With five races to go until the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set, most of the spots are all but guaranteed. Sure, there are a few that could change hands in the top 10 (Denny Hamlin could, for instance, oust Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Tony Stewart by beating the No. 88 or the No. 14 by an average of five positions per race), but for the most part, the heart of the field is set.
But wait, there’s more.
This year’s Chase will feature the top ten drivers in regular points as of Richmond (instead of the previous top 12) plus two drivers who will get in via the newly created “wild card” spots. To grab one of these two places, the driver must be in the top 20 in points. The drivers in positions 11-20 with the most wins will get the two Chase bids, with points position used as a tiebreaker. As of now, the spots would go to 18th-place driver Brad Keselowski with a pair of wins and 11th-place Denny Hamlin, whose single win is tied with Paul Menard and David Ragan, but is higher in the overall standings. NASCAR, and some media as well, would have you believe this is a great thing generating excitement and forcing drivers to go for wins instead of racing for a good points day.
The problem is, it’s not a great thing. It cheapens the championship even more than it’s already been cheapened by the Chase.
The problem with the Chase is not that the championship turns out differently than it would under the old system. The fact is, you can’t speculate who “would” have won, because all the top teams would have approached the season differently, and that means that the outcome under the old system isn’t set in stone. The reason the Chase is a poor way of determining the champion is it gives teams that had virtually no chance of winning a clear shot at the title. It’s one thing to realize that the top three or four teams would have raced the regular season differently, but if a team is seventh, eighth, tenth in points? They aren’t playing the system, they’re that far behind for a reason: they simply aren’t championship caliber teams that year. And yet, the current system gives them back what would have been a nearly insurmountable deficit.
The wild card positions make it even worse. While many will say that the race for these positions are all in fun, that they aren’t really going to contend, there’s also the possibility that they could finish in the top spot. And I’m sorry, but an 18th-place team in August doesn’t deserve to be a championship team in November. In order to win the title without NASCAR’s help, 18th-place Brad Keselowski would have to beat points leader Carl Edwards by a dozen positions every race for the rest of the year. If Keselowski averaged a fifth place finish for the remainder of the year, Edwards would have to average a seventeenth place or worse. While it _could_ happen mathematically, it’s not going to. And that’s just taking Edwards into account. It gets even more ridiculous when you add in Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch having to average sixteenth or worse at the same time. Eighth place Ryan Newman would have to finish 12th or worse every week, and on down the line.
Make no mistake, Keselowski and his team have had a very good year. But a championship year? Not even close, and they shouldn’t be in the position to win one. The same goes for Hamlin, Menard, and Ragan. Solid season, not a title season. Not when even drivers within the top ten don’t have much of a case for being champions. Tenth-place Dale Earnhardt, Jr., would have to beat Edwards, Johnson, _and_ Busch by six spots a race as well as overcoming six other drivers. Sixth-place Matt Kenseth would have to beat all five drivers in front of him by at least two spots per race to have a chance, and even that’s a tough order.
The wild card spots do nothing positive for NASCAR. They make an already contrived championship even more so. There is nothing wrong with simply admitting it’s not your year and working on being better next year. In fact, teams like the No. 2 would probably already have an eye on 2012 if not for the wild card. It’s possible that focusing on the Chase will actually take away from their chances of being a legitimate contender next year.
NASCAR already has a system in place in which teams that don’t deserve championships can win one. The last thing they need to do is to bring in teams that deserve titles even less than some top ten teams. This isn’t football, where one game decides who moves on and who ultimately wins. It’s not basketball, baseball, or hockey where the title is decided in a series of contests between only two teams. It’s a sport that demands performance at the top of the pack every week for ten months. To tell the teams who have done that, “Good job, now we’re taking away what you guys earned so these guys can get back in it” is just absurd. Adding, “Oh yeah, these guys had a couple of wins, even though they weren’t consistent enough to get the job done, so we’re letting them in, too” is even worse.
There is a reason teams get into championship contention in points before the reset in Richmond: they earned it by being better than the other teams. If having a champion with multiple race wins is truly that important to a sport that did just fine with that possibility for fifty years, then tighten the Chase requirements to a top 10 in points _and_ at least one win, and if only five drivers make the Chase, so be it. Better yet, give drivers a huge number of bonus points for a win and dump the Chase system altogether. But don’t make an already flawed system even worse by giving drivers who are barely in the top 20 in points the undeserved chance to take the title from drivers who have earned it all year long.
Sure, it might add a feel-good story for the fans, but warm fuzzies don’t win legitimate championships. Sure, it adds an element of suspense, but there could be plenty of suspense if there was no reset with the top three separated by just ten markers.
The Chase was contrived before. With the addition of the wild card, it’s contrived and cheap.
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