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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Would the Chase Critics Just Shut Up & Go Away? No… We Won’t

When NASCAR finally took us at Frontstretch in, recognizing us as part of their esteemed “Citizen Journalist Media Corps,” I finally felt as though I had achieved something that I had been striving for since high school: acceptance. I was finally part of the “in” crowd, no longer a misfit. I couldn’t remember what it was exactly that made me turn cool… but who cared?

However, it’s starting to look now like I am only here for comic relief, and I never will get that date with Shannon Spake after all.

Recently, Joe Menzer at NASCAR.com wrote a column letting us opponents of NASCAR’s playoff system know that we are just so uncool. Not since high school have I so fully felt the sting of rejection from the cool kids.

Menzer’s diatribe is a blend of weak defenses of NASCAR’s playoff brainchild along with some unflattering metaphors describing members of the press who stand on principle and still state (often very clearly) what is wrong with the system and why it’s a flawed method of determining a champion.

I’ll deal with his defenses of the Chase first.

Menzer states confidently that the Chase has “reinvented” Atlanta Motor Speedway as a legitimate Cup venue. I’m not sure how he arrived at this conclusion, nor was I aware that the old points system somehow de-legitimized Atlanta. Menzer’s big beef was that Tony Stewart came into the race with the points lead and left with it. As if a race needs to have the points lead change to be exciting… why would someone who thinks that cover this sport?

Note that two of the most memorable races in Cup history took place at Atlanta long before the Chase existed – the infamous Alan KulwickiBill Elliott duel for the title in 1992 and Kevin Harvick’s emotional victory over Jeff Gordon in 2001. Does anyone think that since 2004 there have been better races at AMS?

Menzer goes on to say that people would have long ago lost interest in the championship battle with Stewart holding a 237-point lead, as if it were preferable to focus instead on who can be 12th after 26 races and thus become a serious long shot for a Cup title. Now, he says, because of the Chase, people are intrigued about the possibilities.

Such excitement is clearly evidenced by the soaring ratings and attendance, right? Turns out the Chase has made this season so breathtaking, NASCAR has been asking the drivers for ideas on how to make the racing better, along with implementing a new restart rule after 62 years in a move to jumpstart the competition.

By the way, since when did 237 points with 11 races to go become insurmountable? A DNF or even a bad race or two would pull Stewart right back within range of Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, just like what would have transpired with Kyle Busch’s large points lead last season after Loudon and Dover. Last year, we would have had a three-driver race with two of the drivers that ended up battling for it anyway. It might have been more interesting with Kyle in the mix, too, had he not had a lead that was built up with eight wins wiped out in the name of more drama.

You know what I thought was the most exciting thing about NASCAR last year? It wasn’t the last 10 races. It was watching the No. 18 car defy physics for the first 26.

But I digress. Continuing on with Menzer, he then points out that without the Chase, Mark Martin and Kyle Busch with four wins apiece would have no chance at the championship. (This article appeared before Busch missed the playoffs). He mentions this point was a reason to celebrate the Chase… not bash it. Conveniently, he ignores that Juan Pablo Montoya, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle all have an equal chance at winning a championship while scoring zero wins. That is not a knock on any of them; they followed the rules as written.

But it is a knock on the system.

The argument that the Chase makes it possible for a team that falters early on to still win the title is a two-way street. The other direction, of course, is that a team can dominate for most of a season and lose a championship simply because NASCAR took their points away. Had Martin had stronger engines in a couple of races and not fallen victim to the jaws of restrictor plates, he could very well be that driver today. Imagine if Martin had the season Gordon had in 2007, scoring 353 more points than his closest competitor did over the entire season and still finishing second. That would be every bit or more of an injustice than winning the title now would be justice for Martin and his fans.

To this end, even Menzer throws up his hands, saying that’s just sports, and sometimes the best teams don’t win. This, presumably, justifies a playoff system that greatly increases the odds of the best team not winning.

And so it goes, as Menzer tossed out the usual defenses of NASCAR’s playoff. I wouldn’t have bothered responding to his article (or even reading it if a reader didn’t pass it on to me), but it got personal.

I quote:

“[Chase critics] are starting to sound increasingly like the neighborhood dog who barks incessantly as bedtime approaches… [A]fter a while, they simply become annoying before fading away altogether into the night, eventually ignored by the masses who drift off into a peaceful sleep.”

And then wake up to find that their cars are gone. WOOF! WOOF! No one is fooled by an artificial resetting of the points! WOOF! Ratings and attendance are falling! WOOF! The NFL is no longer threatened by NASCAR! WOOF! WOOF!

(Sound of NASCAR snoring in a peaceful sleep)

“So-called racing purists always want to say the Chase is garbage, that it takes away from the season as it was meant to be. These are the same people who can’t stop talking about how great racing used to be, and how awful it is now.”

Well, I’ll read an article from a “so-called” racing purist over a “so-called” racing fan any day of the week. Just to clarify: the reason “purists” say the Chase takes away from the season as it was meant to be is because the Chase takes away from the season as it was meant to be. That sounds pure enough to me.

Actually, I’m not even one of those that yearn for the ’70s so much. The only time I think of the past is when I think about how Gordon could well be chasing championship number seven this season, placing him in the company of past greats like Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. But at least the championship battles under the Chase are more exciting. After all, it was truly exhilarating last year watching Johnson fight for a 38th-place finish at Homestead to clinch the Cup.

“Those who think the Chase was and remains a bad idea are being left behind like the drunks who sit at their barstools too long arguing about what’s wrong with the government – year after year, closing after closing, no matter who’s in charge. They need to get over it and go home. Or they can keep talking. But fewer and fewer folks are listening to them any longer.”

Wow. Words almost fail me.

The phrase “fewer and fewer folks” certainly describes the grandstands at races or how many are watching on television better than it does those clicking and commenting on articles critical of the points system. Unless our hit counter is fooling me, seems like the Frontstretch isn’t hemorrhaging fans like NASCAR is right now. If anything, maybe fewer folks are listening in NASCAR’s world because fewer folks are even around to hear.

So now, help me out here folks. At least he tried to argue for it a little bit, but do you see any logical or worthwhile justification of the Chase in Menzer’s statements denigrating writers that have what remains a perfectly legitimate beef with it? Does that not say it all about the current state of the sport?

The problem with the Chase and why we’re still barking about it is inarguably simple. The Chase artificially gives points to teams that did not earn them. There it is, in a proverbial nutshell. And this reality is still not disputed, by Joe Menzer or anyone else.

Not even by calling its critics incessantly annoying drunken so-called purists.

Editor’s Note: Kurt’s Happy Hour column will return to its regular day next Friday. And remember, race fans, as with all commentaries the opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Well there is a lot of go-kart racing in Wildwood, N.J., and of course my wife took me on in a race during our recent two-week vacation. I let her have the pole position, and sure enough, she blocked me all through the race, even shoving me into the wall a few times. I was driving the No. 5 car, so in the spirit of the current driver of the No. 5 I raced clean and didn’t move her out of the way. She then talked junk all week about beating the NASCAR columnist in a go-kart race. Then, in a rematch, I was put in the No. 24 car… and in the spirit of the ’90s version of that car, I smoked the field mercilessly, lapping my wife three times. I see now why these guys get such big smiles when they have a great car. That just rocked.
  • It’s interesting that everyone was so surprised at Kyle Busch’s first-class interview after missing the Chase by just eight points. The guy has been gracious plenty of times in his career; he just hates to lose, and sometimes it boils over. What’s wrong with that?
  • Much is made of Martin being the points leader now, but his lead over Stewart and Johnson is just 10 points, and no one from second to 12th in the standings now is more than 40 points behind Martin. I’d say that the points lead doesn’t mean much at this point.
  • Matt Kenseth missed his first Chase ever, leading one of the Carey and Coffey guys I talked to Sunday (I’m not sure which one) to say that the Chase is flawed now since he’s a Kenseth fan. I’d like to introduce him to a few Gordon fans who might have some words of support….