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.