NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Formula for Success?

You’ve got to hand it to the powers that be that run Formula 1 – at least when they’re not consorting with hookers or doing their mad Rumplestiltskin on meth impersonations. They realize their brand of racing is in trouble. Skyrocketing budgets and technology has eclipsed driver skill and passing (well, they call it “overtaking”… those damn English have a different word for everything, which pisses me off… we let them steal our language). To combat the problem, several initiatives have been adopted to add some drama back to F1 racing – some of them so complex as to boggle this writer’s imagination. However, one of the easiest to understand is the new F1 points system introduced last week.

Under the new format, the driver who wins the most F1 races this year will be crowned champion. OK, that’s pretty damn simple, and the idea has its charms. In a perfect world, racecar drivers strap into their cars with one goal in mind… to win the race. They do not climb into racecars looking for a consistent finish that will help solidify their points position, and they certainly don’t climb into racecars hoping to drive a few laps before retiring to the garage area citing “electrical problems” as an excuse while they head to the pay window to collect a big check. That’s not racing; that’s the AIG bonus program without mufflers.

But for the folks NASCAR is trying to draw to the sport (we’ll call them the uninitiated), instituting such an idea has certain charms. Let’s say you have a friend dipping his toes into NASCAR racing. He asks how a championship is decided, and you tell him that the driver who wins the most races wins the title. For fans of stick and ball sports, that makes sense. (Spare me the flak. Yes, I realize that in the modern era a football team that went 8-8 can win the Super Bowl over a team that was undefeated in the regular season. That’s why I don’t watch football anymore. Anyway… the team that wins each division is the team that won the most games, right?) So the new fan’s next question is, “OK, so which drivers have won races so far this season and how many races are left?” This is simple. Simple is good… take it from an aging simpleton.

Now, try explaining the current NASCAR points system to a potential new fan, even the part of the system that is in place prior to the Chase. Watch that guy’s eyes glaze over and his hand automatically start groping for the remote. Watch Rube Goldberg heading for the door, his shorts dampened with urine at the complexity and stupidity of it all.

I like simple; but simple has its limitations. While it’s always more satisfying to take a BFH (the first word is big and the last one is hammer… you figure out the rest) to a problem when working on cars, there are times a harmonic balancer puller or even an OBD II scanner is the appropriate tool to do the job. When it comes to motorcycles, I prefer big (big is simple) air cooled V-twins with kickstarters to electric start four cylinder, water-cooled Japanese science projects. But even I admit the fuel injection on my Nighty-Night Sporty is preferable to carbs and stalling out at every stop sign while the bike warms up. I just wish the damn thing had a kickstarter.

To adopt such a simple championship approach to NASCAR racing would also ignore the fundamental differences between Cup and F1. Cup racing is still a knuckle-dragging anachronism compared to F1. Our cars still have carbs, overhead valves, 15-inch rims and manually operated Hurst shifters (Can I get a Hallelujah, brothers and sisters?) In comparison, F1 has become such a technical tour de farce that they make George Jetson’s car look like a Tin Lizzy. F1 is an incredibly expensive form of motorsport, to the point Jack Roush could drop his entire operating budget out of his back pocket and most F1 team bosses wouldn’t bother to lean over and pick it up.

Secondly, there are only 22 cars that compete annually in the F1 series. (This year, it might only be 20 with Honda having taken their ball and glove and gone home.) There are 10 (nine?) teams with two drivers each. In a good year, two of those two teams will actually compete for wins. In a great year, there might be three competitive teams on the circuit. Most years, one team just flat-out dominates to the point you have to ask why the other teams lack the testicular gumption to just stop showing up at all rather than have their asses handed to them on a biweekly basis. In 2004, Michael Schumacher won all but five races all season. Not even Jeff Gordon in 1998 approached that sort of domination. Since 1999, Ferrari has lost just two constructors’ titles, while McLaren and Williams have enjoyed similar dominating streaks in their day. At some level, the F1 folks are simply admitting that two or three drivers are going to win almost all this season’s races, and they might as well try to spice things up some with some intra-squad rivalries. For comparison’s sake, there are three dominant teams in NASCAR right now, and perhaps three or four more organizations that have a realistic chance at winning some races this season.

The F1 season is also only 17 races long, starting in Australia this weekend and concluding in Abu Dhabi the first day of November. If they were to impose a 10-race “Chase Format,” it would involve more than half of their season. In contrast, the Cup schedule includes 36 points-paying races, as well as four increasingly nonsensical non-points paying events. Somehow, NASCAR needs to at least hype each race as something important, and not 26 races leading up to the final 10 when drivers actually start racing. Yeah, good luck with that anyway.

So, because of the length of our season and the number of drivers with some shot to win events, the “Most Wins” format in its purest form won’t work in NASCAR. But that’s not to say we can’t take something from our European friends’ experiment that might spice up the action here and have our drivers actually up on the wheel and running for wins – not cruising for points at places like Fontana and Michigan that have become NASCAR’s equivalent to a spirited game of lawn croquet.

First and foremost, a race win should bring a points bonus over finishing second that makes racing for that win, even at the risk of wrecking, a worthwhile gamble. I’m thinking a minimum of 500 points over second, while a one-point bonus for each lap led should discourage drivers in the lead from politely pulling over and letting the second-place driver take his turn at the front. With 500 laps on the line and a potential 500-point bonus, I think that might spice things up a bit at tracks like Bristol again. Of course, a win would have to pay 1,000 points, second 500 points etc. to keep lap-leader bonuses from being more important than winning. Like our friend Knute used to say, “Winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.”

Secondly, I feel a race win, any race win, ought to guarantee a driver a spot in the Chase if we truly are saddled with the current disingenuous method of determining a title. You win a race, whether it’s Martinsville or Daytona, you’re in the big show. Some will object that a team might win a race, finish lousy in the other 25 events and still make the Chase. If that’s the case, then that team will implode during the playoffs, right? The only qualification would be the team gaining entry to the Chase must qualify for every Cup event with the same driver, so as to exclude teams using such chicanery as hiring a road course ace for Sonoma or the Glen to gain entry to the playoffs. I want to see drivers outside the top 12 running their guts out and rubbing fenders to make the Chase in the final weeks of the season. Again, nothing is more important than winning; and if you don’t think so, you don’t belong at the wheel of a racecar… you deserve to be the lead guest on Dr. Phil.

As a codicil to the above, no driver who has failed to win a race in the first 26 events should make the playoffs, even if he finished second 26 times. Consistency is good in bowel movements and matrimony… but it sucks in racing. If you finished second 26 times and never found a way to get up on the wheel and win even one of those races, I’ve got a lovely parting gift for you… and it’s not a spot in the Chase.

I will admit our F1 brethren have had one thing right for a number of years. Over there, only the first- through eighth-place drivers earn any points at all in an event. Again, our fields are much larger, so in this new NASCAR system we’ll pay points all the way back to 16th. 1,000 points for a win, 500 for second, 300 for third, all the way back to 10 points for 16th. Everyone else… thanks for playing. Yeah, some teams are never going to score a point. That’s too bad. If a driver is running second and decides to make a “no guts, no glory” pass for the lead that might end up with him wrecked out of the race, he should know that all the other title contenders are going to suffer through a few “no points” finishes. And now that finishing 17th is no better than finishing 30th, this will help get cars running on six cylinders and patched together wreck-refugees off the track and out of the way of the leaders. You just didn’t bring your A-game to the track this weekend, so get the Hell out the way, Chumpy.

No, I don’t think that the “Most Wins” system in F1 would work for the Cup Series, even as Brian France tries to find a way to pawn off his fleets of ungainly and unraceable fleet of Car of Tomorrow disasters to Third World countries as taxicabs to stop the bleeding. To adopt such a system in NASCAR would be ridiculous. But the only thing that would be even worse is to continue using our current points structure to determine a Cup champion.

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