Monday, September 18, 2006

Stewart And Gordon Miss The Mark With Chase Comments

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.

9 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:27 AM

    Tony is the best driver in the world. Jeff Gordon is the most prolific racer still racing, however the idea of missing the "land mines" of the non-chasers would make this as boring as the IROC series and watching just a handful for example do a super speedway would be such a yawn I would probably choose to watch figure skating instead. Tony Stewart is my driver... the entire Gibbs stable has my loyalty, but sometimes, even your heroes screw up. Tony and Jeff butchered it this time. Right on man.

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  2. Anonymous10:04 AM

    "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."

    Thus, by your own comments, the "Chase" system is flawed.

    The championship should go to the team that earns the MOST points during the season. Something that the "Chase" has yet to produce.

    The "Chase" system was initiated in order to compensate for an outdated (and boring) point system. A system that favors top tens, top fives and, heaven forbid, WINNING is STILL a better alternative.

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  3. Anonymous11:27 AM

    "The championship should go to the team that earns the MOST points during the season. Something that the "Chase" has yet to produce."

    Wrong. Last year, Tony Stewart won the Championship. He won the Championship under the Chase format and would have also won the championship under the old format. The only difference is that he would have clinched the championship with two races to go instead of at Homestead.

    I think that a separate point system for the Chase competitors is wrong. I did not see all the uproar about a separate system when Mayfield and Stewart got taken out during Robby Gordon's retaliation on Biffle in the first Chase race in 2004.

    The drivers in the Top Ten made it to the top ten by running consistent. They also benefited at times from the misfortunes of other competitors (wrecks, blown engines, running out of gas, etc). It is a given that during the year, each team will experience some bad racing luck. Some teams had most of their bad luck in the first 26 races and missed the chase (ie, Biffle). Others may have their good luck run out in the last ten. However that is just part of racing.

    Kyle Busch may have used up all of his good racing luck when he got 5 Lucky Dogs at Watkins Glen. Johnson's team has had great luck rebounding from adversity during races this year. Maybe their luck has run out.

    The thing that I despise about the chase is that certain drivers (ie, Gordon) expect other competitors that are not in the chase to just move over and let him get the position.

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  4. Anonymous11:59 AM

    I stand corrected on Stewart last year. I stand by my point though. The "Chase" is an artificial means to create excitement for ratings purposes.

    Imagine a system that has greater weight given to the front finishers. And perhaps no points for finishing outside of the top 20 or 30. This would create a scenario where teams would try to fight and claw to be up front in every event. In my book that's called RACING.

    Ironically, the proof that this will work is in how teams scrambled so desperitely to remain in the top 10 for the "Chase".

    NASCAR is looking at adding more points for winning in the future. This is a step in the right direction, but ultimately just another band-aid for an archaic system.

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  5. Anonymous2:13 PM

    the only people who care about how confusing it gets are hard core anyway and they would figure it out - in fact, bring it on! if you can't understand the concept of a separate points race, then you're probably just waiting for the post race show to see the updated standings anyway

    bottom line - it would produce a tighter race and result in a better product for all fans

    we all know why the Cha$e exists - problem is, as it stands now, if i'm a #48 fan, i think i'll watch football for the rest of the season - there are plenty of rea$ons why NA$CAR would have an intere$t in keeping it a$ clo$e a$ po$$ible to the very end

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  6. Separate 200-lap races for Chasers and non-Chasers would produce "a better product for all fans"? Pay your money for that show if you want, but I'm not interested.

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  7. Anonymous8:25 PM

    I dont agreetotally with stewart or gordon on their comments, but they are two of the major voices in nascar. I dont think you reporters are always correct either. race the races and the best driver that scores the most points wins

    GARY BAIN

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  8. Anonymous9:04 AM

    I agree with you whole heartedly... I just wish that a little less luck was required to work your way through the field.

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