Immediately following NASCAR’s announcement in 2003 of the new championship points format – the 10-race Chase – I found myself fully on board with the plan. I supported the decision by the new management regime headed by Brian France because, in my estimation, it was a smart business move to insure there were no more forgone conclusions as to who would win the championship by September – allowing for more fans to stay tuned in as the NFL season began. But more importantly, it seemed apparent to me that the change would increase the need for teams and drivers to let it all hang out and fight for every available point from the opening race at Daytona. Certainly, the move was designed to put some pizzazz into the championship fight, hoping to force the Chase-eligible drivers to run hard every second of every race up through the last lap at Homestead in November.
It seemed a no-brainer that in the long-term, that type of racing mentality would shine through once people understood the nuances of the system. Indeed, it seemed a cinch that the Chase for the Cup format would have team owners and crew chiefs screaming the old racing adage, “drive it like you stole it” from the top of their lungs at their drivers, knowing that every point gained from passing the next competitor in line could make the difference between becoming a Chase eligible, or – once the playoffs began – a championship-winning team. The format – tweaked to allow bonus points for victories in 2007 – would have teams stressing the goal of victories if at all possible, fully aware that the winner also is assured of leaving with the most points.
Of course, as we all know I was eventually proven wrong. Too many times lately, we’ve heard drivers and crew chiefs shamelessly put forward comments about having to play it safe or being unable to afford to take risks before going all out for the win. Instead of laying it all on the line, teams and drivers are seemingly content with top-10 finishes and clearly playing a numbers game in what is nothing more than a convoluted strategy they believe will result in successfully securing them a spot in the Chase, and ultimately, win them a championship.
Just this past weekend, four-time Cup titleholder Jeff Gordon – a driver that should know more about winning races and championships than anyone competing in the series – indicated that even he had jumped on the conservative bandwagon. But after a disastrous day at Michigan Sunday in which Gordon wrecked in the early going and finished 42nd, the Hendrick Motorsports driver slipped from sixth to ninth in the championship standings and finds himself only 82 points from becoming ineligible to compete in the 10-event Chase to the Sprint Cup title.
With that sudden slip in the standings, Gordon has now decided that it’s time to start driving the wheels off the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. “In some ways, this is an easier position to be in. We just go out there and run hard every weekend [now],” he said from his perch in the garage. “We can take chances and do things that could maybe get us that win.”
Sigh. The question Gordon and his team – as well as others that have employed a similar “safe” plan of attack to qualifying for the Chase – need to ask themselves is why an all-out effort throughout the entire Sprint Cup schedule is not the best approach. Doing so would display the same aggressive mentality that’s known in other major sports as, “Hit them hard… and then hit them harder!”
That is the attitude that will put a team at or near the top of the heap following the 26th race of the season at Richmond and primed to make a serious threat to win it all come November. Gordon and company only need to look at Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 driven by Kyle Busch with eight wins or Carl Edwards and the No. 99 Roush Fenway team that has already visited victory lane five times to know that they have the right approach to making the Chase, establishing the mindset needed to win the 2008 Sprint Cup championship during the 10-race shootout. Those two don’t lay back and hang out if their car is good enough to contend for the win; in every possible way, these drivers simply go for it!
But despite that duo’s un-equivocated success this season, the “do no harm” philosophy that has permeated other teams since the establishment of the Chase format continues – explained succinctly by Gordon in his post-race interview on Sunday. “You can’t risk fuel mileage, you can’t risk putting two tires on – we’ve got to stay with four tires,” he said of the No. 24’s strategy used up to this point in the season. “And we can’t get too risky with our setups. You’re just trying to ride along there and not make mistakes.”
Not only is the convoluted logic described by Gordon an affront to what stock car racing is – risk – it is a way of thinking that is almost certain to relegate a team as an also-ran in the end. How could a veteran like Gordon and a team with the history of his not know that victories and championships are rarely won by those that play it safe, but instead by those that are willing to take smart, calculated risks?
Certainly, drivers and teams need to be wise and not perform with reckless abandonment during the playoffs. However, drivers and teams need to take calculated gambles at times in hopes of finding an edge on the competition. Occasionally, taking chances will sometimes backfire; but the alternative is to follow the herd and hope a Chase position or championship will be gained through simple good fortune or an implosion of someone else’s organization.
With that in mind, what the No. 24 team and I suspect others are finding out is that if you just try to “ride along and not make mistakes,” bad things will happen regardless. However, had a team dug deep at every opportunity to gain positions and points, inevitable bad racing luck would be less damaging in the all-important championship points standings.
There are three races remaining before the Chase field is set, and besides Gordon there are at least seven teams – starting with the No. 29 of Kevin Harvick, which is currently holding down the eighth position in the standings – all in jeopardy of not making the 12-driver championship Chase. With just 103 markers separating Harvick from Clint Bowyer and David Ragan in 13th, Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin, as well as Bowyer and Ragan, ought to be thinking about how many points they allowed to slip away by not taking risks through the first 23 races of the season. Those were important points that could have easily assured them a bid, instead of having to sweat it out on pins and needles for these final three weeks of the season.
Certainly, I miscalculated how NASCAR teams would approach the new points format adopted in 2004; and it appears my mistake was in overestimating some teams’ commitment to excellence and their competitive nature. But now – with their backs up against the wall – I do feel confident that there will be at least seven teams going for broke this weekend at Bristol. Their window of opportunity is quickly running short, and because of that they now have to race like they should have all along.
Teams and drivers going full out for points is what the Chase format was designed to encourage. I still believe the system is a good long-term plan for the sport… it’s just that some of the participants have yet to figure it out.
And that’s my view from turn 5.