Note to self: never, ever wonder if it could get worse.
When I wrote earlier this year that the Budweiser Shootout had outlived its purpose, it was because the segment lengths made it boring – and with Budweiser giving way to Coors Light as the pole sponsor, it seemed as good a time as any to retire the race altogether. It was still popular enough even though it was getting stale… so why not go out in style? Before things got worse?
The new race format for 2009 was announced last week, and frankly, um… how can I put this? It sucks. Since they could no longer use pole winners sponsored by a rival brewery, Budweiser and NASCAR had the chance to come up with something exciting to replace that – but instead, they came up with a format that could end up making watching cement set sound like more fun the Saturday night before the Daytona 500.
First off, driver selection is purely based on the previous year’s owner points and the manufacturer – the top six in owner points for each make get in. (Sure, let’s find another way to reward teams for something they did months ago). That means a couple of things. First, it means that if a driver works his butt off to earn points all the previous year but changes to a team not in the top six in their make, he can sit on his butt while someone else races. If the field for next year’s Shootout were set today, Casey Mears would be in with the No. 07 despite not having even sat in the car yet. Clint Bowyer on the other hand would likely get the privilege of watching the race from on top of the No. 33 hauler. Ditto for Tony Stewart, who can watch Joey Logano pilot his old ride while he’s sitting on the sidelines.
Not only is the format grossly unfair to drivers who should earn their way in, it also allows for some very dubious entries, as the top six from each manufacturer really isn’t the star-studded group Bud and NASCAR would like you to believe. The pickings are kind of slim for some of the makes; once you get beyond Chevrolet – who currently can say that all six of their entries are in the Chase – it’s not so rosy. Dodge would be trotting out cars that currently sit 21st, 22nd and 23rd in owner points, while Ford would be sending out the No. 28 of Travis Kvapil – currently 24th in owner points with three top-10 finishes this year. Their entries represent just two owners, with five cars all coming out of the Roush Fenway stable. Toyota is even worse – their lineup boasts Michael Waltrip, driving his own No. 55, which is 32nd in owner points and has just one top-10 finish this year.
And while that “best six” format is fair to the manufacturers, it’s not fair to the teams who are simply better – or to the fans who want a good race. I’m all for leveling the playing field; but this is ridiculous.
Second of all, having two segments that are both long – 62.5 miles and 125 miles – isn’t doing much to add to the excitement, especially given that the CoT strategy on restrictor-plate tracks like Daytona is basically to wait in line and go for it at the end. I can’t quite bring myself to believe that is what fans want to see.
The powers that be had the chance to turn the Bud Shootout around, make it worth the hype. They could have really made it a race worth watching. Imagine this for the Shootout: invite all the teams, regardless of their qualifying speed, and run the race like a Saturday night special at the local short track. Run heat races. If NASCAR has to suddenly be fair about something (and it would certainly be a first), run four five-lap heats, one for each manufacturer. Take the top five from each of those, then run a 10-lap hooligan race for all the others. Forget who makes the cars in that one; just take the top three finishers call it good at 23 in the feature. Then run the main event in three 20-lap segments or two 25-lappers and a 10-lap final segment for all the marbles, eliminating the last five cars in each of the first two segments. Now, that would be a race worth watching.
Instead, we get a tired format dragged out and made less exciting by the inclusion of some teams who are clearly only there because the format says they have to be invited. We get segments that are too long, and allow for far too much racing in line and playing it safe. We get everything that is wrong with the race – and maybe even with NASCAR. That’s surprising considering it’s an exhibition event – it should be the best the sport has to offer.
And now it’s not.