All right gentle readers, huddle up. Today we’re going to talk about an unpleasant topic and one that will incite fear or loathing for many of you.
But sometimes you just have to talk about awkward things. You need to have that chat with a potential new partner about your past intimate contacts, even if it means you have to tell her you nailed her sister. You need to talk to your doctor about that lump you found in your armpit. You need to talk to your mechanic about that no-longer-that-funny noise coming from the bottom of your car’s engine and how that red light on your dash flashes occasionally under hard acceleration. You may even have to talk to Maury Povich (hopefully with a box of Kleenex in hand) and admit that, yes, your former brother-in-law did in fact trade in his Harley on a Yamaha – and a water-cooled one at that.
No, it’s not pleasant but not talking about this sort of stuff won’t make it go away.
Keep your hands inside the car, campers. This is a dark ride. Today we’re going to talk about the Chase.
Yes, I know the majority of you (not the “few” some folks claim) just hate NASCAR’s bastardized, convoluted and borderline insane method of crowning a champion. If it’s any comfort, I hate the Chase too. In fact, I’ve hated the concept since Jimmy Spencer accidentally spilled the beans on NASCAR’s new points system during the last episode of RPM2Nite back in 2003. NASCAR officials had hoped to make that big announcement at that year’s awards banquet but ol’ Spence, he was a talker.
When the trumpets blew, the confetti fell and Brian France tried explaining this whole Chase boondoggle. There were equal parts gasps and scratching of heads as people tried to figure out if France was kidding. As it turned out the joke was on the fans, who back then (like now) by and large hated the idea. Or maybe that’s just the impression that I’ve gotten from emails from my readers, comments made about my columns, polls I’ve read and reaction on social media over the past 12 years. (Yep, I was in fact writing about NASCAR before there was this Tweeter or Fakebook stuff on the Internets.)
I’m told, however, that I might not be exposed to a representative sampling of NASCAR fans. Yes, I’m sure that residents of the Greater Southeast Home for Imbeciles who have NASCAR races shown to them for sedative purposes don’t go on Twitter to express their great love for everything NASCAR because it interferes with their Sunday evening finger painting. Is there actually a voiceless element of NASCAR fandom that thinks all is well under Brian France’s watch out there in their homes on the range where seldom is heard a discouraging word? I seem to recall former Vice President Spiro Agnew talking about “the silent majority” and look what happened to him.
Look, I’m not reactionary. I embrace change. Back in college, I used to wear blue jeans and black t-shirts about every day. Nowadays, I’ll often push the fashion limits and go with black denim jeans and gray thermal undershirts. I didn’t used to think that Sportsters were real Harley-Davidsons and now I own one. Despite initial hesitation I’ve embraced cable TV, SUVs, fuel injection and the Internet. I held out a long time but as of last Christmas, I’ve owned a smartphone that does all sorts of nifty things. No matter what town I find myself in with a few jabs of my fat little fingers I can find the nearest movie theater, find out which movies are playing at which times, learn how to get to the theater (complete with turn-by-turn voice directions that cop a decided attitude when I deviate from the chosen path) and where the nearest tavern is to the cineplex. Then, of course I decide not to go to the movies because invariably some jackass behind me on his smartphone will ruin the evening jabbering away on the little bastard.
And yes, one alarming feature of the Chase, especially in its latest iteration, is that someday we might crown a Cup champion who didn’t win a single race during his title season. Nope, I’m not looking forward to trying to explain that to non-race fans and I don’t see such a wretched reality coming to pass as an incentive for drawing stick-and-ball sports fans into the fold, that huge sucking vacuum left in the wake of longtime NASCAR fans departing.
Oddly enough, the last two major points system overhauls came as a result of Cup champions being crowned who had only won one race during their championship season. The late and lamented Benny Parsons was crowned champion in 1973 after having only won one race at Bristol. Parsons, in fact had a substitute driver in his car much of that afternoon owing to the brutal Tennessee heat that Sunday. I don’t think even Parsons understood how he won the title, because industrious folks were wearing out their No. 2 pencils right up until the last lap at Rockingham that October trying to figure out who was leading the points. Faced with that unholy mess, NASCAR turned to Bob Latford, the man who allegedly wrote down a new points system on the back of a cocktail napkin at a Daytona Beach tavern.
If the story is perhaps apocryphal, at least it’s charming. The Latford system incentivized teams running every weekend, even at the small tracks, in an era many outfits cherry-picked only running the big events. (You know, the ones partially shown on ABC Wide World of Sports three weeks after the fact in five-minute snippets shown between lumberjack competitions.)
The Latford system remained in place until the end of the 2003 season, when Matt Kenseth took the crown after having won only one race: Las Vegas, the third event of that season. That’s when this whole Chase mess fertilized the landscape.
Oddly enough, the current system actually makes it more likely, not less that we just might have a Cup champion that failed to win a single race. For the record, Austin Dillon won the Nationwide Series crown in 2013 without posting a single victory. Last year, Ryan Newman came very close to becoming the first Cup champion to have a winless season. Some folks will tell you that would have been OK because Newman played by the same rules as everyone else. Shockingly enough, I’ll concede that point. But having Newman win that title would have put him in an awkward situation equivalent to sending him to a biker’s picnic in a pink tutu aboard a Honda Rebel. I think fan reaction would have been mixed. Half of the folks would have thought Newman should be stripped of the title while the other half would have called for Brian France to be hung by the neck from the nearest stout tree branch.
But, you miserable old codger some will insist, the big four stick-and-ball sports all have some form of playoff system and it puts their ratings through the roof!
A few points here. During the playoffs in other sports, teams are eliminated. If they lose, they don’t play again. But in NASCAR, all 43 cars are still out there on the track at Homestead, leading to the ugly specter of team orders being given to take out another team’s driver. Anyone remember Spingate at Richmond, when Clint Bowyer was told it was time to go for a spin to close out the evening? Martin Truex Jr. certainly remembers that race.
The Chase was originally intended to give NASCAR some traction in the TV ratings once the NFL season began. (You think it was just a coincidence that the first Chase race ran the same weekend that year’s NFL regular season kicked off?) If that was the intent, the experiment has failed as miserably as New Coke. Ratings were up for just two of 10 Chase races last year and overall, they fell from an average of 2.8 to 2.7 in the Nielsens compared to 2013. I guess a lot of fans were busy finger painting that afternoon. And our new buddies at NBC must not hold out a lot of hope things will get better this year. The Richmond race that will finalize the Chase field will be seen on NBCSN, where NASCAR TV ratings go to die, not on the mothership. Fully half of the Chase races themselves are also being relegated to the backwaters of cable sports programming. If this is “must-see” TV there “must be” a lot of folks who haven’t gotten the memo yet.
But there’s no escaping the mess into which this season has already degenerated. We are where we are, and while it’s true when you’re ass deep in alligators it’s tough to remember you were sent to drain the swamp, we have to carry on.
So where are we at with this year’s Chase? As of now, nine different drivers are penciled into the dance by having won at least one race. There’s 13 more events to be run before the playoffs. If those 13 were each to be won by a different driver, we’d have 22 eligible for postseason contention, meaning the six winners lowest in the overall points would miss the boat. I say the odds against that happening are roughly a quazillion to one and that might be optimistic.
But with just seven spots left, I’ve got some guesses as to who will, in fact solidify their hold on a playoff spot.
As well as Truex has been running all season, it’s hard to believe he won’t win at least one race prior to or at Richmond. And then, there were ten little Indians running Dunkin’ Donuts franchises….
Jeff Gordon has to be considered a strong possibility to grab at least one win. He’s won 10 times on road courses like Sonoma and Watkins Glen, though he’s been off his feed at both tracks as of late. And if Gordon is up front late or running a close second, my guess is you can count on some helpful “officiating” from NASCAR to help him get that win. The powers-that-be would like nothing better than to see Gordon make the postseason in this, his final year of Cup competition. And what NASCAR wants, they tend to get. They haven’t just sold their soul to the devil – they’ve remortgaged it three times. You’ll recall back in 2013 when Gordon missed the Chase they found a way to backdoor him in anyway.
I’d be astounded if Kyle Busch didn’t win a race between now and Richmond. In fact, he might win a bunch of them. Since returning from serious injuries Busch has already shown he’s capable of running up front again. The better question is, will he be able to get inside the top 30 in points by the end of the Richmond race? If he gets close I reckon NASCAR will figure some way to get him into the postseason. They’ve already been remarkably helpful in that regard, waiving the requirement a driver needs to at least attempt to qualify for every race to make the Chase. The etch-a-sketch they use to write their rulebook is about worn out already. Let’s not forget that Mars’s M&M’s brand is the Official Candy of NASCAR; they need to get some reward for their payola.
How about Tony Stewart? Well, his season is off to a horrific start, but I’m not going to bet the ranch against Stewart returning to form for at least a couple races. He’s a three-time winner at Richmond (though the most recent of those wins was in 2002, prior to this whole Chase mess). His chances to win there are good, and that’s if he hasn’t gotten the deed done prior to then. That still leaves the question as to whether he will be in the top 30 in points to make the cut. It’s a position he’s precariously close to right now, though of course the points for winning a race would give him a nice little boost in the standings. But a string of more lousy runs and DNFs could leave Stewart in the unenviable position of having a trophy on the mantle but no date for the dance. “Win and you’re in” has a nice ring to it for the TV folks but it’s not entirely accurate. “Win and you’re in if you’re in the top 30 and don’t drive dirty” would be more accurate, if awkward.
Then you have fellows (and let’s stick to reality and not add Danica Patrick to the mix) like Newman, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle. All of them have won Cup races and, in fact all of them have contended for titles. I consider them all journeyman drivers, capable of winning though it would be a bit of a surprise if any of them rang the bell, and it sure would mess up a lot of folks’ betting pools for that week. But the odds are stacked against Biffle not because of his talents or lack thereof as a driver, just simply because the Roush entries are running like a one-legged man up a steep icy hill this season. However, just for S and G (figure it out) let’s suppose just one of these drivers earns their way in with a victory.
Finally, of course there’s the Firecracker 400 on the Fourth of July weekend (it’s actually to be held on July 5 this year so NBC affiliates can show their local fireworks. Watching fireworks on TV is like listening to Led Zeppelin on a transistor radio). Daytona is a plate track and anyone can win. Anyone.
Certainly, you can’t discount the probability of drivers who have already won a race this season scoring more wins in those remaining 13 races. In the instances of Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson I say that’s a virtual certainty. For drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski it’s probable. Joey Logano has been starting up front all year and if his team finally realizes that while NASCAR has discussed shortening some races, none of them have actually been reduced to 40 laps just yet, he might win more races than Johnson.
So let’s look at a scenario where Gordon and Truex win, Stewart and Busch both win and make the top 30 in points, one of the journeyman drivers wins a race and we have a surprise winner at Daytona. Jezum-crow, Auntie Em, that’d mean there were 15 race winners and only one lonely spot for someone like Aric Almirola, Paul Menard, Kyle Larson or David Ragan to scrap over with the journeymen who haven’t won. And yet the dude who didn’t win could walk away with all the marbles after Homestead whistling “Tennessee Jed.”
Wouldn’t that be pretty durn exciting? Well, no, actually it would be contrived and manipulated, an unholy imitation of a real stock car racing season, an insult to the longtime fans and yet another nail in NASCAR’s coffin. Now aren’t you glad we’ve had this talk, gentle readers? (As for bottom-end knock on the Family Truckster, just add another quart of oil, turn up the radio and ignore it. It’ll probably fix itself. Just like NASCAR.)