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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: The Critics Have Been Silent… At Least, Until Kansas

As an unabashed supporter of NASCAR’s decision to implement a playoff format that determines the Sprint Cup champion – along with its equally controversial and much-maligned implementation of the racecar formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow – I am feeling at least partially vindicated for my opinion following the last three weeks of racing. Granted, no one has approached me to concede that maybe NASCAR isn’t as bad at running a racing series as they and many racing columnists had been saying… and I haven’t yet gotten a call to be told that maybe the CoT isn’t the ruination of the most popular motorsports series in America.

Nonetheless, I hear these men and women’s contritions loud and clear – and so does NASCAR! It is a deafening apologetic silence that is speaking volumes… if one only stops to listen. The Chase will now travel to the flatlands of Kansas for its third event with scarcely a negative word being uttered about the contrived points system, one that has seen the series’ points leader fall from the top spot to 12th place in the standings in the matter of just eight days.

No doubt, there are still a few stubborn racing purists continuing to maintain the championship should be determined under the former points format, a system that would have only two drivers within 250 points of current leader Carl Edwards. There are supporters – many of which are on this site itself – who believe it just isn’t fair for the points leader to have his lead earned over a course of 26 race weekends be discarded, his points reset so that even the 12th-place driver is within striking distance of a championship he might have run away with otherwise.

But whether a “playoff” system is fair or not is an argument that might be appropriate to contemplate in a Philosophy 101 course at the local junior college – not in the real world. For the bottom line is such a system has consistently been shown to produce positive results in all the major sporting entities in this country. In every league that has adopted some form of a playoff schedule, the final result is always the same: it adds suspense, excitement, and interest to the conclusion of their competitive season.

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Keep in mind also that NASCAR is a business, and as such, is always searching for new and innovative means to encourage fans to flop down their hard-earned cash to watch their favorite drivers – and that’s something the Chase can do. Indeed, the resetting of the points system has given fans of the sport’s hottest commodity, Dale Earnhardt Jr., more incentive to continue to watch the races at home or trackside. Earnhardt, though currently ninth in the standings, is a mere 129 points behind Edwards – even after a lackluster 24th-place finish last Sunday at Dover. That means Junior Nation still has reason to tune in for this championship battle with interest that undoubtedly would not be as strong under the former points system. In that format, Junior would be stuck in fourth place, an almost insurmountable 272 markers behind the leader.

But it’s not just the fans of Earnhardt that have extra motivation to tune in for the remainder of the Sprint Cup season in favor of college and professional football. Due to the Chase, fans of all 12 playoff-eligible drivers have an additional reason to intently follow their wheelman at even this late stage of the 2008 season, with all of them having a legitimate chance of taking home the Sprint Cup. Two races into the 10-race playoff, there are still nine drivers – Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt – less than 130 points out of first in the standings. Depending on the circumstances, any one of them could leave Kansas with a points lead some would have never dreamed of having otherwise.

Going hand-in-hand with the complaint that the points reset is nothing more than fabricated drama has been the complaint that drivers have been just “points racing” through the spring and summer, satisfied to settle for top 10s only during the first 26 events. Though that’s a claim which has some merit, it has also become evident that with the Chase now in its fifth year, drivers and teams are becoming more cognizant of the need to win and collect valuable bonus points to be carried into the playoffs – ones that can be ultimately become the difference in winning or losing a championship they all still covet.

And while so many have critiqued the Chase, their hatred hasn’t stopped the average fan from continuing to tune in. After a year of decline, TV ratings have held steady throughout the season and have, at numerous events, topped previous tallies. Track attendance, despite the harsh realities that hyper-inflated gasoline prices and a downturn in the overall economy bring, has also not shown any significant decreases either. This – despite predictions of a sharp decline in both – should lead NASCAR not to do an about-face, one in which they dump both the Chase format and its new generation racecar all at once.

No, the sanctioning body is instead treating fans to some of the best racing that the sport has provided in years. The prelude to the Chase at Richmond – won by Johnson after a classic battle with Stewart – Biffle’s win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway over Johnson, and his second consecutive triumph last Sunday at Dover’s Monster Mile have all been widely recognized as highly entertaining races. And those three events were good not just because of the battles up front… but because of the racing throughout the entire field.

Don’t believe me? Well, I have proof. Who is complaining about the quality of the racing we’ve seen of late?

Answer: No one.

See! There is your proof! In a sport where fans are quick to critique a race and weigh in with even the pettiest of personal pet peeves… they have been left silent. And as a result, NASCAR can correctly interpret that silence as a resounding round of applause for both the Chase format and their new generation racecar. Yes, this is the same racecar that has also recently contributed to what many consider vastly more enjoyable races to watch at two tracks notorious in years past of putting on some real “snoozers” – California and Michigan.

Oh sure, there will still be some “stinkers” along the way this season. Cookie cutters like Kansas Speedway, where the Sprint Cup series will take their road show to this week, quickly come to mind. There are too many of these multi-purpose racing facilities that are not conducive to exciting, competitive Sprint Cup racing – but it’s a problem that neither a championship points system nor a newly-engineered racecar can completely resolve.

And until that next “stinker” comes, there’s nothing much to say these days, other than how the racing has been downright enjoyable. In fact – to borrow a phrase from a current hamburger commercial – it’s been nothing less than, “Shut your mouth good!”

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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