NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: NASCAR’s Famous Final Scene – 2020 Edition

To quote Charles Dickens; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” While the jury is still out on whether it was the best of times or the worst of times on this grand blue marble, it is inarguable that we all had a time of it here in 2020. 

And yet somehow despite it all, this week we find ourselves looking down the barrel of the three touring series season finales to be run at Phoenix. Weather permitting, of course. Mother Nature gave us all a crash course in what becomes of the best laid plans of mice and men with the 96 Hours of Texas last week. Yet as it stands right now, not only will those three touring series host their season finales, they will be hosted on the same dates scheduled prior to the pandemic despite a challenging year full of unwelcome surprises way back when adults only wore masks on Halloween. 

How is such a thing possible in a world suddenly turned on its ear? Not to overstate the hard work here, but as we learned during World War II, sometimes ordinary people do extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances. 

There were times this year I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but right on schedule with a very displeasing sneezing and wheezing, NASCAR’s 2020 calliope is set to fall to the ground blinding us with its light next weekend.  

For all that went right to get us to this point, NASCAR’s method of crowning champions remains so fundamentally flawed as to approach a level of ridiculousness that makes my head spin. 

The stick and ball sports all have their own methods of crowning a champion at the end of the season. Brian France even hinted at what he wanted in NASCAR’s new and unloved title-deciding process. He was after “Game 7” moments similar to baseball’s World Series. In the World Series, the team that wins the best of seven tournament claims the title whether it’s in four games or seven. The NBA and the NHL use similar tournaments to select a champion. Among top-drawer sports, the NFL is the only other one to decide a champion based on a single event, in this case the all-singing, all-dancing Super Bowl. (Naturally, teams have to survive the playoffs to grab one of those two golden tickets to the Big Show, and every year the playoffs seem to grow longer.) In football, the two teams that play the big game often have not squared off during the regular season.

Here’s where stock car racing is different. There are currently 36 points races in a season. There are currently somewhere around 38-40 teams that at least on paper are vying for the yearlong championship, at least when they arrive at Daytona for the 500-miler. In the Daytona 500 and every other event, every team competes against all the other 39 teams. 

It once was the driver who averages the best finish amongst the full field was necessarily the regular-season champion. With the advent of stage racing (and a pox upon that gimmick), bonus points awards for how a driver is running at approximately the 1/3 and 2/3 breaks in the race (it can vary rather widely week to week) make it entirely possible that a driver who ran up front during the first stages of the race before fading to a 10th-place finish at the end of the event will accrue more points than the actual race winner. Please don’t talk to me about “playoff points.” That’s NASCAR code for “magic fairly dust” as I see it. Go ask Alice.

In the late May race at Charlotte, race winner Chase Elliott scored 49 points while third-place Ryan Blaney scored 52. Blaney had scored 20 points by winning the first two stages of the race. Elliott had scored one point in the first stage and seven points in the second. Yet somehow they still allowed the scallywag to exit the track with the big trophy. Sixth-place Joey Logano matched Elliott’s 49 points in a statistical quirk. 

At Martinsville in the spring, Logano scored 51 points for finishing fourth to race winner Martin Truex Jr.’s 47. 

Kevin Harvick won those nine races this year. Kyle Busch won only one (so far) after crashing from the playoffs. One of those races Harvick won was at Atlanta in June. Harvick earned 51 points for that win. Busch got 52 points for finishing second, and he didn’t win either of the stages either. It’s madness I tell you, sheer madness. 

Earlier in the season, Logano earned 52 points for winning Las Vegas while Harvick got 54 points for finishing second. 

With four stages rather than the typical three in the World 600, Elliott got 49 points for finishing second while race winner Brad Keselowski got just 44 for winning the race.  

In the first Pocono race, third-place finisher Aric Almirola got 53 points to race winner Harvick’s mere 44. The following day, runner-up Harvick got 47 points to race winner Denny Hamlin’s 41. 

Texas yielded some very strange results. Race winner Austin Dillon got just 40 points for his win. Second-place Tyler Reddick (42), third-place Logano (43), fourth-place Busch (43), fifth-place Harvick (46) and even Blaney in seventh (50) earned more points than the winner. 

Returning to Vegas, third-place Hamlin earned 53 points to winner Kurt Busch’s 40. 

Talladega race winner Hamlin scored 40 points while fifth-place finisher Elliott earned 44. 

Kansas a few weeks ago again highlighted the points disparity in modern Cup racing. Logano got 42 points for his win while second-place Harvick got 48 points, third-place finisher Alex Bowman got 46, Keselowski earned 47 for his fourth-place finish and Elliott got 47 for his sixth-place result. 

To the best of my knowledge, the NFL doesn’t award extra points to a team that is leading at the end of the first quarter, at halftime or the end of the third quarter to spice the game up and keep the scores closer. I could write everything I know about football on the head of a pin with a ballpoint pen or a can of spray paint. But last I heard they don’t make field goals suddenly worth five points in the second half of the contest to help keep things interesting. 

As I write this Saturday afternoon in my office (with my gauze mask ready at hand in case I am disturbed by another one of those pushy “can we count on your vote?” Moonie zealots … a hazard of living n a key swing state), Harvick has won nine points races this season. Who is even close to Harvick’s stellar mark? Even after being eliminated, Harvick has won 25% of this year’s points races. Hamlin with seven wins is the only driver to keep Harvick honest. If one of those two drivers does not win this year’s title, I will consider the titleholder to be an illegitimate champion. The fact Harvick won’t even have a chance to compete for that title is a travesty. 

That travesty has a lot to do with NASCAR and its dark network overlords. Recall at Texas two weeks ago the forecast called for only a 6% chance of rain. But I am 100% certain it was raining when NBC, desperate not to lose the time slot, insisted that the green flag fly anyway despite every driver to a man insisting the track was too wet to race or at least to race safely. Harvick wasn’t the only victim of racing on a wet track, but he was the highest-profile one and the victim with the most on the line. Recall he had won the last three fall races at TMS, and in 36 Cup starts at the track his average finish was 10.4. Recall also the traveling circus ended up stuck in Texas for four days despite the premature attempt at starting the race. On lap 30, Harvick slid up the rain-slick track and walled his Ford. The No. 4 team was able to continue but posted a 16th-place result. After the event, the team admitted as bent-up as the chassis of that car was, even a 16th-place finish was a miracle. Had it not been for that lap 30 mishap, Harvick would almost certainly not ended up scrapping for a single additional point to make the playoffs at Martinsville to advance to the final four. I seem to recall after the “Spin-gate” fiasco at Richmond in 2013 they found a way to get Jeff Gordon into the playoffs anyway. 

No, I can’t say where Harvick would have finished at Texas absent the lap 30 incident, but considering NASCAR blew the call so badly, I think they should have offered Harvick and the No. 4 team a mulligan and opened a fifth slot to compete for the title at Phoenix.   

Back to football (momentarily I promise): Last I checked, a team’s regular-season games amount to 16 contests. A team that wins only four of those games, 25%, is unlikely to make it into the playoffs, much less make the Super Bowl. But again to stress my point, and I do have one here, Harvick has won nine times this year, beating every other driver and team in the field all nine times. That’s damned impressive. 

I believe the highest winning percentage in NASCAR Cup racing ever was way back in 1967. Richard Petty won 27 of 49 races that year. Recall that back then the two 125-mile qualifier races at Daytona were separate points-paying events, so the maximum amount of races any driver could run was 48. That gave Petty a 56% winning average. Petty in fact also had a total of 40 top-five finishes that same year. In 1998, Gordon won 13 of 34 races, or 38% of the races he ran. Impressive but well short of the King’s mark. 

Frankly, the current championship points system is such a mess it just needs to be scrapped, not modified. A top NASCAR official said this week that the reason the bonus points don’t follow a driver into the final round of the playoffs is because NASCAR wants the system to be simple enough that even the most casual fan in the grandstands or watching at home needn’t do any math. There are four drivers who are eligible for the championship. Whichever one of them has the best finish takes the title. Simple. Unless of course someone gets disqualified in post-race tech. 

I’d suggest an even simpler title-deciding format. At the end of the season, whichever driver has scored the most wins in points-paying races is the champion. Ties are decided by second-place finishes, etc. 

Yes, very likely the title would be decided prior to the season finale. That happened a lot under the old points system. And as it turned out, once a driver had clinched the title, the quality of the racing improved dramatically. Drivers were no longer gunning for points. They were racing wide open for wins, not trying to stay out of trouble when quarters got tight. 

If a driver had six wins going into the traditional stretch drive that kicked off with the Southern 500 at Darlington Labor Day weekend, there’d likely be only one or two drivers who had a mathematical chance to best his tally of wins that season. And they’d have that chance only if they won a bunch of races in a row, which would provide plenty of those Game 7 moments. 

If you hate that idea, and likely some of you will, relax. There’s not a chance in hell NASCAR will embrace the “most wins” system. So for yet another year it’s time to fade to black. 

As Bob Seger once wrote,

Think in terms of bridges burned
Think of seasons that must end
See the rivers rise and fall
They will rise and fall again

Like a guest who stayed too long
Now it’s finally time to leave
Yes, it’s finally time to leave

Now the stage has all been set
And the nights are growing cold
Soon the winter will be here
Take it calmly and serene
It’s the famous final scene

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jko75

Under the old system, in ’85 Bill Elliott won 11 races & DW (we all know how fond you are of him) won the title with only 3 wins. In ’96 Jeff Gordon won 10 races & Terry Labonte won the title with only 2 wins. People were saying at the time that system wasn’t worthy, just like they are now. There will never be a system that will satisfy everybody all of the time. As Johnny Carson once said, “If life were fair, Elvis would still be alive & all of the impersonators would be dead.”

Jo

Of course, you’re right, jko75. But the name of the game here is to bitch and moan about the current system while looking at the not-so-good old days with rose-colored glasses.

Kevin in SoCal

Yes, I agree with both of you.

Bill B

Yes, the whole deal is silly. I am with you Matt but it’s an exercise in futility trying to point out the follies of it all. I can’t help it either but it really is a wasted effort.

NASCAR has made the decision that they are more about entertainment than competition. Which would be OK if it put asses in the seats and bodies in front of the TV, but the decline in both has been steady and significant. All I want to the damn system to do is reward the driver who had the best season and I don’t care what metric they use, most wins, most points, most laps lead, best average finish, most top 5’s, whatever, just let the champion be the one who had the best something.

sb

They complained the Latford system was ‘too complicated’ for fans to keep track of, so what do they do? Now we have ‘playoff points’ and ‘stage points’ to keep track of, and I still haven’t bothered to try to figure out what points count when for what! This is like the ‘rolling’ version of ‘Who’s on first’! Needlessly complicated for a formula that is so unsuited to racing that it’s not even worth caring about.

janice

dang too many statistics to digest without proper amount of caffeine products.

so are the 4 in the final going to start up front this weekend?

please, whomever is the last one out, turn out the lights.

DoninAjax

Isn’t it wonderful how the points system is so much simpler now, We have the consequences of Brian’s brilliant idea to fix what wasn’t broke.

David

Gotta give credit where credit is due. Back in the day, few people cred about the championship, ot was all about who won this weeks race. Or, that brand x had an unfair advantage because their car had a bigger (insert item of your choice).
So somewhere BZF is laughing because now the only thing that people talk about is the Chase/Playoffs. So maybe he wasn’t as far off as we think.
As for the response that “yeah, well look at the ratings”. It reminds me of the local supermarket chain that dominated our market. But they couldn’t expand, tried to in neighboring cities and failed miserably. They say the writing on the wall and sold out to one of the big chains while they could. There is a message in there somewhere.

Bill B

Yep everyone cares about the championship and they may even watch that final race.
Too bad no one cares about the other 35 races anymore.
Talk about the tail wagging the dog.

jdquick

“After conducting a review of the on-track competition and 20 team radio communication from Sunday’s race at Martinsville, NASCAR will not issue any penalties to the 20 team,” a statement read.

And now we have cheating on the highest order by Team Gibbs and CRAPCAR choses to look the other way. I posted yesterday that noting would happen to them and I was exactly right. The smell continues to come from the offices of CRAPCAR. The Chase was a joke and will always be a joke and since cheating is now allowed it is even a bigger farce.

Jo

Better racing in the “old days”? Let’s take a look at Matt McLaughlin’s absolute favorite race of all time – the 1992 finale at Atlanta. We were treated to Ernie Irvan wrecking points leader Davey Allision, denying him a championship he deserved. Then the guy third in the points won the race, while the guy in second won the championship by purposely racing for points instead of the win. And to make matters SO MUCH WORSE, the margin of points victory for Kulwicki (a guy who had a grand total of 5 career Cup wins) was the 5 bonus points he led by leading the most laps. That was as much a travesty as anything that has happened in the despised “Playoff Era,”” where we have had every champion actually WIN the final race of the season.

Carl D.

You remember Ernie Irvin wrecking Allison at Atlanta in 1992… do you remember Elliott wrecking Kulwicki at Dover that year? I do. There’s no mulligans in stock car racing.

John

Oh Jo! The 1992 Atlanta finale has been the “gold standard” for NASCAR championship drama in the Modern Era. That scenario was exactly what BZF was trying to synthesize with the “Chase” and later, “The Playoffs”. They got close to a “game 7 moment” when Tony Stewart beat Carl Edwards for the Cup in 2011. But they also got dangerously close to having another “Matt Kenseth Memorial Cup moment” when Kevin Harvick edged out the winless, Ryan Newman in 2014.

Also playing a role in BZF’s “Chase/Playoffs” manipulations was the large drop in late-season TV ratings of NBC’s Cup coverage in 2003 when it went against the mighty NFL. NBC threatened to bolt early over the issue and the “Chase” was designed to placate them (but they left 2 years later). Starting in the mid-’00’s, ESPN/ABC tried to make late-season Cup coverage work, but they also struggled against the NFL and eventually left the sport. NBC returned using NASCAR to help sell their fledgling NBCSN to cable and satellite operators, but overall, this has had mixed results.

Jo

I’m not saying that the 1992 finale was not entertaining. I am saying that it was no more “fair” than the current system. “It’s not fair” is for 5-year-olds, not for professional athletes or their adult fans. And that’s what all the pissing and moaning has been about this week.

Bill B

Funny you should mention that Stewart and Edwards year. That was the first year it became obvious to me that everyone that wasn’t a contender was getting out of the way. No way those guys finish first and second so many races. Of course it’s going to be close if everyone else gets out of the way and the two contenders are only racing each other. It has only gotten worse with the current system. I guess the fact that there are four contenders instead of two helps a little.

Carl D.

Here’s my stab at it…winner gets 10 points, second place gets 5 points, third place gets 2. Every other finisher in the top ten gets 1 point. Drivers not in the top ten get nothing… nada. For the last ten races, points are doubled, but only for the top ten drivers from the regular season. No stages, no stage points, no playoff points, no playoff. You’re welcome.

U64387

The only way to find parity would be to treat each race as a game. In today’s world of stats, it would either be a boon or bust, but fair. Start having qualifying, again and award points for the top qualifiers. Eliminate stages. Award points for fastest pit stops and most consistent pit stops. Awards points for half-way performance. Subtract points for penalties and causing wrecks. Award bonus points for a podium finish. Person with most points at the end, wins. Person with the most points at the end of regular season, wins. Congeniality prizes for 2nd and 3rd place.

Bill BB

So you want the championship to be determined by accountants?
Or was all that awarding of points sarcasm?

Jo

OK, here is my contrarian opinion:

Professional sports are first and foremost an entertainment business. That’s why the NFL has the Super Bowl, and MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS all have playoff systems to determine their champion. Professional golf and tennis each have a points system with emphasis on the Major Tournaments and concluding with a playoff-style tournament. It simply makes no sense in today’s world for NASCAR to allow its champion to be decided weeks ahead of the end of the season. So while the NASCAR playoff system may not always be “fair,” no other method of determining a champion has been foolproof either, as witnessed most notably during the 1985, 1996 and 2003 seasons under the old Latford system, which put ABSOLUTELY no emphasis on winning races. In fact, the Latford system put EXACTLY the same premium on the difference between 4th and 5th as it did on the difference between first and second. And the bonus for leading a single lap was simply ridiculous.

Second, I was initially not a fan of the concept of Stage Racing, but I have reluctantly come to appreciate it. It gives drivers an incentive to race hard in the early and middle stages of a race, which was virtually unnecessary before the stages came into being. But to me, the most important contribution of Stage Racing has actually been one probably not even anticipated at the time it was put into effect. Now, there is a whole world of new strategies for teams to consider to make the sport more like a chess match among crew chiefs, as teams have to decide whether it is more important to race for stage points or to adhere to a pit stop strategy which might put them in better position at the end of the race. This has become even more important as NASCAR has drastically reduced the number of cautions, especially the infamous French Caution for debris.

The only change I would possibly like to see is more of a bonus for winning, both in regular season points and playoff points. That may have even rescued poor ol’ Harvick as his season fell apart at the worst possible moment.

Kevin in SoCal

I agree with you. Even more points for winning would be better.

WJW Motorsports

I don’t see too many complaining that it isn’t “fair” excepting those whose driver lost out on it. The format is unquestionably fair – simply because everyone competes under the same rules. I see plenty of people say it’s a really dumb way to run a Motorsports series. Your comparisons are useless, because you are comparing apples with oranges. Racing is unique – so its system needs to be unique. All I know is that NASCAR developed a rabidly loyal fan base and then caught fire nationally without all the gimmicks we have now. And now most of the rabid fans are ambivalent and the short-attention span crowd has moved on to the next thing. If it isn’t broken – don’t fix it.

Bill B

I’ve got it!!!
Daytona is not counted in the playoffs at all. That will allow everyone to just go for it.
Starting with the 2nd race everyone is in the playoffs. That should satisfy the “everybody gets an award” crowd.
The next 10 races are the Round of 40. At the end the drivers below 36th in the points are eliminated from the championship.
Points are reset and the Round of 36 begins. From here on each round is 3 races and at the end of each round 4 drivers are eliminated, resulting in a Round of 32, Round of 28, Round of 24 all the way down to the Round of 4 which, just like today, is a final one race shoot-out for the championship. (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?)
Race 1 Daytona
Races 2 to 11 Round of 40
Races 12-14 Round of 36 reset
Races 15-17 Round of 32 reset
Races 18-20 Round of 28 reset
Races 21-23 Round of 24 reset
Races 24-26 Round of 20 reset
Races 27-29 Round of 16 reset
Races 30-32 Round of 12 reset
Races 33-35 Round of 8 reset
Race 36 Round of 4 (the grand finale’)
They get points for qualifying, wining stages, wining races are worth 1000 points, having the fastest lap, having the fastest pit stop, (feel free to add your own ideas in here) everyone), etc,, They still get 5 playoff points for a win and 1 point for a stage win and they are they only points that carry over in each round.

Yes… sarcasm.

Carl D.

Maybe Nascar should just do like America’s Got Talent and let the viewers vote for the champion. AGT seems to be a ratings winner, and that’s what matters, right?

STEVE

Funny that they want to be like the other sports with one big exception. The number of participants. In most sports once you lose you are eliminated. In NASCAR you are no longer eligible. But 40 cars keep rolling out each week. I know you can’t have just 4 cars on track but something does need to change.

Max

There is a reason why baseball puts such value on a 162 game season, and that is to see the cream rise to the top.
What Nascar effectively does in their playoff format is dismiss what occurs in the first 26 races.

Yes, they award points for this or that, but at the end of the day, what they only want to matter is what occurs in the final 10 races. They call it “playoffs.”

All it really relates to is a “Champions League” season like soccer. Two seasons, one not necessarily having anything to do with the other.

I think the ratings pretty much tell what fans think of this method.

Jo

Matt, there is an underlying flaw to your argument, in that “professional sports” are by definition, sports in which there is a product to sell by which competitors, organizations and sponsors make money. As such, they have to be entertaining to have any hope of financial gain. All professional sports have adopted rules in an effort to make their product more entertaining. Not all of those rules work toward some questionable and arbitrary ideal of “purity,” but that does not make the sport any less “real.”

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