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Holding A Pretty Wheel: It’s All About Winning… Until It Isn’t

At the end of the day, you can talk about the Chase, you can talk about strategy. You can talk about luck, or apathy, or conspiracy theories. Talk about what you want, because what most people will remember a month, a year, a decade from now is so much simpler. It’s about the winner.

It’s been said that every race has one winner and 42 losers, and that about sums it up. I’m sure that somewhere, the record books will divulge such stats as most second-place finishes, but if a driver has 200 of them, it means he’s a hell of a driver, but he still lost 200 times. If that driver has a passel of wins (and if he was that good, he’d have them), that’s what fans will remember. (And I’m in no way saying that a driver who runs a career at the Cup level and never wins a race isn’t any good. Money buys speed, but lack of money doesn’t equal lack of talent. Remember that.)

Every week, every driver, no matter which team he drives for, straps into the car wanting to win. Some know they probably won’t, but that doesn’t mean they don’t drive every single lap as though they might. Everyone wants to win. Ask any driver who ever started and parked if he was sick to his stomach every time he was told to pull in, and he’ll tell you how much that survival strategy hurt.

It was laughable this week when Jimmie Johnson was accused of not trying to win the race at Talladega. Johnson is so driven by a fear of not winning that he still feared for his job after he’d won a couple of titles. Blame the nature of plate racing, the aero package, whatever for that – the cars weren’t able to make a run alone and finishing second is still better than finishing third, or 10th, or 14th. But it isn’t that Johnson didn’t want to win. He simply knew when he was beat.

It’s all about winning… except when it isn’t.

The new Chase was supposed to make winning even more important. In a way it did, as a win all but guarantees a spot and that spot is everything to teams and sponsors. A title is the pinnacle for backers and owners, and to a point drivers, too.

But it doesn’t make racers race harder. In fact, perhaps it has the opposite effect. For many stock car racers, championships are nice, but what it’s really about is winning as many races as possible. At your local track, it’s the wins that bring in the purse money, while the track championship is good for a nice trophy and maybe a modest bonus check. Wins aren’t just a matter of pride, but a matter of survival. And everyone goes out and races to win. There’s no trying setups for next week, no racing for top-five finishes in hopes of out-pointing the next guy. There’s only trying to win.

The Chase tried to instill that in teams. It works, to a degree; teams gun hard until they get that first win and the spot it gives them. They race for it at Homestead. The other nine Chase races, it seems more that many teams are racing not to win, but rather to not be eliminated. And leading up to the whole thing, some teams certainly appear to sacrifice a few races in order to try things out in hopes of learning things for a title run.

It’s not that the drivers suddenly don’t care about winning. It’s more that NASCAR (and because of NASCAR, their sponsors) has put more value in the title at the cost of the rest of the season. Instead of being about winning races because that’s the only way to pay the bills, they’re eying the huge year-end payout.

It’s hard to blame a sponsor if they pressure a team into focusing on the championship rather than the individual races. They’ll get a huge lift in airtime if they’re in the Chase, and airtime equals money for backers. It’s hard to blame a team for giving into the sponsor’s wishes; backing is hard to find and nobody wants to risk losing it when they have it.

For the drivers, there’s conflict between the desire to win and what’s become the bigger picture. They’re competitors, and it’s not that they shouldn’t want to be a champion. It’s not that a title means less if the driver had one or two wins instead of half a dozen, either. But there’s no denying that the Chase, in any form, changed how teams approach the season, and not always in a good way.

A driver, if he’s in position to win a race, is going to try to win it. But if he doesn’t think he can, there’s zero incentive to take a chance, especially early in the season. Points are fairly meaningless unless it’s close to race 26 and there is no win to lean on. The result of that is there’s not as much hard racing for a top five or a top 10 as there once was.

But don’t be so quick to blame a driver when it looks like he’s not risking a crash to win or seems content to try a setup and net a 10th-place finish. He wants to win. Really, his team and sponsors want to win. But the hype surrounding the championship means that race wins aren’t enough any more. That’s a shame, because to the drivers, to the racers inside every one of them, not being able to race for the win, no matter what the reason, is gut-wrenching. They’re trying to win. At the same time, they’re trying to please the sponsor that pays their bills, the fans who think a driver who isn’t a champion is inferior, the sanctioning body that wants an exciting title run, no matter how they get it.

To the drivers and the fans, it’s about winning. It will never really be about much else. But to NASCAR, it’s only about winning the title, and that means winning races is only important until it isn’t. There’s the disconnect for fans — there should never be a time when winning isn’t the most important thing.

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KB

…And based on your argument of teams needing to pay their bills and keep sponsors happy, why is beyond the scope of practicality that a driver submits to team orders based on this absurd Chase and the law of unintended consequences??????? Oh I get it, because it was Junior with a plate win in the deep south and hell that could just never ever happen with a HMS team. Got it. NASCAR at Castle Daytona is still drunk today on their perfect Sunday.

Tim S.

I agree with you. We saw Junior not even try to move forward in that very race a year ago because he was “locked in.” And about half the guys running up front Sunday said after the flag that they “would’ve” gone with somebody but almost nobody did. So it’s very easy for Johnson to say that he wasn’t flying in formation on purpose.

GinaV24

Absolutely and then when he won this race, Jr said he was ashamed that he didn’t make more of an effort. Oh please. It is easy for those guys who ran in formation to say whatever they want, but there were cars trying to make a move and no one seemed very interested.

And I agree, Johnson can be all offended and say whatever he wants, he looked like he was doing a darn good job of playing wingman to Jr and blocking like crazy. My brother is a 48 fan and even he commented on it.

Bill

Do away with points. Rate/rank drivers by average finishing position through the season. Chances are still fairly good that race winners are going to be ranked high enough in average finish to make the Chase, but there is NO guarantee of making the Chase by virtue of a single win, unlike the system as it is structured now.

Use points ONLY for the Chase competitors – each race in the Chase pits the 16 > 12 > 8 > 4 competitors against each other, so the points spread is kept close, and draws even closer as the eliminations progress. While it’s not likely, in theory there could be no Chase races won by the top 16, so the highest Chase finisher will earn 16 points whether they win the race or not.

The current “phony” points for the Chase just confuse everyone–by using points only for the Chase, there’s clarity. Those eliminated from the Chase would actually drop back into the regular average finish calculations, so that only the “Final 4” are ultimately determined by their performance in the Championship Race.

Race wins become tie-breakers only, for average finish rankings AND for the Chase.

Bill B

Get rid of the chase. Go back to some form of season long points methodology (you can make a win worth 50 bonus points if you want). More importantly, make the award for winning the championship pay a 2 million dollar bonus and all the accolades and pomp you want. Take the rest of the current championship payout (??????? minus 2 million dollars) and divide that by 36. Take that amount and add it to the winner’s award for each of the 36 races.

There, you made winning more important than anything else, including the championship.

JohnQ

The Chase, No! Et tu Amy.

Lin Hunnicutt

I say get rid of the chase and get rid of the restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega. Whether a driver wins one race or ten Dale Earnhardt said it best when he said if I have to second and third place them to win the championship then I will do it even though he had a huge desire to win every race he entered and he also being the master of the plate tracks said build the fence ten feet higher and move the stands ten feet further back and just let us race.

rascalmanny

The most wins of the season should determine the champion. Period.

JohnQ

It does seem to be the simplest most logical way. Who cares who is the most consistent loser.

DoninAjax

What happens if Johnson, Jr., Gordon and Kahne have four wins each. Only wins count. Will Brian pay for four champions or will he divide the money by four and cut the trophy into four pieces?

GinaV24

Get rid of the chase and all of this resolves itself. NASCAR has created its own problems with wanting a “game 7” moment but then on the other hand, they will excuse races that are “boring” with “every race can’t be a barn burner”.

I’ve been a race fan for a long time. Yes winning RACES is important. I went to the tracks to watch the race and to enjoy the day. Now we have the get one win and lock into the chase attitude, then we’ll test for the majority of the season and then points race the last 10 races.

I’m sure that Johnson did want to win, but it also appeared that he was blocking big time for Junior. That’s not a dig at Junior in any way, but after all, locking in the MPD for the chase is a big deal for HMS.

Personally I think it is pretty funny that there is all this hoorah about all of it.

russ

This is all the unintended, maybe, consequences of the multicar teams. Say what you will but the driver is an employee of the team owner. That owner makes a lot more money to assure another car is in the Chase, but the purse is the same regardless of which of his cars finish 1 or 2nd.
They can deny it all they want but it doesn’t pass the smell test.

Dennis

I look at a lot more than one car when I watch a race whether it’s on TV or in person. There is always some racing going on somewhere on the track. If the leader has checked out, that’s fine. I’m really watching for the battles. This is the racing to me. I typically don’t care all that much who wins. That’s pretty much just a side effect of all the battles for all those laps.

If I saw a race with lots of action (passing and passing attempts) then I’m happy. If I see an aero-push parade then no amount of “winning is everything. Winning is the only thing. Winning is the only thing that counts.” is going to make it entertaining. Winning is it’s own reward. Yes, it gets the glory. But, it took a lot more than one car to make a race. Otherwise, it’s the world’s longest qualifying attempt.

Sure, winning is important. But, lets not overstate it. It’s about the racing. Not the result.

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