Saturday, May 23, 2009

What if the Championship were determined by race wins?

What if NASCAR's schedule and Cup Championship consisted of thirty-six races where winning the race is the only way to gain Championship points? This suggestion has been discussed on the Internet since the season began this year, and has been taken up by some on-line journalists, such as's Terry Blount. The idea is that if winning was all that counted, the racing would be more intense, and there would be no reason to hang back to protect points standings.

But would the racing be better? How many teams that are presently participating at the Cup level afford to participate in an entire season of "Checkers or Wreckers?" Who would want to be in the lead on the last lap with a pack of hungry racers on his rear bumper? More importantly, how often would the winner of the race be determined by a penalty based on a judgement call by a race official?

The problem of teams entering just for the prize money would not be solved, unless the purse was "winner take all." If that were the case, there would be few teams willing to participate. The number of regulars in the field would likely shrink from the thirty-nine Cup regulars we have now, to twenty or fewer. The teams that are underfunded now, relative to "the big four," would be even more underfunded, and there would be no reason for them to compete if they don't have the equipment to win.

In NASCAR, part of the challenge to the driver in any race is in negotiating lapped traffic, and, with a field of twenty or so, the lapped traffic would be sparse, if not absent. The purse in a checkers or wreckers type race would have to be disbursed pretty much the same as it is now, if there was to be a full field.

There would be no guarantee of better racing in a checkers or wreckers race. In a 334 lap race, the first 270 laps would be the same chess game it is now, with the drivers and teams testing their cars, saving their engines and brakes, and finding the best set up for the final sprint to the finish. There would be no point in going all out in the early part of the race, and risking a blown engine, worn out brakes, or a broken gear box. We would likely see one car pulling an eight to ten second lead for most of the early race while the other teams half-heartedly battle for position, hoping for a caution, or maybe hoping that a team mate, with nothing to lose, will take out the leader while racing to stay on the lead lap. With no points at stake, lapped traffic would have no reason to continue in the race as the laps wind down, unless there is the chance that all the cars on the lead lap will wreck, of course.

That is one reason why a checkers or wreckers series would be more expensive for participants than it is now. Repairing a NASCAR racing car after a wreck is very expensive, and one thing an all or nothing situation will produce is plenty of wrecks. It would be safe to say that we would see plenty of situations in the final laps as we did at this year's All Star Challenge--where, with eight laps to go, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon all went into a turn three abreast, and none came out with a car capable of winning the race. All three of them went into that turn with nothing to lose, and everything to gain. It was exciting, for sure, but it really wasn't great racing. It was, however, great and expensive demolition derby.

The leader with five laps to go would be very lucky to be the winner of the race, unless he was so far ahead of the field that nobody could reach him. That would be unlikely, as the cautions and restarts would be frequent, as drivers back in the field give it their all to get into a position where they, theoretically, at least, could catch the leader. That leader would have a big target on his rear bumper, and no driver will have second thoughts about using the chrome horn to get him loose, or move him up the track a little, when winning is all that matters. Of course, there is always the chance that the first car to cross the finish line will be black flagged for rough driving.

So where is the fine line between a legitimate bump and run and a bump and dump that earns a black flag? Any driver will tell the press and the race officials, "I didn't mean to wreck him," after he makes contact and takes the lead. When the winner of the race is determined by a judgement call by a race official, that is not better racing. If no contact at all is allowed, then we are back to the follow-the-leader type race that so many race fans claim to find "boring."

Another situation that would come out of a checkers or wreckers series would be that many top drivers would be absent from some of the races. In 1974, David Pearson only ran in nineteen of the thirty races, and finished the season third in points. He participated only in races where he knew he would have a good chance to win. We would see the same thing in a checkers or wreckers championship. Why risk a season or career ending injury at a track where the driver has had no success, when that driver knows he could win races at tracks at which he has excelled in the past? A driver who has a two or three race lead early in the season would be likely to skip a few races during the remainder of the season, racing only at those tracks where he feels he has a good chance of winning.

Aside from that, there is the possibility that the championship could be determined with several races left on the schedule. There would be no need for the champion who is six races ahead of everyone else to finish the season with five races to go. The rest of the field would be racing for a top ten position in the final standings, and drivers and teams who have no wins would only be there to act as blockers for a team mate, perhaps. For most race fans, the novelty of a demolition derby wore off by the time we graduated from high school, so, instead of an exciting finish to a season, we would likely see a big fizzle.

As with most of these bright ideas that get thrown around in cyberspace, it would be unlikely that such a series would be a success. In forums, blogs, and sports network sites, fans and journalists bemoaned the fact that Rockingham no longer had racing, but when ARCA brought a race to Rockingham, only about three thousand fans showed up initially, and then only 300 fans showed up for the second ARCA race there. And then there are the calls for NASCAR to make the Nationwide Series a replication of the ARCA Series, by banning Cup drivers from racing in that series, and re-defining the Nationwide Series as a ladder series for novice drivers only. We could see that as being a huge success among race fans.....yeah, right!

NASCAR Cup racing is a championship series that requires a test of both drivers and teams, in races of marathon proportion. In other words, the championship not only depends on a driver's skill, but on the skills of the mechanics, engineers, and pit crews on the team. Winning a race is not the only measure of these skills, though it is important. Winning could be, as Terry Blount suggests, be made more important by adding more points to the race winner's score, rather than creating an all or nothing competition. It might make for better competition if the award for winning were raised to 200 points, while keeping the remainder of the points awards the same as they are now. In addition, NASCAR could add an extra ten bonus points to the Chase standings, beyond the bonus points that are already in place for each regular season win. This would make it more difficult to protect points by settling for a top ten finish,and should create a more aggressive form of racing among the top teams. But it would still award consistency to a point, and still give an opportunity for the championship to be determined at the very end of the season. Most importantly, we would still see racing, rather than a series of wreckfests. If we want to see a wreckfest, we can always go to the demolition derby at our local track.

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