Welcome to this week’s edition of What’s the Call? Each week, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s big controversies. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!
This Week’s Question: Tony Stewart‘s Home Depot team won this week thanks to some gambling that probably wouldn’t have happened if he was racing for the championship. Is this kind of racing actually better for the sponsors than the Chase teams playing it safe?
Stewart Not In The Chase? Home Depot Should Be Thankful
by Tom Bowles
The 2006 season for Stewart hasn’t panned out the way he would have liked. The defending Nextel Cup champ, Stewart missed the Chase for the first time in its existence, and will not finish in the top 10 in Nextel Cup points for the first time in his career. Here’s the thing, though: this season was going so off-kilter for Stewart, it’s actually been better for both himself and his sponsors that he’s not in the Chase for the Championship, and he’s shown why with his performance the first three races of the Chase. Let me explain.
Stewart’s style can best be described as, well, aggressive. He’s known for giving 110% whenever he’s allowed, and drives as hard as he can as often as he can. Sometimes that can get you in trouble, and Stewart’s proved it this season with public wrecks and rifts with Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman among others.
But the Chase isn’t about being aggressive, it’s about avoiding bad luck. Stewart should know, after winning five races during the regular season last year, he turned his style upside down and won the title without so much as a sniff of Victory Lane during the final 10 races. Consistency, not exposure up front was Stewart’s key to taking home the trophy.
Of course, the No. 20 car and Home Depot still got maximum exposure that year because of their driver’s ability to lead the point standings from wire to wire. This time around, if Stewart had slipped into the title hunt, the outcome would have been much different. “Smoke” would have already used up his Chase “mulligan” that would push him to the back of the Chase standings, having crashed two weeks ago at Dover and finishing a distant 33rd. The way this team ran all summer long, they could have hardly been looked at as a serious contender to repeat even if they did get that chance. And, contrary to popular belief, once you’re out of contention for the title, the media doesn’t exactly care for you as much even if you are a Chaser. Just ask Kyle Busch, you didn’t see him interviewed during the NBC pre-race show, just a quick radio spot on the parade laps. No one saw Jeremy Mayfield get much attention during his Chase struggles last year, either.
So, the bottom line is Stewart would have likely fallen out of title contention quickly, leaving his team deflated and his media coverage minimized as could be for a defending champion Chaser. Instead, because the car is out of the Chase, Tony has been able to run each race with the aggressive style he’s known for, either bring it home up front with a win, or bring it home broken apart in a million pieces. That’s given the team the exposure of running up front… you can’t ignore a car if it’s running in the top three during the race, regardless of how many points it has. Not only that, but the team can also take gambles they wouldn’t have been able to if they were running for a title, the race at Kansas was a perfect example, where Stewart’s fuel tank threatened to run dry but crew chief Greg Zipadelli kept him on the track anyways. I mean, why not? Running out of fuel would cost them nothing, finishing 11th or 13th in points means little when you can’t run for a championship. So, the team rolled the dice and it paid off, getting the No. 20 team plenty more attention then if they had run around the track on pins and needles, pitted for fuel, and finished 15th.
Now, whether it’s good the Chase system rewards consistency over aggression is a whole other story. But the fact remains that Stewart would not have been consistent enough to win a title this season; so, why bother to make the Chase then? This driver is the type who’ll have a lot more fun just giving 110% every week, trying to win races without worrying about the consequences, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
Stewart Needed To Be In The Chase
by Becca Gladden
This is a simple question with a simple answer: no. To quote Greg Biffle, who’s been on both sides of the issue as a Chase and non-Chase driver, “If you’re not in the Chase, you’re nobody.”
Now, Biffle’s comment may not ring 100% true, but that’s the way it seems when you look at the amount of media attention paid to the 10 Chase competitors.
“Those are kind of harsh words,” Biffle said earlier this season, “but that’s what everybody wants – they want to be in the Chase. You get recognized, they talk about you. You’re part of the series.”
Added Biffle, “I finished third at Kansas (in 2004) and automatically a storm of media goes over to Jeff Gordon’s car because he got fifth. We finished third and you’re like, ‘I’m over here!’ That’s the big difference – you’re somebody if you make the Chase.”
I’m not a big fan of the Chase myself; there’s no question that it promotes overly cautious big-picture racing. But the fact is, since its introduction three years ago the only guaranteed way to get the media’s attention is to be a part of it; from Frontstretch to ESPN, everyone is guilty of focusing on those select 10 going for the title. A few moments in Victory Lane can’t compare to the unrelenting focus on the Chase drivers during the race broadcasts – not to mention Regis and Kelly, David Letterman, The Today Show, Broadway, Wall Street, and even the White House, along with all the other venues that have been visited by the Chase drivers in the past few seasons.
If you’re a fan of a non-Chase driver, you already know what I mean. You’re lucky if they mention your driver’s name once in a four-hour broadcast – and then it’s only for a pit road problem or a crash.
Tony’s gamble might have been a good thing for him, his fans, and the sport as a whole. But with the lion’s share of media attention paid to the Chasers week in and week out, I’m sure his sponsors would rather see him in the Chase than not in it.
As for Tony, he will get attention wherever he goes, simply because he’s Tony Stewart.