Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Keeps the Chase? It Means the Rest Is Smoke & Mirrors

CONCORD, N.C. – For, oh, half a second there, I really thought NASCAR had finally figured it out. Perhaps this one was finally the year when the sanctioning body would realize what folly they had created over the last half decade, making amends for a long list of grievances from fans, competitors and media alike.

With a revamped points system, NASCAR had a real shot at giving everyone something to care about on Sundays again. But, alas, the powers that be never got their heads far enough out of the sand to see what the real problem was, and as a result, applied another band-aid on a gaping wound hoping only to staunch the bleeding and not to heal the ugly gash underneath.

This time, NASCAR came so close to getting it right. At first glance, the 43-1 points system has gobs of potential, in position to create excitement from the green flag at Daytona until the checkers at Homestead all by itself.

See also
NASCAR Points? What's the Point?

While the two series are vastly different, consider the IndyCar Series, which runs a system similar to the new NASCAR tally. That series has two things going for it: a close championship battle nearly every year without any gimmicks and drivers who race for the win every single week.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how this new system promotes consistency over winning, but that’s not entirely the case. And in a 36-race season, consistently being one of the best on the racetrack should be rewarded heavily in any case. And this new system had potential to force drivers’ hands. Take Homestead, for example. Jimmie Johnson went in trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points. Under the old system, Johnson had to beat Hamlin by at most, five spots if bonus points were equal. To the disgust of many fans, Johnson did so easily as Hamlin struggled.

Under the new system, he’d have had to beat Hamlin by 15 on track spots, and – barring a major disaster – that’s unlikely to happen. Over the course of an entire season, the precious nature of each and every point would force drivers to race hard, meaning the only way to again any ground at all is to beat the next guy by as many spots as possible.

A single DNF would be a disaster if the team couldn’t rebound for wins. Running fifth each week, a virtual guarantee of season-long success in the past, would be meaningless if the competition was winning and would form a huge deficit very, very fast. The only way to gain any margin is to beat the competition by several positions.

The problem with the system is the same as the problem with the old: the Chase. NASCAR’s playoff, while encouraging a handful of drivers to race for wins over 10 races, encourages the same drivers to stroke all summer if they’re well ahead of the competition. This new, closer system doesn’t need the manufactured fakery of the Chase – it would provide a close finish on its own.

I will say this much: I think many casual fans have the wrong idea of what racing for a win means. I guarantee that drivers with cars capable of winning are, indeed, racing for the victory every week. But in a 500-mile race, racing for the win does not mean 500 miles of balls-to-the-wall, non-stop action where you’re pushing the car on the edge of control. It never really has.

Instead, the strategy for the smartest, best drivers is saving the equipment, letting the track come to you, keeping everything in one piece while putting yourself in the position to win. Racing flat out for 500 miles causes equipment failure; it causes driver error and mistakes that cost far more than finishing fifth. No points system is going to change that, because fifth-place money is always going to be better than 40th. Expecting them to race like it’s the last lap for every lap, every week isn’t realistic.

To give credit where it’s due, the new seeding system for the Chase is at least a little better as it will require winning, at least for 11th and 12th spot. Far too many drivers made the Chase without winning at all in 2010, while a three-time winner didn’t make it, period. That’s a good move, making the regular season still meaningful, but the fact still remains any type of postseason really isn’t needed at all.

It never has been.

On the other hand, the new procedure for setting the field if qualifying is rained out is nothing but dangerous. As much as I hate the Top-35 rule that lets racers get by on past achievement, I can’t see this not asking for real trouble. Practice is for shaking down a car, finding the handle and speed and learning how far it can be pushed without crossing the line.

This system forces teams to go for qualifying speed possibly before the car and driver are ready for that. It will cause backmarker drivers to drive over their heads, extra risk which forms a recipe for torn-up racecars and bruised drivers – all the while doing nothing to improve the actual race on Sunday.

With all its changes, NASCAR came within a hair’s breadth of making the system about racing for every position, every week. But in the end it once again fell short, placing the staged mockery of the Chase over pure racing. They made early practice sessions more dangerous for no good reason in the process, and in the end, little will likely change.

It could have been so right… and for a moment, it almost was.

Congratulations to our Amy Henderson, winning a second-place award among daily/internet columnists in the 2011 NMPA Awards held this past weekend in Charlotte!

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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