Race Weekend Central

Side by Side: Should a Winless Season Shut You Out of NASCAR’s Chase?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side By Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: Heading to Richmond, we know that at least four of the 12 drivers in this year’s Chase will have entered the playoffs not having won a race yet. Should a win be a requirement to be eligible to win the championship, or would it be unfair to cut off winless drivers who haven’t yet earned their stripes in victory lane?

Only Drivers Who Win Should Be in the Chase

With Richmond on the horizon and the Chase field soon to be set, as many as six drivers (including David Ragan) may find themselves racing for the Sprint Cup title despite not having won a race this season.

That’s right; even though the Chase format was introduced in 2004 to make winning more important to capturing a Sprint Cup, there is a very plausible chance that half of the competitors in this year’s playoffs will not have done so. And even though the introduction of the Chase in 2004 was – officially or not – supposed to ensure that no other driver could pull a “Matt Kenseth” and score the Cup title with only one win like he did the year before it was introduced, one slip up by Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards could be all it takes to open the door for that to happen again.

The Chase has had many shortcomings since its inception, but its lack of focus on the winners’ circle continues to be its biggest problem of public perception. Can you imagine the fallout from fans if we had a winless champion? There’s no question that moving forward, the sport needs to change the rules to ensure this type of embarrassment never comes their way. It’s still possible for this format to make winning more important, and that’s to require drivers to win simply to qualify for the Chase.

It’s an easy fix, and there really shouldn’t be any hesitations on the part of NASCAR or anyone else to enact the new policy. What better way to put more emphasis on winning races than by making it a prerequisite?

That’s not to say that scoring a win should be all it takes to qualify a driver for the championship. There’s no way to argue that a road ringer or a part-timer stealing a win on a plate track should be given a free pass to run for the title. But with several tweaks already made over the last few years anyway, what is stopping NASCAR from setting the Chase field as all drivers in the top 12 in points that have scored a race win?

Think of the impact that this would have on the season-opening 26 races – especially in the summer. Instead of stroking it towards a spot through consistency, drivers without their elusive wins would have no choice but to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the race each week to try and erase that goose egg from their resume. Can you imagine how crazy this weekend’s race at Richmond would be if Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Kenseth, Ragan and Tony Stewart ALL had to score the win this weekend – or face being out of the running for the Cup title?

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And if wins were necessary to making the Chase, there would actually be far less incentive for the drivers already locked into the field to take it easy and coast. If you’re Busch or Edwards and you’re already in, scoring a few more wins at Fontana or Richmond marks fewer drivers that they have to beat for the Cup title come November. Why would any driver even consider coasting until Loudon when they could eliminate their competition prior to the start of the Chase?

Would making a race win mandatory place less of an emphasis on the consistency that has for so long been the staple of NASCAR championships? Absolutely. But it’s naive not to realize that the Chase format has already thrown the importance of consistency out the window to a certain degree; just ask Gordon, who under the old points system would be gunning for title number seven and instead is stuck with four.

The Chase has already changed the pursuit of the Cup title entirely, to the point where running up front the final 10 races trumps all else. So, if consistency isn’t going to be rewarded as much as it once was, there’s no reason not to make a win necessary to get into the Chase field. – Bryan Davis Keith

Wins? We Don’t Need No Stinking Wins!

A cursory examination of the Sprint Cup standings reveals that of the 12 drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase for The Championship, five of them are winless so far in 2008. With that in mind, the obvious question has been raised – should a win be a prerequisite for contending for the title each year?

To steal a line from Juan Pablo Montoya, “Haaaellll nooo!”

Long before this abomination known as “The Chase” was introduced to the fendered faithful, the Winst… er… Next… I mean, Sprint Cup was determined by a cumulative, yearlong battle royale that rewarded excellence in the form of consistency. This was the same points format that saw some of the greatest battles in history go down to the wire more often than not. When Darrell Waltrip won the championship in 1981 over Bobby Allison, he won it by a mere 53 points; Waltrip won 11 races to Allison’s five.

The next season, Waltrip won his second consecutive title by capturing 12 race wins to Allison’s eight. By the looks of it, the wins were taking care of themselves and propelled him to the championship.

But skip forward a few years to the mid-’80s, and you’ll see that wasn’t always the case. In 1985, Bill Elliott was setting every track in the Southeast on fire, winning Daytona 500s, Southern 500s, the Winston Million and just about everything else in between. He would end the season victorious in 11 out of 28 races – but came home a relatively distant second in the final standings. That same year, Waltrip won just three times, but it was he who snuck away with a third title while Elliott was setting individual race records with his Thunderbird.

How’d DW do it? Simple: a season’s worth of consistency.

That No. 9 car may have won handily on the big tracks, but Waltrip was never far behind, and was able to put together a short-track program that the Elliott brothers could not match down the stretch. The basic principle of season-long excellence was rewarded; Waltrip bent, but never broke, while Elliott’s burst of success couldn’t make up for breaking apart over the season’s final few months.

But what about Kenseth’s one-win season in 2003, you say, where he cruised to the championship under the old system – the last of its kind? Kenseth’s collection of top-five and top-10 finishes is believed by many to be the catalyst behind the Chase format that has been in place since 2004. And while the question presented is should a driver have to win at least “a” race, the real question being floated is shouldn’t the guy who wins the most races be more deserving as a champion?

As Waltrip would have said 23 years ago, I wholeheartedly disagree.

I’ll give you this much: wins were given more importance last year in the Chase with the seeding system, and I think that’s fair. Winning races should matter, and they should be appropriately rewarded. However, if you go out and dominate seven or eight races, but blow motors and wreck trying to win in all of the others, why should that count more than the team who has put together a solid top-five car each and every weekend? No other form of motorsports rewards inconsistency – so why should the most popular form of racing in North America be any different?

Who would be a more deserving champion: One who wins six races, but triggers the Big One at Talladega and Daytona and can’t run on the road courses, or one who doesn’t have a win – but posts 25 top-five finishes and keeps the fenders on his car? Our past system has always rewarded the latter, giving men like Waltrip their due and those like Elliott and Rusty Wallace in the mid-1990s the appropriate punishment for when they busted just one too many times.

Which brings me to my own opinion on the matter. There is a part of me that would take some sick satisfaction in seeing the champion crowned with zero race wins to his credit; preferably, a guy who sneaks in under the radar at Richmond and qualifies in the 12th spot. To me, The Chase is a hokey, contrived and transparent attempt at pandering to stick-and-ball sports viewers.

Where else in auto racing do you see a championship that resets the points two-thirds of the way through the season? Yes, I am aware that the NHRA does it now – no doubt influenced by NASCAR – but these are races that last less than eight seconds, not three hours, and require a different type of consistency needed to succeed.

To me, the Chase has always been about trying to create excitement where there is none. In years past, that was not an issue with NASCAR, as there was typically competitive racing and close finishes that were the hallmark of stock car racing. In this snoozer of a season, The Chase is probably a necessity to maintain a modicum of interest in what has become an exercise in viewer endurance each successive weekend this year.

In that same vein, if the 2008 champion happens to be a driver who takes home the Sprint Cup with a smattering of top fives and no wins, the irony would be lost on no one – as it would be both strangely poetic and wholly appropriate. – Vito Pugliese

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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