NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Wins Leaders Both in Danger of Missing Playoffs?

Remember the good old days, when we didn’t care who was fighting for 12th place in the standings too much? Those days are gone, even for me.

Kyle Busch and Mark Martin, two great drivers on opposite ends of NASCAR Nation’s polarization spectrum, battled to one of the best finishes of the year in Bristol last weekend. When Busch prevailed, it tied him with Martin as the series’ wins leader, which would tie them for the points lead when the Chase starts – except, oddly enough, both of them are in very real danger of missing it. Martin is just 26 points in, while Busch is 34 points out.

Meanwhile, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya are in playoff contention without ever having visited victory lane. Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch, with one victory apiece are all but locked in.

I’m not someone who thinks it should just be all based on wins, or that a driver should have to win to make the Chase. The playoffs are supposed to be about the best of the best, which Joey Logano and David Reutimann have not been. A driver who scores three straight top fives has performed better than the driver who goes for the win at all costs and scores a win and two DNFs, exciting as that may be. I don’t have a problem rewarding consistency.

But after a 2003 season in which Matt Kenseth won a title by executing with consistency all year long, and a supposed outcry over a champion having only one win, NASCAR implemented a playoff system that encourages points racing to the extreme. And there’s an additional problem with dividing the season into two points racing segments: restrictor plates.

The combination of the Chase and restrictor-plate races could be the downfall of Kyle Busch and Martin in 2009, while at the same time boosting the title hopes of Kurt Busch, Kenseth, Biffle and Montoya – who between them this year have as many wins as Martin or Busch.

Martin finished 16th in a Daytona 500 that he led and well could have won but for the rain. He finished last at Talladega, getting caught up in an early big one. He was taken out early for a 38th-place finish in the second Daytona race.

Kyle Busch got caught up in the Dale Earnhardt Jr./Brian Vickers scuffle in the 500 and finished 41st. He got spun by Jeff Burton at ‘Dega and never recovered, finishing 25th. A split second of judgment cost him a good finish at Daytona the second time around, resulting in a 14th. He not only led but had been dominant in all three races. To say he could have gotten three top fives and a win or two with better luck would hardly be unreasonable.

That’s conservatively about 200 points that both Martin and Busch could have had without being caught up in typical restrictor-plate madness – which would have easily been enough to cement their rightful position in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, at plate tracks this season: Montoya – 14th, 20th and ninth. Kurt Busch – 10th, sixth, and fifth. Biffle – 20th, seventh and 18th. Kenseth – first, 17th and eighth. Throw out the plate races and you’d have a very different picture of who would be in the playoffs this year… and you certainly wouldn’t be wondering how the series’ wins leaders could be either on the bubble or outside looking in.

I think you get the point. Some people love the excitement of restrictor plate races, but in the end, this is the result. Three plate races can be enough to keep drivers that have been competitive every week from making the playoffs – and then one plate race in the playoffs can make the difference between hoisting the Sprint Cup and shaking the guy’s hand who’s hoisting the Sprint Cup.

Calling the Talladega Chase race the “wild card” is a PC way of saying effort doesn’t matter much when a restrictor plate is attached to the carburetor. A part-time driver with an upstart team can win, while a superstar with the best car in the field can finish last. Championships these days are usually won on less than the point difference between third and 38th. In a 36-race season, four plate races could still be fatal to a potential champion, but at least there were 32 other races to make up for it, and the odds of low finishes in four plate races were slim.

This isn’t to say that Martin and Busch haven’t had their troubles elsewhere, with faulty engines or blown tires at the worst possible times. But that in itself could have been overcome when 12th or better is the goal.

If you want to defend the Chase, you could say that this is a good reason for its existence – that drivers that run well consistently will have a chance at a title despite having some bad luck through the season. It’s a fair argument, but it can be flipped around, too… drivers could run well consistently all year long and then lose a title to a couple of hard-luck finishes in the last 10.

The Chase and restrictor plates have made it possible for two top drivers, who together appeal to a wide range of NASCAR fans, to finish the season no higher than 13th – and possibly do so with five or six wins. Is this a fair reason to rid the sport of one or the other? I’m strongly rooting for both Martin and Busch to make the playoffs if for no other reason than a sense of justice, but it isn’t going to look good if one or both of them miss it.

It also may result in yet more “tweaking” of a points system that needs not a tweak but a major overhaul.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I see Brad Keselowski’s taking over the No. 12. Would “Placeholder” be a good nickname for David Stremme? It’s not like the guy’s set anything on fire in the Cup Series, but he’s spent pretty much his whole Cup career holding someone else’s place in line.
  • Of course Earnhardt Jr. has had a disappointing season. But I hadn’t realized how disappointing. Did you know that his finishes of third at Michigan and ninth at Bristol were the first time all year he’s had consecutive top 10s? It’s also the first time since April that he’s put together two top 15s. Yikes.
  • I’ll be on vacation when the Southern 500 takes place in Atlanta. No need to correct me, I know it’s not the Southern 500. That was sarcasm. Atlanta is still a cookie-cutter.

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