Racing and speculation go hand in hand. From Silly Season to history lessons, part of what’s fun about NASCAR (and life, for that matter), is thinking about the “what ifs” and the “well, but what abouts.” Debate keeps fans engaged in the sport in ways that reach beyond the track. But there are some debates that shouldn’t happen.
Good speculation and debate are based on solid evidence. Sometimes, though, there really isn’t much evidence. Sometimes, the evidence points in another direction. And sometimes, it’s just better not to speculate about some things at all.
1. “If it wasn’t for the playoffs … ”
“ … this other driver would have been the champion.” Or “that one wouldn’t have so many titles.” Or whatever. It’s easy to make that leap because it’s easy to calculate how the points would have shaken out if every race had gone down the exact same way.
It’s also wrong.
It’s very, very unlikely that every race would have gone down the exact same way. Without the luxury of a reset, no team would have been content to win early and then start planning for the playoffs. They’d be fighting for every point, every race. Some of those summer slumps probably would not have happened. Or they might have happened to someone else. Different drivers might have taken different risks that changed the outcomes of races not just for them but for those racing them.
And if teams approached the races differently, it’s unlikely that the results would have been the same. So while it’s easy to make a few calculations and see a certain outcome, it’s not necessarily that simple, and that outcome might actually have been quite different. Finishing the sentence with “nobody would question the legitimacy of playoff-era titles” might be the only accurate way to complete the statement.
2. “If Dale Earnhardt was still here … ”
To an extent, this one’s understandable because Earnhardt was a leader in the garage and a voice NASCAR respected. Yes, it’s possible that he’d have been vehemently opposed to many of the changes NASCAR has imposed, but there’s no guarantee it would have done anything differently.
Earnhardt’s voice may have been loud and clear, but the title sponsor and television partners’ money was louder. And while he’d probably have taught a few more young drivers a thing or two before he was done, it’s unlikely he’d have raced that much longer, especially if he had won another title. Fast forward to 2019 and he’d be long since retired.
What would most likely be very different is Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and its legacy on the sport. The sad footnote the team became is a shame. But it’s unfair to pin the sport’s problems on Earnhardt’s untimely death. Some things might be different, but everything that’s happened in the last 18 years? That’s a stretch, and unfair to his very real and lasting legacy.
3. “Let’s shorten races!”
No, let’s not. Part of what makes NASCAR racing different from local short tracks is the length of races. They’re designed, and always have been, to be a race of strategy, attrition and endurance as well as speed. And that’s by no means a criticism of local short-track racing, which is some of the best racing you’ll ever see, full stop. It’s a different breed of racing entirely, and that’s a good thing.
No, what’s needed here is a way to make attrition and risk a bigger part of the game, like it used to be. The way to do that is to leave more choices up to teams. Let them choose between fast and durable enough for 500 miles. Those two things don’t have to be one and the same as they’ve more or less become today. They haven’t, really. They’ve become durable. They’re “fast” because everyone is running them so we can’t really see what would be faster, or slower and longer-lasting. We need that back.
But shortening races? No, thanks. It doesn’t matter if a race is 500 miles long, it’s still over too soon. In an era of instant gratification in every corner of our lives, there’s still a place for patience and letting a race play out. Not every lap is going to race like the last one and that’s OK. Every lap is setting up the last one. Be patient.
4. “This guy who raced 40 years ago is better than this one racing now.”
Again, it’s really easy to look at statistics and make that assumption. And it might well be right. But comparing much of anything across eras does little good. From drivers and teams to cars, tracks and races, the more time that passes, the more different everything becomes. Drivers from today’s era might not be able to race the same cars as the greats of the past. Part of that is because they never have. But the drivers of the past never drove cars like we have today, either, and it’s likely that some of them would have done better than others.
We’ve seen hints of that in single drivers’ careers. While it’s true that a driver’s skill fades after a certain age, it’s also probable that for many, the cars have changed enough over the 20+ years of a long career that that plays a role. Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and more recently, Jimmie Johnson were in very different equipment at the end of their careers than at the beginning.
The other problem with driver comparisons across years is that many times, they never raced each other, and if they did, it wasn’t always with two drivers in their prime. Dale Earnhardt raced Petty, but Petty’s winning years were winding down as Earnhardt was just entering his prime. Petty retired almost a decade before Johnson climbed into a Cup car, and Johnson missed the chance to race Earnhardt by a few months — and even if he had, it would have been a young and still learning driver against a veteran in the twilight of his career. Even Johnson and Kyle Busch don’t exactly line up. They’ve raced together a long time, but Busch’s best seasons, the last five years in which half of his wins have come, coincide with Johnson’s swan song. And the best of the next era? He might not even be in the Cup Series yet.
Over the years, fans have been blessed with extraordinary talent in NASCAR. Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Waltrip, Wallace, Earnhardt, Gordon, Johnson, Busch and a list of other greats … and that list will only grow over the years. They were all great. There will be great drivers yet to come. There’s no need to compare them, and it can’t really be done anyway.
5. “But it’s such good experience for them … ”
There was a time when drivers in the Xfinity Series could and did benefit from having Cup drivers in the series. There still could be a benefit.
What’s changed isn’t the drivers. It’s the money.
These days, most of the Cup drivers in the Series are driving for their Cup owners in cars with the biggest sponsors and best funding in the series.
That wasn’t always the case. Yes, there were a few Cup guys who had well-funded NXS teams years ago. Earnhardt and Mark Martin come to mind. Earnhardt ran mainly his own well-funded cars, while Martin raced primarily for Cup owner Jack Roush. A close look at full-season results from those years, though, does show some marked differences — teams that were series regulars were competitive and abundant. They could race with and beat the Cup regulars. The races felt like less of a foregone conclusion.
Other Cup drivers would also pick up a ride here and there, often at a standalone race for a smaller team. That was when their experience was truly good for the less-experienced drivers as the equipment was more equal. Because sponsorship in that series was more affordable for smaller companies, series-regular, independent teams could get good funding to be competitive, and they were.
What happened was the Cup owners got involved. Roush doubled down, offering sponsors the chance at the hood of a bona fide Cup driver, at a much better price, in the Xfinity Series. Jeff Burton in a Gain detergent-sponsored car was the beginning of a big swing in that series. Cup drivers could command more money, and that combined with experience was a recipe for a championship much easier than the path to a Cup title. The point fund money that came with a title boosted teams that were already among NASCAR’s wealthiest. And in a matter of a few seasons, the independent NXS teams were all but gone. Competitive series regulars were largely a thing of the past. They still are as the series’ top teams are all affiliated in one way or another with a Cup organization.
Cup drivers in the series now are in the best equipment with the most money, even though they’re limited in number of races and can’t earn points. While it’s absolutely a major accomplishment for a driver racing for a title in the series to win against them head-to-head, the majority of teams in that series can’t race them because they don’t have the money to keep up — the cost of sponsorship skyrocketed as a result of the Cup drivers coming to play.
There is a fix: Allow Cup regulars to compete only for a team with no affiliation whatsoever with their Cup teams. But would they do that any more when the equipment is so far behind for any independent teams left? Could they, with manufacturer and sponsor deals? The youngsters can still learn from them, but it’s not the driving school it once was.