|Out at least another week|
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will sit-out his second consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this weekend at Kansas Speedway, due to the lingering effects of two concussions in a six-week span. His absence has inspired considerable debate over whether NASCAR should allow substitute drivers to earn points for injured or ill competitors, allowing drivers like Earnhardt to miss races without falling out of championship contention.
The discussion is understandable. Earnhardt is, after all, NASCAR’s most popular driver, and his exit from the 2012 title chase is disappointing to his large and enthusiastic fan base. In this case, however, NASCAR would do well to turn a deaf ear to its fan base.
In 2002, Sterling Marlin led the Winston Cup point standings for 25 consecutive weeks, until an October crash left him with a fractured vertebra in his neck. The 46-year old Marlin was almost certainly headed for the series championship that season; a title that he never challenged for again. Marlin’s plight was heartbreaking, but NASCAR did not re-write their rulebook to allow a substitute driver to take his place and clinch the title.
The sanctioning body was not swayed by emotion that day, and they should not be swayed today.
More recently, when a stuck throttle sent Jeff Gordon’s Chevrolet into the wall in this year’s Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, his championship hopes went right along with it. Like Marlin a decade before, Gordon was not allowed to “drop” that 35th-place finish and pretend it didn’t happen.
There is no shortage these days of kinder, gentler folk who refuse to keep score in youth soccer games, instead preferring a “popsicles for all” policy at game’s end and trophies only for participation. They think it should be easy to win the Sprint Cup championship, so nobody has to lose and get their feelings hurt.
Count me out.
In professional sports – and in life -- bad days determine championships just as surely as good days. The ability to perform at a consistently high level is part of any successful postseason effort, and teams that wilt under the pressure of the playoffs seldom sip champagne from the championship trophy.
Just ask the Buffalo Bills. Or Kyle Busch.
When Dallas Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith dropped a sure touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of his team’s 35-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII, nobody handed the ball back to Roger Staubach and offered him the opportunity to throw it again.
When Bill Buckner booted that slow roller in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series – costing his Boston Red Sox the game and (ultimately) the series – he was not given a “do-over.”
When Michigan’s Chris Webber unwittingly called an illegal time-out in the waning moments of the 1993 NCAA Men’s Basketball Finals, the referees whistled him for a game-deciding technical foul, rather than forgiving the violation and letting the Wolverines try again.
Only in golf are mulligans awarded, and even then, only in Saturday morning friendly foursomes where nothing more important is up for grabs than a cold beer on the 19th hole.
If NASCAR inexplicably decides to allow “substitute drivers” in the event of illness or injury, it won’t be long before a championship-contending driver comes up with a sudden case of the sniffles at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, allowing his team to plug-in a road course expert in his place.
That’s not what NASCAR racing has ever been about.
Winning the Sprint Cup Series championship is not easy. It requires a near-impossible mix of speed, consistency, durability, impeccable strategy… and sheer luck. Without all of the above, it’s virtually impossible to prevail over the course of a 10-race Chase.
"Dumbing down" those requirements to keep drivers in the hunt – even when they are injured and unable to compete – devalues both the championship and the sport as a whole.