For whatever reason, the annals of great rock and roll songs involving rain are too numerous to choose from so I won’t even try. Yeah, rain makes for some great songs, but in real life it’s often an annoying, if occasionally necessary, climatic condition that can throw the best laid plans of mice and men all asunder. As a classic car and Harley guy at my advanced age I no longer keep score of how many car shows or long rides I’ve looked forward to for weeks that were suddenly canceled by a rainy Saturday afternoon, unexpected summertime toad-floaters and the occasional hurricane. If rain sucks out here in Lancaster County it’s even more of a problem at race tracks and the worst scenario of all is rain at a race track that has lights. No, NASCAR can’t control the weather (if they did, they’d doubtless screw it up too. I’m thinking it would be hailing in Hawaii on Hanukkah) but in the infamous words of Bob Dylan; “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Some folks found it the height of hilarity that it would rain “in the desert,” Having family members who live in nearby Scottsdale, Ariz., I wasn’t shocked it rained. There’s actually what the locals call “monsoon season” out that way and it takes place in late fall to early winter. Phoenix may have less rainy days than Seattle or Philadelphia but it does in fact rain there, often quite hard.
It is odd that as of Saturday evening the chance of precipitation in the area was still listed at 25%. That’s only a one in four shot, and optimists can be forgiven for thinking weather wouldn’t be an issue given how many races this year (and over the years) have been run full distance despite far more threatening weather forecasts. But Sunday morning dawned and it quickly became apparent that rain was in fact going to be an issue. It’s not often that NASCAR forces fans to endure a six hour rain delay without a single lap having been run. Given the forecast for the rest of the evening a valid argument could have been made that NASCAR should have thrown in the towel and given that there was little chance the race would run its full distance rescheduled the show for Monday.
I am painfully aware on a personal level what a massive inconvenience and financial drain a postponed race can be for fans who bought tickets. Yeah, I’ve sat there miserably wet and shivering in an impromptu garbage bag poncho trying to ration out beers to last the duration, too. As such I used to always make plans so I’d be able to attend the race the next day if need be, clearing the extra time off with bosses and arranging for lodging for the evening. When it came down to it, I’d miss qualifying on Friday just to be sure I’d be able to attend a Monday race. But I think NASCAR made the call to try to stick it out not on behalf of ticketholders but the presenting network. Yeah, it’s irritating to sit through rain delay coverage at home too but there’s at least some hope you’ll eventually see the race (for those of you fortunate enough to have access to the third tier cable ghetto of NBCSN). I did find it odd that for all the righteous outrage spewed by NBC sport’s commentators over Matt Kenseth’s stuffing Joey Logano into the wall at Martinsville they surely weren’t shy about using footage of the event to fill dead-air time during the rain delay. At least it beat re-airing the Texas race (which they also did), a lousy race with frequent tire failures that wasn’t worth enduring once.
In making the call about postponing the race, NASCAR needed to take into account what was on the line for some drivers and teams (and their multi-million dollar sponsors.) Fans were practically beaten over the head all week with the enormity of what was at stake. Only four drivers would leave Phoenix with a chance to compete for the title at the Homestead season finale. 35 races deep into the season it was NASCAR’s ultimate game of “what have you done for me lately?” Cynics can be forgiven for noting the same four drivers who arrived at Phoenix in the top four transfer spots left Phoenix still in those spots.
Would running the race to its scheduled distance have mattered? Maybe not. But then you never can tell in stock car racing. At Texas it didn’t appear anyone had anything for Brad Keselowski either until the final run. Jeff Gordon was locked in. Kevin Harvick was all but a lock. Kyle Busch just needed a solid run. The tightest battle was for the fourth transfer spot, and yet another wreck caused by the back-markers sent Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. to the rear of the field. Truex didn’t have to beat Edwards. He just needed to stay within five or six positions of him. Of course with both of them running back in the pack with the Least Common Denominators, either or both could have been involved in a wreck not of their own making. If there was one driver who potentially could have benefited from the race being run to its conclusion it was Logano. Logano was set to restart the race in third place within sight of the leaders in a fast Ford that had shown marked improvement throughout the race and in fact all weekend after a substandard qualifying effort. But we’ll never know, despite having invested 10 hours of free-time to catch the clambake the media and NASCAR assured us was going to be a barnburner.
If we are stuck with the current Chase format (and I remain unswayed. I’d rather see the whole mess beamed to a Klingon ship like a load of troublesome tribbles), it would seem that the rules for the final four races ought to include that they must be run to their advertised distance even if that turns them into Monday races or multi-day affairs. One is left to ponder what would happen if it began raining at Homestead this Sunday shortly after the race passed the halfway point of its scheduled distance. (And for the record the current forecast from the Weather Channel calls for a 30% chance of rain… five points higher than Sunday morning’s forecast from Phoenix.) Obviously if NBC gets to choose, the race will conclude by 5:45, giving them 15 minutes to celebrate the champion and what a gosh-darn great event we just witnessed before throwing it to the local news on the East Coast and the setup for an NFL game. Keep your fingers crossed. Can you imagine the uproar if the race was called even 20 laps early due to weather with one driver having been setting up the eventual champion for a pass when the rain started? Yes, the weather is the same for all drivers and teams and they all have access to the radars. But practical concerns and the ebb and flow of races sometimes mean 20 laps can produce a totally different outcome to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. This is after all our “World Series,” right? I am no baseball fan much less historian but I’d wager that no final game of the World Series has ever been called for rain with the tying run on third and the winning run at the plate. I probably wouldn’t have been watching the game but I think I’d have heard all the resultant hullaballoo. Races are supposed to be an entertaining diversion. I can only speak for myself but I found myself infuriated by a 23-lap caution period to clean up a simple two-car wreck with radar indicating rain was rapidly approaching the track. If I want to be annoyed and irritated, I’ll just watch the presidential debates, none of which have featured rain delays to date.
For the record, under the old points system, we’d be down to a two-man battle for the championship. Harvick would arrive at Homestead with a 20-point lead over Logano. And I’d be good with that. Both drivers have had phenomenal seasons particularly Harvick. His 22 top-five finishes in 35 races is stellar and a career-best by a wide margin. Logano’s six wins are league-leading. And isn’t the hype about the Chase that it’s all about winning races? Oddly enough, the three drivers with the most wins this year; Logano with six and Jimmie Johnson and Kenseth with five apiece, are all out of championship contention. Those three drivers have combined to win 16 of 35 races, almost half, yet they are excluded. In fact under the old points system, only Harvick would be in the top four, joined by Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Keselowski.
So again, if we accept the Chase as legitimate (and I feel vomit at the back of my throat even suggesting such a thing) it’s time for a major overhaul. If winning is supposed to be the most important thing, then let every driver who wins a points paying race head to Homestead with a chance to win the Big Enchilada. Obviously Johnson, Kenseth and Logano would be in, as would the current top four; Harvick, Gordon, Truex and Busch. Perpetual fan favorite Earnhardt Jr. would be gunning for a first title with three wins. So would Edwards. He’s only won two races but they were big ones; The World 600 and the Southern 500. In days of yore those two wins would have earned him a $100,000 bonus from Winston. (Presumably Sprint waived his roaming fees or something.) Denny Hamlin would also be eligible with his spring win at Martinsville. If I’m doing the math correctly (doubtful) that’s 10 drivers with a shot at the title, a manageable enough number.
To continue my dark fantasy, there’d be a 200-mile “Last Chance” race at Homestead. If there was a new winner in the 200-miler, he’d become Chase eligible. Drivers who had already won a race that season would have the option of whether they wanted to run the 200-miler or not. Winning the race would prevent another driver from entering the championship-deciding event, a 50-lap “winners only” sprint race run a half hour after the conclusion of the 200-miler. Drivers would be lined up for the final 50-mile race based on how many victories they’d scored that season, with ties broken by the most second place finishes etc. Drivers who chose to compete in the 200-miler and wrecked or blew up their cars would have to start shotgun on the field. After that drop the green flag, toss the rulebook out the window and have at it for 50 laps (laps run under caution don’t count) just like at the local bullrings where so many of us nurtured our love for racing.
Yep, in the end I’d rather see the traditional season long run for a championship. Sometimes that leads to blowouts with the title decided before the last race is even run. Funny thing is that usually after that happened fans were treated to some of the best racing of the season because nobody was points racing anymore. They had one more score to settle, just one small point of pride.
They tell me that the record books don’t have asterisks. Earnhardt Jr. won at Phoenix and so it will be recorded without any footnotes the race was ended 93 laps prior to its scheduled distance and second place Harvick dominated the event. But fans aren’t rulebooks. Sunday’s untidy proceedings at Phoenix have left a bad taste in a lot of fan’s mouths and it will be their choice whether they decide to watch the race at Homestead this weekend or continue to follow the sport next year. Given this year’s TV ratings and race attendance NASCAR ought to be very, very concerned, cause it’s a hard rain that’s going to fall.