I have always been an unabashed advocate of the Chase to the Nextel Cup Championship format since it began back in 2004. There’s a number of reasons for that. I believed at the time – as I do now – that when the pros and cons are objectively considered, tracking the 10-race playoff is considerably more entertaining (yes, auto racing is entertainment) than watching Jeff Gordon go through the motions for the last 15 races of the season, waiting to pick up his Nextel Cup championship hardware already engraved.
That said, I understood the angst of racing “traditionalists” that could not accept such a radical change in how NASCAR Cup titles were going to be determined in future years… but still felt a new system would eventually take hold over time. However, a part of my rationale for supporting the Chase concept was a genuine belief that it would intensify the racing, at least amongst the 10 (now 12) championship-eligible participants. But after watching the playoffs unfold these last few years, it’s an assumption that now seems on my end to have not been completely accurate. Instead, it appears that some drivers and/or team owners believe that championships can be won by playing it safe.
Whoops. Perhaps I am missing something here, but isn’t the guy that wins the race awarded the most points for that event? And isn’t the driver with the most points at season’s end going to be crowned the Nextel Cup champion?
It’s a theory that sounds so simple in practice; yet, repeatedly we hear drivers and crew chiefs spouting the term “big picture” until it has grated on my last nerve. Well, the “picture” I am looking at has 12 actors in it that can beat any of the other 11 on any given race day. Among the cast are five former Cup champions, at least some of whom have adopted a “take no prisoners” approach during their entire racing career, a driving philosophy that has served them well and earned them a position amongst the premier stock car drivers anywhere. It just seems that common logic dictates to beat these guys you have to, well, beat ’em!
Now beginning the fourth year of the Chase for the Nextel Cup, it is almost unbelievable that drivers and teams are still conflicted with the best approach to winning the championship under what is essentially a “playoff” system. Just this past Sunday we heard radio chatter between Chase contender Denny Hamlin and his team in which he was being reminded to think about the “big picture.” Hamlin, who was methodically moving up through the field at the time, was reduced to trying to justify his charge toward the front. His day was later ruined when he inexplicably rammed into the rear of habitual straggler Kyle Petty‘s Dodge. A mistake uncharacteristic of the sophomore Joe Gibbs Racing chauffeur, noted for his ability to stay out of trouble on the racetrack and bringing his equipment home in one piece.
And since Hamlin gets my “bonehead move” of the race, I will use his recent comments as evidence of just how convoluted some drivers and teams strategy in their quest to win a Cup championship is. But in fairness to the talented driver, who finished the 2006 season third in Nextel Cup points in his freshman year and his crew, I should point out that similar comments have been made by numerous other Chase-contending drivers and their team members. Speaking last week during the build-up to the second race of the Chase at Dover, Hamlin was quoted as saying, ” But the biggest thing, I think I’ve been complaining a lot about track position lately, but I think that’s not going to be the key. Just let Mike (crew chief Mike Ford) call the race like he normally would, and get back to points racing like we have for the most part of the season. It seems like we didn’t run as well when we were trying to go all out and get wins. So once we get back to the way we were, we should be fine.”
But it wasn’t the No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet driver’s attempt to “go all out and get wins” that found Hamlin over 380 points behind Gordon, in third place in the driver standings behind Tony Stewart as well, entering the 10-race Chase after Richmond. He was bested by two multi-time Cup champions that know to race for every position on the track will result in valuable points, points that will be the ultimate difference in being a champion or an also-ran. Most will be hard pressed to remember that Hamlin finished third in the final points standings for 2006, but that Jimmie Johnson won the championship will be noted for time immemorial.
Winning the championship is the only goal Chase contenders should have at this point of the season. And the driver that takes the tact of setting back and watching what the competition does is destined to become nothing more than a footnote to the 2007 championship race. Having qualified for an opportunity to win it all in itself has guaranteed the teams and drivers of a satisfactory season. Now there should be but one thing left to accomplish, a championship!
Give notorious hard charger Kevin Harvick credit, presently 75 points behind Gordon in the championship hunt, for understanding what he needs to do if he hopes to win his first NASCAR Cup championship, “I think you have to do your own thing,” said Harvick, scoffing at the notion that a driver should map out some strategy for the Chase. “You have to race as hard as you can. You have to find another level to pick it up during the last 10. You know, sometimes take some chances you wouldn’t normally take. If you don’t, there’s going to be somebody who beats you, who takes those chances and gets away with them.”
Seems pretty simple, race as hard as possible and let the chips fall where they may. Win or lose a driver and team can then leave the season-ending race in Homestead, Fla. knowing that they have nothing to regret as they gave it their very best shot!
And isn’t the the object of the sport to win, anyways?