NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Consistency Still Rules Over Wins, Especially in 2009

Despite that most general managers in the NFL know never to let the fans or media pick their quarterback (which can be a flawed tenet if the fans are smarter), NASCAR has responded in many ways to fans’ and media behest to place more emphasis on winning. It hasn’t been as pronounced of late as it had been in the first few years of the Chase, but there are still proposals for placing more value on race wins. One of the most popular ideas is the requirement of a win for a driver and team to be eligible for the Chase – the “win and in” rule.

If the 2009 season so far has taught us anything, it should show the logical flaws of such a proposal.

Based on the idea that a driver must win a race to make the Chase, right now Kasey Kahne, David Reutimann, Joey Logano and even Brad Keselowski would all be eligible for the playoffs despite being 13th, 14th, 21st and 40th in the standings respectively.

Meanwhile, Carl Edwards (four top fives and eight top 10s), Denny Hamlin (four and six), Ryan Newman (five and eight) and Greg Biffle (five and eight) would all be on the outside looking in – not to mention Juan Pablo Montoya, who is also currently above the Chase cutoff. Had Jeff Gordon, currently a strong second in the standings with nine top fives and 12 top 10s, not had a fast pit crew at Texas, he might still need to score a victory in one of the next nine races for the right to battle Keselowski for the title.

Everyone loves to see two or even three of NASCAR’s best battle for a win, and the highlights of what are considered to be the greatest races in the sport’s history revolve around that very premise. And so fans and press – or the people in between that NASCAR calls “citizen journalists” – push for more emphasis on winning, to the point where almost no one seems to think NASCAR rewards winning enough.

But most of those great battles came long before there was a playoff, an extra 10 points for a victory and then 10 playoff points for a race win. The point being: you don’t need to give a driver who smells victory extra motivation. Even Biffle and Jimmie Johnson lost a top finish going for a win this year at Michigan… and Mark Martin, the guy who didn’t go for the win, took the checkered flag.

What people should remember is something NASCAR itself often forgets: this isn’t a stick and ball sport. It isn’t a head to head competition. There are 42 losers every week, not one. Short of winning, a driver tries to get the best finish he can. More often than not that’s what he will have to do. Think about how many races you’ve seen where there were more than four or five cars with a legitimate shot at a win.

No driver or his fans like to finish second. But second place or even a top five means the driver outperformed most of the best in motorsports. That’s hardly something to frown upon. Certainly, when I was single, if I had a chance to date the Miss America runner-up, I wouldn’t have refused.

And the other thing that this year is proving to us all is that points racing, as unpalatable as it may be, is what ultimately puts a driver on top. In between statements of derision regarding Kyle Busch’s antics, most people will admit that it’s exciting to watch him accept nothing less than a W, and he’s managed to score a few fans with his “if you’re not first, you’re last” attitude. We often hear that that is what has been missing from the sport since the Intimidator’s death.

But as much as Dale Earnhardt loved to win, he still was as much of a “big picture” racer as anyone… and that’s how he put seven Cup trophies on his mantel. Dale knew when to get the points he could and when his car just didn’t have enough for a victory. Johnson wins a lot, but he also knows when to keep his car intact and take the good finish, as he did at Darlington this year, and as a result he has three Cup trophies of his own.

As Happy Hour has discussed in the past, nothing has created more points racing than the Chase has. Particularly in the second half of the season, drivers in or just outside of the top 12 – and there can be as many as a dozen or more in that zone – have far more to gain by taking what the car can get and doing it carefully. Anyone who has watched a broadcast of a Chase race knows a Chase car and its sponsor will be on television a lot. Meanwhile, no one who isn’t in that zone wants to take a chance on wrecking someone who is.

But we’ve been over that ground. Chase or no Chase, the way the points system works, consistency is rewarded more than wins even today. And that is as it should be. Consistency is the measure of greatness, as thrilling as the occasional dangerous win is. Four second-place finishes is better than two wins and two DNFs. A driver who goes for the win and wrecks likely tried to do something his car couldn’t do. He should suffer in the points for that, and also for the fact that he might have wrecked the leader going for it, too.

So should NASCAR go to the Formula 1 points system and reward wins only, using points only for tiebreakers? That would have made Edwards champion last season, even if you strip away the disputed victory. Johnson would have still won in 2007. But Kahne would have won in 2006, with all but one of his wins coming at intermediate tracks. Remember that he barely made the Chase that season. A wins-only system with 1.5-mile speedways dominating the schedule would probably reward the team with the best aero package. Maybe if they put more variety in the schedule, but not now.

Great golfers sometimes get holes-in-one. But so do novices. What makes the great golfers is their performance over 18 holes, and then over countless rounds of low scoring. It’s the total performance that should be measured, not the few hot rounds or holes. What a racecar driver achieves on a bad day is very much a measure of greatness, too.

So the increased parity and more winners in a season with no testing aside, let’s recognize that despite having a grand total of just two wins between them, those grizzled veterans Tony Stewart and Gordon are having seasons that are matching the best of their superb careers – because they are outperforming nearly everyone on race days and doing it more often than anyone else.

Does anyone doubt that Stewart and Gordon are among the best?

That’d be a tough argument to make.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • There is only one connection that I can make from Michael Jackson’s death to it being related to racing, somehow. It is this: many people will do just about anything to get – and stay – famous, racecar drivers or motorsports writers included. And here arguably the most famous person in the world dies, and everyone I know still went to work the next day. No matter how huge anyone becomes, they’re still insignificant in this big ol’ universe.
  • Does anyone know what happened with Bill Weber? I’ve never thought he was the best at play-by-play, but he didn’t bother me all that much. Now I’m hearing he was in a loud altercation over a card game in his New Hampshire hotel?
  • Another restrictor-plate race this week, after I have fully and clearly demonstrated the folly of such racing both in articles and on ESPN Radio’s “Carey and Coffey” show. No one ever listens to me. But that’s probably for the best.

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