NASCAR, or any professional sport for that matter, couldn’t ask for better storylines to close their season with. With the ultimate race of the season less than 48 hours away, three drivers stand within striking distance of the Cup championship in one of the closest points battles seen at any level of racing in recent memory. Coupled with a Chase that has seen events at Martinsville and Texas go down as two of the best races seen anywhere in 2010, the season on paper seems to have the momentum of a freight train running away from Denzel Washington.
Still, no one seems to care. TV ratings are down a double-digit average for all nine Chase races run this far. Attendance has down, reaching even woeful levels at Dover and Phoenix. And it’s clear from this writer’s dealings, both in and out of the sport, that non-Chase features have easily outstripped the readership of the 500 million Hamlin vs. Harvick vs. Johnson features bogging down the airwaves the last week. Accurate or not, whatever side one takes on the Chase, this year’s points race is being perceived as contrived, turning race fans off to this title hunt no matter how close it may be.
Yet, for the deafening cry coming from fans, a rejection of the sanctioning body’s best efforts to insure close finishes and standings, NASCAR can’t seem to keep itself from contriving it’s season finales even as they run their final laps.
Friday night’s Truck race, for reasons good and bad, offered a clear preview of what the fans that are still tuning in can expect to see in Sunday’s 400-miler. The Ford 200 featured more than constant side-by-side racing… it offered three-, four- and five-wide exchanges that saw trucks utilizing every square inch of the progressively-banked oval. Those progressive banks provided all the surface needed for great racing, but claimed their share of victims as well; Greg Biffle, Patrick Carpentier and Scott Speed all had trouble during Cup qualifying Friday afternoon, while a number of drivers including polesitter Austin Dillon, Jack Johnson and Timothy Peters all lost control of their vehicles trying to handle the turns of the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And for a Truck Series that had its driver title wrapped up last weekend by Todd Bodine, the battle for the owners’ crown carried into Homestead and was an incredible plot in itself. Germain Racing’s Todd Bodine vs. Kyle Busch and his new-formed team. Two drivers with previous history during the 2010 season, after an on-track incident at Chicagoland late in the summer, duking it out for their respective teams’ season-long efforts. Two teams that had overcome tremendous adversities throughout the campaign; Bodine’s team won a major driving title without a primary sponsor scarcely one year removed from a 2009 season that saw the operation literally one race away from closing it’s doors, while Kyle Busch Motorsports was forced into contraction less than halfway into its inaugural season after expected primary backing from Miccosukee Indian Gaming Resorts was yanked mere weeks before Daytona.
For the first 104 laps, the battle raged. Bodine and Busch combined to lead 70 of those first circuits, with both running in the top five and looking like legitimate contenders for the win. Then, disaster struck for Kyle Busch. Contact while racing hard with Johnny Sauter in turn 2 sent Busch into the outside retaining wall, flattening his right-front tire.
Busch slowed and was unable to make it to pit road, looking likely to lose at least one lap as the field roared by. But Busch’s pursuit of the owners’ title was saved when a suspect caution flag that flew on lap 105. Suspect because, while Busch’s tire was clearly down, there was no evidence of debris on the track. Yet, the debris caution flew, Busch stayed on the lead lap, and was able to pit under yellow to change tires and have his fenders checked out.
The end result was all too familiar. Busch stormed through traffic, bested rival Ron Hornaday on a lap 131 restart and drove off to his eighth win of the 2010 season, clinching the owners’ title in the process in his first season as an owner in the Truck ranks.
What was odd about the caution that ultimately saved both Busch’s race and season was that later in the running of Friday’s event, Dillon scraped the outside wall and was suffering from an apparent tire going down in what was almost a picture-perfect recreation of Busch’s incident. Yet the yellow flag never flew. In fact, the only two yellows to fly after Busch’s debris savior were for spins in the racing groove.
Truthfully though, one incident is far from proof of what many will deride as a conspiracy theory. But Friday’s night subjective officiating call that, intentional or not, played an enormous role in securing Busch his first title as an owner and kept a tight points race going even for just a few laps longer (the incident in question took place with only 29 laps left in the Truck Series season), was not the first time in NASCAR’s closing weeks that officiating played a role in dictating a race’s outcome.
Flash back to the final 56 laps of the Cup race at Martinsville last month, the race that served as a catalyst for Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team’s run to the points lead. In this case, a legitimate debris caution was needed, and yet it never flew. Marcos Ambrose cut a tire and spewed parts all over the track. Multiple cars hit the wall. Travis Kvapil lost a rear-end in his machine and dropped a visible line of oil and grease on the backstretch racing surface. And yet, with Hamlin roaring off to victory and Jimmie Johnson struggling to keep what had looked like a race winning car in the top five, the yellow flag that the sanctioning body has never hesitated to fly to close up the field never flew. Johnson and the No. 48 team never got a final pit stop to play strategy or make adjustments, and Hamlin scored arguably the most important win of his career.
It didn’t matter that the points were close anyway, thanks in part to a highly competitive Chase field and the Chase system that renders the first 26 races of the season all but a moot point. NASCAR’s officiating broke away from what their widely accepted practice of throwing the yellow for debris (and especially for fluids on track), and the challenger seemingly most capable of taking down Mr. Four-Time and saving the sport from a vanilla champion reaped the rewards.
But perhaps the most compelling evidence that NASCAR stands ready and willing to do what they have to from the scoring tower to get the tight finishes they’ve been trying for years to architect as each season unfolds came on Friday afternoon, long before the green flag fell on the Truck Series finale.
In a Q&A session with media, NASCAR CEO Brian France made the intent of the sanctioning body very clear, remarking when asked about possible further changes to the Chase that “the idea is to create big moments by the best teams at the end of the year, who have to put their best performances forward to win it all, and if there’s a better way to do that, like every other commissioner, I’m sure that we’ll consider it.”
There’s something glaringly wrong with the leader of not just a sanctioning body, but a sport having an attitude that it was their responsibility to create big moments. Apparently Brian has forgotten (or just never cared for) the old adage that “racing is not entertainment. Racing is entertaining.” And it’s far from a stretch to conclude that a sanctioning body willing to alter the way its champion is crowned for the sake of a close finish would handle its competitions in a similar manner.
It’s a shame really, because the battle that will go down for the 2010 Sprint Cup on Sunday will likely be a thrilling race, the three-way battle between three polar opposite drivers gripping and unpredictable. But thanks to a points system that fans have never accepted and a sanctioning body that can’t seem to ever accept a good story and leave it the hell alone, an air of manufactured goods is hanging over championship weekend in Miami.
Friday night’s opening act did little to assuage those fears.
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