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Happy Hour: If Locked in the Chase, Why Race at Richmond?

When the Chase for the Cup was initially conceived (although “conceived” probably isn’t a good word for it… maybe “implemented over a cosmopolitan” works better), the only advantage for a team that had built up an insurmountable lead in points during the “regular season” was that they could take chances on different equipment or setups before the “playoffs.” That wasn’t much of an advantage, though, as it turned out in 2004 – Hendrick Motorsports broke engines, transmissions and gearboxes trying to find a little extra speed that year and still came up short to a No. 97 team that had no such liberties.

Four years later, things have changed little in this regard. The only difference since the tweak in the system is that teams can go all out for a win and an extra 10 points rather than simply racing for points in the events before the Chase. But even going all out, the odds are against a team picking up a win in a 43-car field each and every week over the summer. The No. 48 team snagged a couple of wins and 20 points for the Chase in the last few regular season races in 2007; but given that they won the title by 77 points, their effort wasn’t all that necessary. History appears to have shown – at least to me – that a team far ahead in points might actually be better off if they took some time experimenting.

So, let’s ask the question: if a team has clinched a spot in the Chase, might they take a week or even two weeks off to rest the driver, the crew members and/or the engine builders? The off weeks in the season are almost all in the first half of the year, and the second half has 16 weeks straight of racing (shortened to 12 next season). If they have almost nothing to gain by racing at Richmond except a very slightly possible 10 points, why not consider sitting out?

When teams in other sports clinch a playoff spot, players are rested and spared from possible injury in the final few regular season games. There is no reason not to think NASCAR teams might see a benefit in the same strategy. A week off without traveling in the heat of September, without the pressure or the demanding physical output of participation in a race might give teams an edge when the Chase starts. Not to mention that teams will save a lot of money doing so, lightening the financial burden on their sponsor – so long as they don’t mind sitting one out.

Or, teams could even use the Richmond week to find a track somewhere where they are at their weakest in the coming playoff races and test or practice, looking for more speed and to sharpen their skills. Some drivers make the Chase through their strength at intermediate tracks… but they may need some work at Martinsville or Loudon. Finding an edge to run well at those tracks would very likely be worth a great deal more than the relatively paltry 10 points for a win before the Chase… and that’s if they manage to score a win.

Consider the benefit that testing has provided Jimmie Johnson. Earlier this year, the No. 48 team ran 29th at Las Vegas and 13th at Atlanta. Frustrated with their performance, the team took advantage of some off time on Easter and tested at other intermediates. Just two weeks later at Texas, Jimmie finished a surprising second and challenged Carl Edwards for the win. Since then – after weeks of hard work testing, testing, and testing some more – the No. 48 car is undoubtedly a strong contender for the title, as we saw Sunday in California.

Now, the difference between second and 13th place is 46 points per event; the difference between second and 29th is 94. (And a second-place car is much more likely than a 29th-place car to have led laps for five additional bonus points.) Combine the two, and you come up with an average difference of about 70. So, if a team is locked into the playoffs, what’s more desirable: taking a week off to test and gain possibly 70 points at a track or tracks where a team is weakest, or staying in a demanding grind on the slim chance that the team will gain 10 points? Strictly from a championship pursuit standpoint, that seems like a no-brainer – even to someone of my limited math skills. And it ought to be an advantage that teams can have for clinching a spot by running better than everyone else for 26 races, since that doesn’t pay off tangible dividends in any other fashion.

PUGLIESE: CAN RICHMOND RE-IGNITE FAN SPARK?

Imagine if this did start happening. NASCAR would have a conniption, of course, and Richmond International Raceway certainly would not be happy about it. And had Jeff Gordon not been in the race at Richmond last September, there would have been a lot of very unhappy fans in attendance. The track would probably want a different race date than the last one before the Chase; for if Richmond could count on two to four popular drivers not showing up for one of their races, their ticket sales could take a hit.

If Kyle Busch and Edwards were not on TV for the Richmond race, a lot of people might not bother tuning in either. But their absence would also mean struggling teams with less funding would be able to make the field – and we have heard NASCAR say how much they care about those teams fairly often. Isn’t that one of the reasons that drivers are racing in generic one-size-fits-all-manufacturers cars in the first place, and why NASCAR has placed a limit on the number of cars that Roush Fenway can run – so that underdogs have a chance to succeed?

If a playoff system is in place that makes it advantageous for certain teams to take a week off, one shouldn’t expect them to sacrifice an edge that may be the difference in a championship battle just so that fans can see their favorite driver at one track. Right now, the teams probably respect that the fans want to see their driver compete at Richmond, even if he is already in the playoffs… at least for the time being. But sometimes, a good baseball team’s fans show up in late September and don’t see their favorite players play. And they get over it. It’s doubtful that Red Sox fans have cared at all lately after seeing them win two World Series rings.

If I had Richmond tickets and my favorite driver was locked in the Chase and didn’t run the race, I would still go, even though obviously I wouldn’t be as excited about it. I would also understand why the team didn’t want to risk injuring a driver or a crew member to compete in a race that means nothing – except for a remotely possible 10-point gain or the money prizes at the end of it. I would understand that, given NASCAR’s grueling schedule, a team would take a much-deserved week off to recharge their batteries – or find what they are missing. Most of all, I would understand why a team would take any advantage a big lead would give them, since NASCAR does not reward them for it.

And as we move forward, teams need to weigh the risk versus the reward. The only incentive right now for the Nos. 18, 99 and 48 teams to race at Richmond – other than the unlikely possibility of 10 more points when the Chase starts – is the race purse.

Which I guess brings one back to short-track days after all.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Errata, part one: in my article concerning Stewart-Haas two weeks ago, I mistakenly said that RCR has one win this season. Someone pointed out that they, in fact, have two wins this year – Jeff Burton at Bristol and Clint Bowyer at Richmond – in the comment section. That is correct, and even though I believe the central point was still valid, it was still carelessness on my part. Mea culpa; or in English, my bad.
  • Errata, part two: another nice person was kind enough to correct me last week on the fact that NASCAR did not allow the attempted point swap between the Nos. 00 and 44 for Michael Waltrip Racing. Another my bad on that one. I promise to go over my work with an even finer tooth comb in the future.
  • Drew Carey may have been the best grand marshal I’ve seen… only Kevin James, maybe, did a better job. And he added a little much-needed oomph to the Johnson show at California. Well done Drew. What’s Mimi really like? And mine is so big…
  • Joey Logano makes his Sprint Cup debut in the No. 02 for Gibbs this Saturday night at Richmond, driving for Emoh Toped – sorry, Home Depot. I have so much confidence in Sliced Bread that I have already picked him up on my fantasy team, and I’ll even go out on a bold limb and say he outperforms Tony Stewart next year. Sound absurd? You heard it in Happy Hour first.

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