel Cup Chase to the Championship in the first two seasons of the format, seems completely lost as to how to compete as a non-contender for the coveted title. After threading his way through the field for a well-earned second-place finish at last week’s race in Loudon, N.H. to kick off the 2006 Chase, immediately upon exiting his racecar Stewart explained that although he was pleased with his finishing position, “it is a frustrating day when you are racing those guys that are in the top 10 in points. You are just so cautious around them and it is hard to race real hard and be around those guys, worrying about getting into them.”
The two-time NASCAR Cup champion has no reason to worry. It’s a race! It is assumed that racecar drivers will always endeavor to finish a race as far towards the front of the field as they can. Nothing in NASCAR’s Chase format excludes non-Chase participants in the final 10 races of the season from competing to the best of their abilities. In fact the Chase points format is in large part factored on the championship contenders’ performance not only against the other Chase eligible drivers but also in respect to their performance versus the entire field. To not give the top-10 drivers a run for their money would, in some ways, cheat the fans of a legitimate championship contest.
All drivers, Stewart included, owe it to their fans, crews and sponsors to strive for a top finishing position. Fans loyal to a driver are still rooting for their favorite, the guy whose t-shirts, diecasts, caps and various other paraphernalia they have bought. These fans also support those that support their chosen drivers by, when given a choice, purchasing products of manufacturers associated with that driver. Loyalists of a given driver will travel hundreds of miles at considerable expense to cheer their driver on, and they certainly deserve to see their “driver” compete to the best of his ability.
Crewmen on teams outside the top 10 are not worrying about how their performance will affect the Chase contenders. They continue to labor long hours to prepare their racecars for the upcoming race in hopes of a great finish. And in some instances their own employment hinges on the team’s performance in this final segment of the race season. For a driver to “roll out” of the throttle early, or otherwise concede a better finishing position to a Chase contender is truly a disservice to all the other members of that driver’s team. Teams have every right to expect the same effort out of the driver as they are putting forth.
Sponsors expect an all out effort by the driver. And that’s understandable; after all, they are paying the freight for that driver to be competing. To optimize television exposure, which is the payoff for a sponsor’s investment in NASCAR racing, they need their driver to do something noteworthy. There is nothing a sponsor desires more than to see their well-placed company logo emblazoned across television screens all over America as their driver leads a race, is engaged in a hotly-contended battle amongst the leaders, or is consistently running amongst the top of the running order. A team, driver included, not making the Chase still must race the last 10 races of the season under the ever existing economic pressures associated with satisfying present sponsors, and attracting other prospective contributors to the racing organization.
The worry associated with satisfying multi-million dollar sponsors, adoring and faithful fans, and extraordinarily hardworking team members should be considerably more worrisome to Stewart than any adverse reaction to racing the top-10 drivers real hard.
Now fast forward to last Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway located in Dover, Del. Almost prophetically, Stewart’s stated concern about racing around championship contending drivers became reality when Stewart inexplicably and uncharacteristically lost control of his No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet on lap 11 of the 400-lap race. The racecar then spun up the track towards the outside wall and collected Chase contender Kasey Kahne. The wreck relegated Stewart to a 33rd-place finish and all but eliminated any hopes Kahne had of becoming the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion. Kahne, after taking his car to the garage for repairs, returned to the track and finished 38th on the day, 228 laps behind race winner Jeff Burton.
Response from those that comprise what is commonly referred to as the “NASCAR Nation” has been measured, minimal and rational. Clearly Stewart did not intentionally wreck Kahne. Followers of the stock car series seem almost unanimous in their opinion that what happened to Kahne, although unfortunate, is as much a part of racing as a blown motor or tire that would result in a poor finish for the contender. There is no outcry for Stewart’s head. It is understood that he is a very competent driver and sometimes even the best of them make mistakes.
But Stewart again seems to have a skewed perception of the Chase on his mind. After the completion of the race, Stewart, though genuinely remorseful that he was involved in the accident that severely damaged Kahne’s championship efforts, cited problems with the Chase format for the situation the wreck has created. “I don’t think this Chase thing was thought out well enough,” he said. “Brian [France] is a smart guy. We’ll see if he can make adjustments to make it right for these guys. But you look at what’s going on right now. The guys that have an opportunity to win the Chase are guys that just don’t have bad luck. That’s all there is to it. It’s not about anything else.
“Kasey [Kahne] can go out and win the rest of the races and not win the championship still. It’s not about who’s going to win the championship based on good finishes; it’s going to be about guys who just don’t have a bad day. That’s all this Chase boils down to,” Stewart concluded.
Certainly a poor finish is devastating to any championship competitor. This situation was not created by Brian France or the Chase format, which is now in its third year of existence. What Stewart fails to understand is that anytime he, or any other driver, wrecks a contender with eight races remaining, before or since the implementation of the Chase, it is and always has been damaging to that driver’s championship run. The Chase is still the same as it was last year when Stewart was crowned the champion. After entering the Chase in first place last season, he stumbled five races into it when a blown tire at Lowe’s Motor Speedway while leading the race resulted in a 25th-place finish. However, Stewart recovered from that setback, as well as an 18th-place finish at Dover, to win the title by posting consistent top-10 finishes in the other eight races. Without a doubt, drivers in a close points battle aren’t afforded too many poor finishes if they still want to win the championship, nor should they.
Stewart is in a position he has very little experience with in his illustrious motor racing career. He’s on the outside looking in at a championship race and is not certain as to how he is supposed to conduct himself. What he and all non-Chase contenders should do is race hard, race clean and not become overly concerned with the other 10 drivers that did make the 2006 championship chase. All 33 non-Chase drivers are responsible for satisfying their fans, crews and sponsors, just as the title contenders are. The final eight races of the year should be contested by all drivers with the same mindset as the first 26 races of the season. Just race!