Last Saturday was a huge night for David Ragan. After going 0-162 in his previous races, he finally scored his first career points paying victory in Sprint Cup competition. His triumph was more than just getting to the winner’s circle, however; it was about returning to Daytona to avenge his loss in this year’s 500, when NASCAR penalized him for changing lanes before the restart as the leader. By winning, his job security increased to the point that maybe, just maybe, he will return to Roush Fenway Racing for another year. Not to mention his win has him currently sitting in the 12th and final spot for the Chase as the second wild card driver.
Really? David Ragan in the Chase? Well, there are still a few races left for things to change, but this was my major concern with NASCAR’s new rule. A driver picking up one win while having a mediocre year does not deserve to be in the Chase. To ease those fears of mine, NASCAR declared in the off season that you have to be somewhat competitive to qualify for the wildcard seeds, 20th or higher in the points after race 26. It has been an exciting change so far, as it seems there have been many more upsets this season than in previous ones. Is that because of the new rule change? In the case of Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski’s stunning upsets, it would be safe to say yes. For Bayne and now Ragan, you could argue it’s simply a product of restrictor plate racing. Either way, 2011 has been filled with surprising stories.
Still, despite claiming the trophy in the Coke Zero 400, Ragan is just 18th in points, behind major players like Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, and Juan Montoya. As it stands now though, Ragan would jump them in the Chase because of his victory. Whether that is fair or not is for another discussion. The concern right now is whether he can add any competition to the Chase.
Given his history, probably not. Even though he is arguably having a career year, Ragan still has had terrible inconsistency in 2011 – he doesn’t have more than two consecutive top 10s at any point this season. If he can’t string good finishes together, there is no way he will be a factor in the Chase. Because of that, it feels like a wasted spot.
In these cases, I love being proved wrong, but Ragan needs to start being more consistent before he can be taken seriously. In fact, he will HAVE to get some consistent finishes; between Stewart, Biffle, and Montoya, they will likely accrue at least one victory before Chicago in September. Ragan has nine races left to prove he can make some noise in the fall.
Perhaps the bigger problem with the new wildcard rule is the fact certain drivers may actually be more conservative as opposed to going all out for a victory. For example, Matt Kenseth seemed pretty content pushing his teammate to the checkered flag last week. This wasn’t Talladega, where it was four wide, two deep for the finish, either. He easily could have gone high at the last second to try and steal the win, as no one was outside of the duo. He didn’t even think about it, and one can’t help but wonder if it was team orders. Kenseth is safe inside the top 10 along with two wins to fall back on if needed.
Ragan on the other hand was barely in the top 20 going into Daytona with no victories. For car owner Jack Roush, it makes sense to have Kenseth push Ragan as hard as he can. To be fair, Kenseth is not known for an aggressive driving style; he might have been hoping for just a solid outing at Daytona, so perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, the thought of such blatant team orders is now plausible, and will probably pop up again before the Chase.
Just look at top 20 drivers Paul Menard, Joey Logano, Mark Martin and Biffle. What do they all have in common? They have at least one teammate who pretty much has a Chase spot locked up. What’s going to happen at Richmond if, say Logano is running second to one of his Joe Gibbs teammates and needs just one win to make the Chase? Gibbs would be crazy not to instruct Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin to pull aside to give Logano the victory. From a racing standpoint that is ridiculous, but these are the new rules we are dealing with. Maybe we won’t see it happen this year (unless you want to say it already did at Daytona), but I guarantee it will occur down the road.
As NASCAR can’t seem to have a system in place for more than one straight year these days, expect them to tweak it eventually. What the best option is, who knows. Obviously, many fans would say to scrap the Chase altogether and just go back to the old system (that is, until Kenseth builds up a 400 point cushion like he did in 2003, but I digress).
With the playoffs here to stay, NASCAR has it pretty close. They need to fix the potential issues like we witnessed at Daytona though. How do they do that? My suggestion would be two things – cut the number of chasers from 12 to 10, with the top eight making it on points and the final two spots reserved for the drivers with the most wins outside the top eight (keep the inside the top 20 deal). By doing this, it would obviously be harder to make the Chase, and therefore, increase the value of winning. Settling for second as you let your teammate finish first would likely be less of an issue. It would make it less likely that one win would put a driver in the Chase as well. Two or three first place finishes would be the ideal amount to get locked in.
Next, increase the bonus points for a win. Not in the regular season, but for the post-season. Right now, a victory in the first 26 races gives you a one point bonus for the final 10 events. Make it three or five. Anything higher would be too much, and defeat the purpose of resetting the field after 26 races. Three to five bonus points per win isn’t an extreme amount, but it certainly would make it difficult for someone to be content with second, as Kenseth was last Saturday. It would make going for the win much more tempting. NASCAR has been doing pretty good as of late at rewarding victories, but they need to throw out just a little more incentive. In the meantime, these final nine races before the Chase are going to be wild, and Ragan’s upset win has put the pressure on some big names to step up.
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