Race Weekend Central

The Fickle Force of Fate

Three points. Three positions on the race track.

Failing to earn three additional points kept Kyle Busch from making this year’s edition of The Chase for the Sprint Cup. Someone, working somewhere in the NASCAR main office (and at M&M/Mars) is probably lamenting the fact that one of sports’ most volatile and controversial figures will spend the next ten weekends watching the season championship go (yet again) to another driver.

This is a rough time of year for athletes. If you’re a football player, your talents are being assessed under the media’s microscope – and every idiot with a pizza stained t-shirt managing a fantasy team. For every player who looks good, there’s another who looks great; for every possible playoff contender, there’s an already-forming line of teams buying tickets for the S.S. Better Luck Next Year.

If you’re a baseball player, the end of the season is already upon you. Divisional titles are up for grabs and the entire nation is watching, waiting for the beginning of the end. Sports have always been about competition and rising above the rest to become the best – we all know the stale clichés and pithy adages taped on locker room walls across America at this time of year.

NASCAR isn’t unfamiliar with these clichés and adages. During the heyday of Jeff Gordon, Ray Evernham, and the Rainbow Warrior”, their shop at Hendrick Motorsports looked more like a high school gymnasium than the command center of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. That was the “Refuse to Lose” era of the mid-to-late 1990s, the days when Gordon appeared invincible and had shelves of trophies to prove it. Recent years haven’t gone so smoothly. The steady stream of victories has trickled to a drip, but still they come once or twice a year. As such, making the Chase this season looked like a long shot as Gordon prepared to race at Richmond last weekend. Through luck and pluck, the No. 24 Chevy overcame periodic rains and mechanical pains to finish second and make the playoffs.

As for the aforementioned Kyle Busch, Gordon’s refusal to lose meant missing the Chase for the fourth time in nine years. This isn’t too dramatic a statistic given the level of competition found in the Sprint Cup Series, but it’s significant when you consider that Kyle Busch – for all of his run-ins with the media, the law, and other drivers – is often touted as one of the most “natural talents” currently racing in all of motorsports. Like him or not, Kyle Busch has become the face of 21st-century NASCAR for many on the periphery of the sport. His inability to compete for this year’s Cup title will be a bitter pill to swallow over the next ten weeks.

Kyle Busch has a number of reasons why he didn’t make The Chase this year, from blown engines to blown pit calls. Busch may be out of answers as to why he’s failed to make it in two of the last four seasons, but even when he’s been there, the impact has been minimal. The five times Busch has qualified for the Chase, he’s finished last all but twice.

Busch’s 13th-place position in the point standings was the result of a late race pit stop miscue – not necessarily of the driver’s wrong doing. I’m not going to keep flogging the same horse that’s been beaten by others who reported the events of last Saturday night and Sunday morning. I know you know what happened: how Dave Rogers (crew chief for the No. 18 Toyota) told his driver to stay out after missing the one to go call, while others pitted on lap 278, and how Jeff Gordon and team fought their way from one lap down to a second-place finis. How Gordon was as giddy as his kids on Christmas about making the Chase, and how Joe Gibbs told his downtrodden driver to watch his words before speaking about the race.

Been there, know that.

What struck me the most about the race at Richmond was the way that a missed opportunity to pit for tires and fuel turned into a missed run at the Sprint Cup title. This attention to missed opportunities was likely prompted by other events last weekend surrounding the Traverse City Beach Bums, our area’s Frontier League baseball team.

As regular readers of my columns likely know, I’m a huge fan of the Beach Bums (of the team’s name, not so much). Our household attends many home games with friends during the season. My almost-five-year old son (who you read about after his trip to a Sprint Cup test at Michigan earlier this summer) loves going to the ballpark; he even took part in a base-running race between innings that he won (in classic NASCAR fashion) by exploiting a fairly vague rule and shortening the distance by way of the pitcher’s mound. Part of our enjoyment comes from the fact that the Traverse City Beach Bums are a solid team.

The 2012 season was a good one for our local ball club. Not only did they wrap up the Eastern Division with a week yet to play, but infielder Jose Vargas was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. The Beach Bums finished with the best record in the Frontier League (with 64 wins and 32 losses) and the Traverse City franchise overall was named the league’s Organization of the Year. Attendance was high, as were fan emotions heading into the Eastern Division playoffs against the Southern Illinois Miners, the division’s wild-card, for a best-of-three series. The Bums even had home field advantage.

Three games later, Southern Illinois was on its way to play for the Frontier League championship, while Traverse City was headed home to begin the off-season. The sweep of Traverse City came in three games each decided by a single run: scores of 1-0 (a home run), 5-4 (in ten innings), and 4-3 (solid relief pitching). Three runs decided who would play for the league championship and who would wait for spring.

These three runs – like the three points separating Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch and determining the composition of the Chase – seemed driven by the universal power of fate. Just like Dave Rogers made a fateful decision that ultimately affected Kyle Busch’s chances for a Sprint Cup title, it was the coaches and players for Southern Illinois and Traverse City who all made their own fateful decisions with equally relevant outcomes.

Deciding not to pit when others choose to stop resides right up there alongside the call to swing (or not swing) at a particular pitch. So, too, does the decision to either honor or ignore the call. Might Kyle Busch have insisted on making a pit stop? All I know is Jeff Gordon is shooting for title number five, while Kyle Busch waits another year for title number one.

Fate is a fickle force that can be either friend or foe. In baseball, the location of a pitch, the decision to swing or not, and the position of the defense are all variables. Even when a player strikes out looking, or loses a fly ball in the sun, or misreads a coach’s signal, fate is still involved. The same is true in racing, where a tiny error can create a huge problem.

Race fans are all-too-familiar with stories of two dollar parts causing complete engine failures. An incorrect tire pressure, a cross-threaded lug nut, or a momentary lapse in concentration can change a great race into an even greater loss, made more painful by a simple error leading to the unfortunate result.

So is this a way of rationalizing the decision(s) that led to Kyle Busch’s three-point slide into 13th-place in points? No, it isn’t. It’s more a statement about the nature of the Chase itself – a format that requires race teams to do as much as they can as early and as often as they can to collect wins and points. It’s the randomness of fate that stirs up this recipe for NASCAR success.

We understand the importance of collecting points during the first 26 races of the year. Look at Martin Truex, Jr. and his 2012 performance; the driver for Michael Waltrip Racing landed squarely in the Chase even though he’s yet to visit Victory Lane this season. It’s all about consistency and making the right choices when facing a variety of situations. The problem with fate as a concept is that it’s often difficult to pinpoint as a matter of cosmic/spiritual/divine guidance.

Whereas we usually paint “fate” and “destiny” with the same brush, it’s critical to recognize that these are essentially different concepts. Fate is powered by a lack of personal control – this is the stuff of newspaper horoscopes – while destiny is more a matter of steering actions toward an eventual (and desired) outcome. Not to get all philosophical here, but the two concepts differ in their emphasis on personal or human agency.

If I’m a crew chief, driver, or car owner, I can make a fateful decision (Let’s not pit now, even though the cars around us are getting new tires…) that decides my destiny (I made the wrong choice; we’re not running for the championship). My decision came from personal/human agency based on what I thought was the right choice at that particular time. My destiny (to NOT win the title) was affected by my decision (to NOT pit). My destiny was directed by fate.

Such ill-fated/well-fated decisions and their eventual outcomes are exactly what Brian France seemed to have in mind when he announced up the Chase format back in January of 2004. Matt Kenseth won the 2003 Winston Cup championship in fairly casual fashion, as drivers had been prone to do in earlier seasons. Benny Parsons, for example, won only one race during his championship season in 1973, even though Cale Yarborough had four victories and a slightly-better record for his average starts and finishes; Yarborough finished the 1973 season second in points. David Pearson, on the other hand, scored eleven wins and could manage no better than 13th in points, the same place in points where Kyle Busch is as the Cup Series heads to Joliet.

Matt Kenseth’s one win 2003 season is often cited as the reason for the creation of The Chase in the first place. Can he pull off the same feat this year in the final ten races?

From NASCAR’s perspective, the Sprint Cup title – like all season championships – should be decided through prolonged consistency and success. This much is true and it makes perfect sense. The structure of this format, however, reduces a team’s opportunities for making the post-season to just 26 events. Fateful decisions and elements of sheer chance are of even more concern because these can eliminate an otherwise competitive team from title contention with ten races still to run.

There’s always the chance that a race team could pull a Tony Stewart, and snag five wins in the final ten events, but unless that red-hot operation is already in the Chase, those five wins will simply pave the way toward a first-place position in NASCAR’s second flight. Sure, the old school accusations of sandbagging have faded into history under this new, made-for-TV format, but so have the hopes for a lot of teams capable of winning championships given more-friendly forces of fate.

For more insights regarding this most fickle of formidable factors, ask drivers like Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, and Joey Logano – drivers who came oh-so-close to making the Chase yet fell short for any variety of reasons. Missed opportunities can strike anyone at any time, regardless of whether they’re driving a stock car, deciding pit strategy, or simply doing whatever it is that life intends them to do.

For more details, check with Kyle Busch and the Traverse City Beach Bums. They know far-too-much about the consequences of fate and missed opportunities…

*Connect with Mark!*

“Contact Mark Howell”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/37270/

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