Two former series champions said yesterday that the system for awarding the NASCAR Nextel Cup is flawed, and should be changed. Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon made their comments at New Hampshire International Speedway, in the aftermath of a race that saw Jimmie Johnson finish 39th, and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Busch 38th, seriously compromising their chances to win the Nextel Cup.
Stewart, the defending series champion, said yesterday that a day like the one Johnson and Busch suffered through yesterday should not doom their title hopes, saying, ‘If you've got 10 guys that are racing with each other (for the championship), they should have their own deal. There should be a second points format, in my opinion."
Stewart suggested running a 200-lap race for drivers outside the Top-10 each week, followed by a separate race for the Chase drivers. "That way, you don't have teams that made the playoffs playing against teams that didn't make the playoffs,” he said. “Right now, it's kind of a weird situation.”
“The Chase is exciting,” admitted Stewart. “There's nothing wrong with it, but it puts some of us in awkward positions. It's like me getting between Kevin and Jeff (today). Jeff was the second Chase guy, and he should get second-place points. You race these guys all year, and you're friends, and you know you're costing them points. The 33 guys that didn't make the Chase shouldn't have to feel that way if they have a good day and are able to pass guys."
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon agreed that a different system is needed, saying, “You have a 10-race shootout, and yet you have a points system that is all about consistency. You have one bad day, and it takes you out of it. If they had a structure of points just for the top 10, that would be good."
Both Stewart and Gordon mean well. Unfortunately, they are also dead wrong. Separate point systems for Chasers and non-Chasers – not to mention separate races – would be confusing, needlessly complicated, and run contrary to the spirit of the sport.
As a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox, I understand better than most how frustrating it is to have a season’s worth of high hopes come crashing down in a single day. But while Stewart and Gordon complain about NASCAR’s overly harsh playoff system, there are plenty of other examples of the “all or nothing” approach in motorsports.
Both Gordon and Stewart came up through the Sprint Car ranks, where huge qualifying fields are commonplace, and top drivers routinely get sent home for being too slow in time trails. Steve Kinser has won 20 World of Outlaws championships, but he still has to run the E-Feature if he’s not fast enough in qualifying. Those are the facts of life in racing, and nobody expects “King Kinser” to be treated any differently than the rest.
In NASCAR circles, teams spend months preparing for the Daytona 500; tweaking and adjusting their cars in an all-out effort to win the season’s biggest race. And yet, one bad lap – in qualifying or the race itself -- can spoil their chances of winning. I have yet to hear Gordon, Stewart, or anyone else propose changes to the Daytona 500, allowing drivers who crash out early to be “graded on the curve” as if they hadn’t.
One final example, if you will. A few years ago, Stewart himself suffered a blown engine on the opening lap of the `500,’ finishing in 43rd place and putting his championship hopes squarely behind the eight ball. Nobody lobbied for him to be spared the consequences of that failure. People understood that it was up to him and his team to grab their shovels and dig themselves out of the hole.
Racing is a tough sport, and sometimes inflicts unjust verdicts on undeserving teams. I can live with that fact, and Tony and Jeff should be able to, as well.
Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch are long shots to win the 2006 Nextel Cup, but they are certainly not out of the running. In 2004, Johnson recorded a pair of back-of-the-pack finishes early in the Chase; a 37th at Talladega and a 32nd at Kansas. He trailed Kurt Busch by 247 points with six weeks to go, but staged a tremendous comeback, winning four of those final six races to finish just eight points behind champion Busch at season’s end. It’s going to be equally tough for him to win this year’s championship. But don’t we want the pinnacle of our sport to be difficult to achieve? The fact that one bad day (out of 10) can dash a team’s championship dream makes it infinitely sweeter when that dream comes true.
The Chase To The Nextel Cup is not supposed to be easy. In my opinion, the fact that Stewart, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., have each failed to qualify for the Chase in recent seasons validates the entire process.
This is not the National Hockey League, where losing teams routinely qualify for the playoffs, and are watched by virtually no-one outside their own families. This is NASCAR, where you’d better be damned close to perfect if you want to grab the brass ring. It’s not about beating 10 guys for 200 laps, it’s about beating all 43 of them for 500 miles, 10 weeks in a row.
Anything else is a cop-out.