Ryan Newman could become the next Billy Horschel on Sunday.
For those of you who don’t follow golf, Horschel came out of nowhere to win this year’s FedEx Cup, the PGA’s playoffs. He was the 69th-ranked player coming in, but overcame the odds to win the final two events and take home more than $11 million.
Here’s the sad truth: in two years, most golf fans won’t remember who won the 2014 FedEx Cup because it just doesn’t carry the weight of winning a major or the player of the year award. This will ultimately be remembered as Rory McIlroy’s year, since he won two majors and most likely will be named the player of the year.
The FedEx Cup carries a big payday and gives the winner a moment in the sun, but ultimately stands for nothing. The PGA didn’t even start the playoff system until 2007 as a way to draw television ratings after the year’s final major. Almost everyone qualifies, it lasts only four rounds and players are eliminated each week. Sound familiar? NASCAR’s fourth version of the Chase for the Sprint Cup features some eerie comparisons.
There’s been a lot less golfer-on-golfer violence, but the biggest difference between them is the Chase for the Sprint Cup trophy is still being billed as the biggest in the sport. There isn’t a driver of the year award that’s going to make Jeff Gordon (most points scored) or Brad Keselowski (most wins) feel better for not making it to the Chase’s final race. And while the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 carry some weight, the championship has always been the ultimate prize in NASCAR.
And up until this year, at least, it always has been. Before the Chase was started in 2004, there could never be an argument about whether the champion was worthy or not. The champion was the champion. He scored more points than his counterparts and therefore proved he was the most consistent driver in the sport that year. It’s the way auto racing championships were meant to be run. It wasn’t always exciting, but the most deserving driver always won.
The Chase era stripped some credibility, but still left the sport with worthy champions because 10 races without a points reset was a large enough sample size to weed out the pretenders from the contenders. For the first time on Sunday, we may have to question the legitimacy of the champion. That’s not just a shot at Newman either, who has done an extraordinary job getting to the championship race in a broken system. It doesn’t matter that I’ve actually come closer to winning a race this season. Whether Newman, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick or Joey Logano crosses the line first this weekend, their title will come with an asterisk because the Cup championship doesn’t carry the same clout it used to.
2014 [Insert name here]*
2013 Jimmie Johnson
*We’re not sure what to make of this.
Fans of those four drivers are probably ready to hit me with a golf club, so let me further explain. Those drivers should be commended for their performances during the 2014 circus of a Chase. They are the survivors of all the manufactured drama NASCAR injected into the sport. They showed enough consistency or ability to win to bulldoze through it all and get in this position. They’re pretty good drivers, too.
Crossing the line first is still going to mean something. It’s just going to mean something different.
After all, how could we ever compare a 36-race champion under the classic format to whoever comes out on top this season? Or even last year to this year? We can’t and we shouldn’t. It’s an apple and an orange. Just like Horschel’s FedEx Cup, this year’s Chase trophy comes with a boatload of money, is valuable and we’re pretty sure it means something good, but we’re just not sure what.
On that note, I have an award to give out to fill NASCAR’s void. Congratulations to Jeff Gordon for winning the First Annual Brett Poirier’s Driver of the Year Award. I don’t have money for a trophy, so you’ll just have to print this out and put it on your wall.
I know this award doesn’t carry much prestige now, but I’m hoping that in a few years it will mean more than winning the Chase. So, it has a chance.