NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: What’s So Horrible About a Winless NASCAR Champion?

Before going away on vacation, I was going through Jayski one lovely morning to read commentary from NASCAR Citizen Journalists that I like.

Two articles in particular got my attention this morning. The first was a diatribe from Steve Kaminski of Michigan Live, suggesting to NASCAR that regardless of how it is achieved, a win should guarantee a driver’s entry into the Chase playoff. The other was a fearful piece from Jeff Owens at FOX Sports, pointing out that Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart could very well win a championship without ever visiting victory lane.

While not a supporter of the Chase, Kaminski feels that it is an injustice to exclude Jamie McMurray from the playoffs following his Daytona and Indianapolis wins. He also believes that to make the Chase more exciting, then more drivers should have a shot. Kaminski rightly appreciates how difficult winning a race is, and because of it, a winner should have a crack at being a champion.

No one is happier for Jamie for his wins than I am, but those are only two wins, one of which was in a race that, since the restrictor plate was mandated, hasn’t always been won by legendary drivers. Even given the gravity of the two events where McMurray was victorious, prestigious races don’t count in the standings for more than other events. Nor should they. Imagine that can of worms being opened.

As far as the difficulty of winning a race, sure it’s difficult. But racking up enough points to be a champion, or even making the Chase, is far more difficult than just winning one race, and to give Juan Pablo Montoya an opportunity to win the title because he drives Watkins Glen better than everyone else wouldn’t be any fairer.

And really, someone who dislikes the Chase, as Kaminski apparently does, should know that just handing more drivers a chance at a championship is part of the reason most people dislike the Chase in the first place. I don’t know if Kaminski would support a 15-driver Chase, but I doubt it.

Jeff Owens believes that a winless champion would be a “black mark” on the sport. That the controversy would be “practically endless.” That NASCAR would have “some big fires to put out.” Grab your canned food and head to the basement.

To his credit though, Owens includes a few quotes from drivers, who almost universally wouldn’t give two bowel movements about whether they visited victory lane all season or not if they were hoisting the Sprint Cup.

And that really is the crux of the matter. NASCAR implemented the Chase in hopes of adding excitement to the championship battle. Despite that the sanctioning body expressed a desire to make winning more important, the Chase does nothing of the sort, and in fact places a premium on not risking a wreck for a win.

It is one thing to make individual races more important, and another to emphasize a championship battle. The two weren’t mutually exclusive, but the Chase made it so, hurting the importance of individual races. If a driver had a choice between winning a race or making the Chase, most of them would probably prefer making the Chase.

There is nothing wrong with rewarding consistency, except apparently to marketing types that believe in hype over excellence. A 36-race season with the driver with the most points being crowned champion nearly ensures that the best driver will indeed become the champion, and it will also separate flashes in the pan from real contenders. Montoya did not race like a champion for the first 26 races last year (he also didn’t win any races), but for a couple of Chase events it was hardly inconceivable that he could become a Sprint Cup champ.

It did not matter that Matt Kenseth only won one race in 2003. What mattered was that over 10 months of racing, week in and week out, Kenseth collectively outperformed everyone else. A driver who finishes in the top five every week for 10 weeks is performing better than a driver with two wins and six DNFs. That’s why Ryan Newman was sixth in the standings — yes, sixth — despite having eight wins in 2003. He wasn’t as consistent. Which means he wasn’t as good.

I’m speaking anecdotally, but no NASCAR fan I know had a problem with how Kenseth won the last Winston Cup in 2003. I doubt anyone would have seriously objected even if he had a total of zero wins, or at least had been outraged enough to justify a playoff system that a lot of people still don’t like.

By definition, demanding wins from a champion would require a points system that makes it impossible for a driver to win a title without winning a race. But Kenseth did win a race in 2003, and if winning one race should be enough to make the playoffs, it would not only be possible but even more likely in the Chase era for a champion to be crowned with only one win again.

A driver that wins a race is great. A driver that scores more points than anyone else for 36 races, or even 10 races today, is a champion. To win a championship, to even make the playoffs, a driver ought to prove himself as the best overall at bump and run, S-curves, tunnel turns and drafting. Kenseth did that in 2003. The Chase doesn’t demand near that level of consistency, nor does getting to it, but winning it is still harder than winning a single race, whether it’s done with victories or not.

McMurray will always have a Daytona win and a Brickyard win. That doesn’t put him in the same league with Jeff Gordon this year. It also doesn’t mean drivers and teams are going to work any less hard at a Daytona 500 win.

It’s like the old joke – what do you call someone who graduates at the bottom of his class in medical school? Doctor. A winless champion is still a champion.

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