With just four races left in the season, four drivers have a realistic chance to win the title. For points leader Brad Keselowski, who holds a slim seven-point advantage over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, as well as for Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Clint Bowyer, the pressure to perform is intense, and it shows in the way the contenders have raced in recent weeks. Keselowski, Hamlin and Bowyer all have Chase wins, but it hasn’t been a Sunday drive for any of them. Playing the fuel strategy has bitten the group. Johnson backed the No. 48 into the wall last week, overdriving after a caution during a cycle of pit stops trapped him in the back of the pack. The Big One at Talladega hit them hard.
They’re racing with everything they have, every week.
There is also a group of drivers with nothing to lose, but everything to prove: Brian Vickers and AJ Allmendinger, trying to show potential sponsors that they can get it done on a part-time basis; and drivers like Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch, all of whom failed to meet expectations this year. These drivers are racing aggressively as well, to show the world that they are still some of the best anywhere at what they do.
They, too, are giving their all, every lap of every race, and like the Chase contenders, it shows in aggressive moves as well as in the mistakes that come with overdriving or too aggressive a setup. Watching both groups of drivers is entertaining racing, for the most part.
The problem is, the sense of urgency that the Chasers, the guys fighting for rides, and the ones with something extra to prove only make up a quarter or so of the 43-car field each week in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. For the rest, while there is no doubt that they are racing for pride and to get the best finish they can, there is not the intense need to win, and to win right now. And perhaps it’s a lack of urgency for much of the field each week that is at the root of declining television ratings and at-track attendance.
With the current points structure, much of the year for much of the field isn’t necessarily about winning. The Chase system is such that making the final ten-race playoff is so important for teams and sponsors that it, ironically, has the opposite effect of what was intended. Instead of making teams race aggressively and take chances for the first 26 weeks, it often forces them to play it safe. If it comes down to making a risky four-wide move to win or settling for the safer top-5 finish, many teams are opting for the safe top-5. It’s simply too hard to come back from a points deficit that could come as the result of too bold a move.
You can’t blame the teams for this. They’re doing what they have to do to keep their employers and sponsors happy. We’ve all seen the race broadcasts during the Chase that virtually ignore any team not involved in the playoff picture as well as their high-dollar sponsors. No racer, whether driver, crew chief, pit crew member, or car owner, _wants_ to settle for anything less than a win. It’s simply reality that backs them into a corner.
And once the Chase starts, it would be simple to say, well, now most of those teams can go for it-they have nothing to lose if they didn’t make the cut or if they’re out of title contention, and they can just go out for the pride in winning, right?
Wrong. While winning is still important to those teams who either no longer have realistic title hopes or who missed the Chase boat altogether, one thing is even more important—the 2013 season and Chase. Getting a jump on next year with setups and strategies still often takes precedence over risky racing. In other words, there is always something that takes away from the sense of urgency that many of the teams in the field each week could be feeling, and racing according to.
The elimination of the top-35 rule could be an improvement in this area next year-at least some of the teams who were points racing simply to stay locked into races will be able to take some risks for better finishes. But the reality of that is that no matter how exciting the racing is among those teams, it’s going to be for something like 20th-place. The broadcasts won’t show any of it and some people won’t care how good it is if it isn’t for the lead. And up front, most will still be points racing, because they have to.
The problem is that while everyone _wants_ to win, winning simply isn’t enough of a reward for the risk involved a lot of the time. Most races don’t have million-dollar winner’s purses. A win doesn’t pay a substantial amount of points over second-place nor does it give enough bonus points at the Chase reset to offset points lost by overdriving or getting into shoving matches that end up with a poor finish. If a Chase contender destroys a car and finishes 35th trying to make an exciting pass for second-place on the final lap, he’d have to win as many as 13 races if he had to rely on bonus points to make up the difference. In other words, on the risk vs. reward scale, the reward isn’t great enough to fully outweigh the risk.
While there are plenty of factors in the ratings drop and the lack of on-track excitement, the fact that most teams don’t feel a true sense of urgency most weeks is a big one. If teams aren’t given some kind of points or monetary incentive to push the envelope and at the same time, they’re rewarded for playing it safe for at least 26 weeks if not more, it’s not hard to see why they race the way they do. At a local short track, winning is all there is. Yes, there’s the year-end championship, but it’s simply not the bragging point that multiple wins is, and there isn’t enough money involved in winning it to change that.
So, this week, there are certainly teams feeling a sense of urgency. The top-4, those with something to prove, and a few teams with a real shot at winning through aggression will take some chances. Martinsvile in general produces more hard, tight racing than most tracks. But there are still a couple of cookie-cutters left, and without the pressure being on more of the field, the racing won’t be as good as you’ll see this weekend…it will be status quo, at its finest. And the problem is, for most teams for most of the season, status quo is perfectly acceptable…because it has to be in the bigger picture. And because of that, everyone suffers.