This morning, Joe Gibbs Racing will hold a team debrief over what happened Sunday afternoon at Richmond. Warring factions will sit on either side of the table. Sunday’s winner Carl Edwards will be in one corner, trying to hold in a smile while holding the sport’s most recent trophy by way of bump and punch to the gut of teammate Kyle Busch. Busch, by comparison found himself in position to win a season-high third race on the Sprint Cup circuit entering the final two turns, cruising to the checkered flag until Edwards decided to slam into the rear bumper of the No. 18 and take it himself. Gibbs will sit there, the old wise former NFL coach trying to make peace. He’ll remind both sides that they’re working for the same company, trending together to “fight for the same goal” amongst themselves.
“It’s a tough thing because it’s certainly painful for one side,” Gibbs said Sunday at Richmond. “You’re on such a high with the other side. It’s a tough thing. What we’ll do is go to work and work our way through it.”
I hope they don’t. I hope Tuesday morning produces the largest dumpster fire this side of your local landfill (or corner prostitute). May Kyle Busch, whose recent maturity through fatherhood and injury rehab helped make him the sport’s reigning champ take a time warp back to 2006 and walk out of that meeting in a huff. May his crew, saying all the right things in public take a random Thursday and throw some eggs at the No. 19 team. May the bitter tempers, the competitive fire and the frustration over finishing second linger long through the end of the regular season and the start of the Chase.
Such drama would be good for the sport, a boost for a Cup Series whose rules package has produced better racing but far worse television ratings. Empty seats in the stands and a blasé start to the season in the points have most of the main championship contenders already waiting around for September and the tournament-style Chase. Yes, the racing has been good but the competition during the “regular season,” before the current iteration of the Chase format seemed to carry more weight on a weekly basis. You couldn’t miss a beat lest one awkward moment, one strategy failure or sudden DNF could keep someone’s favorite driver from pursuing a championship.
“At this point in the season, we both got wins,” Edwards said of his situation. “Really, it’s about just going out for trophies and having fun.”
Yes, fun for the drivers but less meaningful at times for fans who know their favorite, in many cases has already locked up a playoff spot and is simply biding time until September. It’s sheer irony as NASCAR has moved mountains to make its championship race the most important thing this side of sliced bread, creating a postseason similar to other sports but including so many people in it there’s precious little competition amongst the top drivers to actually get there. Could you imagine, being a fan of a baseball team like the Mets and they’ve already clinched their spot in the postseason two weeks into playing their schedule? You’re in April, psyched up about October except… it’s six solid months away. You have to get through a number of regular season games that have no meaning between now and then.
Would you watch? How much? Would you still be excited to see virtual exhibitions every week?
That’s one of the problems NASCAR is dealing with as a handful of drivers have dominated the early part of the Cup season: Edwards, Kyle Busch, de facto Chevy teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. None of the four have much to do except fight for wins and wait patiently for a chance at a championship fight that won’t start in earnest until September. But what the sport runs the risk of, going deeper is that during the midst of this waiting game teammates decide to “play it safe” and leave satisfied with a single-file, 1-2 finish. That their version of Formula One in America is better for business, two clean-cut cars sitting on the podium and more money in the bank among the two of them outweighs the exodus of fans not paying hard-earned money to see Driver A and Driver B slug it out regardless of who they work for.
It’s a handful of teams that control the top rungs of the sport now, a far cry from what it used to be. More importantly, it’s a far cry from a basic set of rules designed for only one driver and one team to walk away with the series trophy. JGR, like all the other multi-car programs out there tries to spin it like it’s good for the entire company when one of its drivers reaches victory lane. The fifth-place driver didn’t make it there, no, but the information he gave the winner was key in making sure everyone got to celebrate in the office Monday morning.
Um, no. That’s not the reality in competitive sports; at least, that’s not what racing was designed to be. The fifth-place driver may work for the same organization but he’s leaving the race with fifth-place points. He finished… fifth. JGR may get more money, may benefit financially but in the world of athletic competition there are zero points scored for team racing. Until trophies are given out for some sort of bizarre constructor’s title in NASCAR it doesn’t matter if the top three teams are from Richard Childress Racing or Team Penske. The winner gets first-place points. Second? He’s the first loser. End of story. End of team concept on the stats sheet.
NASCAR, in recent years has been accused of being too vanilla. Teammates playing nice, causing yawns in the stands at inappropriate times has played a large part in that. Well Kyle Busch getting bumped, that singular moment by Carl Edwards reminded us all racing is at its best when it’s an individual sport. You know, what it was designed to be.
It needs to stay that way.