McCombs: NASCAR tries to get Chase straightened out - and fails miserably

mmccombs@islandpacket.comSeptember 18, 2013 

NASCAR Penalties Auto Racing

Clint Bowyer gets sideways on the front stretch during the Sept. 7 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va. His reputation has been battered, his team blasted by NASCAR for manipulating the outcome of a pivotal race.

STEVE HELBER — The Associated Press

The offseason is commonly referred to as the silly season in NASCAR.

That's the time established drivers at the end of their deals leave their old teams and join new teams. It's the time when the drivers on the fringe of stock car racing's top level look for a ride for the upcoming season.

Drivers long in the tooth decide to hang it up, and younger drivers on the lower circuits hope a Cup team will give them a shot behind the wheel. The rumors fly about which sponsor is moving to which team, and so forth.

This year, however, the silly season has taken place right smack dab in the middle of the season.

If you don't pay attention to NASCAR, and I wish right now I didn't, I'll sum it up quickly, no names.

A little more than a week ago, a driver intentionally spun late in a race to allow another driver to move up in the standings and earn a place in the Chase for the Cup, Sprint Cup's "playoff," and I use that term loosely.

In boxing, that's known as taking a dive.

Initially, NASCAR denied any foul play (that's its standard operating procedure). But once audio surfaced proving the driver was told to "itch his arm," NASCAR had a problem.

This type of you-scratch-mine-and-I'll-scratch-yours goes on all the time in NASCAR. Sometimes between teams, but more often between different cars on the same team. Wink, wink, nod, nod.

NASCAR couldn't let it go this time, what with it being all out and in the open. Penalties were handed down. The results of the race to reach the Chase were altered. And NASCAR tweaked the Chase lineup to try and appease those who the dive affected. An embarrassing situation.

It was about to get worse, at least in my mind. NASCAR chairman Brian France wrapped up the week of chaos and finger pointing with a meeting Saturday with the drivers before this weekend's race.

Before I go any further, let me make a confession. I believe NASCAR, in the way it decides championships, is laughable. Not the competition on the track. Not the sport. Not the racing. But the way it decides champions.

NASCAR is racing, and the object of a race is to win. Old women and little kids know that. Probably dogs and horses. Just about everybody but the France family. NASCAR's points system -- and its "playoff," for that matter --place far too little emphasis on winning.

Here's an example that has been stuck in my head for more than 13 years.

In the 2000 Busch Grand National Series, Mark Martin won three of the first five races of the season. The other two were won by Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton. But after that fifth race, Martin's third win, he trailed Kenseth by 93 points in the standings. What? By the time he won four of the first seven races, he had dropped to seventh in the standings.

The explanation would be that Kenseth obviously performed better in the races that neither won (Martin didn't start them all) and he must have been near the top in the races Martin won. And that's what NASCAR's system rewards: Playing it safe and performing well. Not being the best.

And that opens the door to a driver making the decision to play it safe and finish in the top 10 instead of racing hard for the win and risking a crash or the dreaded DNF.

Back to Saturday night. France held a brief meeting with the drivers. His message? New rules of the road. Well, actually, just one.

His rule? To paraphrase Brian France, you have to try. Everybody on the track is expected to try to win.

And that's the punchline. Because it's now become obvious that before, that wasn't expected. The joke is the integrity of your sport.

Can you imagine Bud Selig walking into the Yankees' locker room before a World Series and saying, "OK, boys, just remember to try?" Or David Stern telling Michael Jordan before the Bulls faced the Lakers to be sure he and Scottie Pippen tried? Pete Rozelle saying the same to Chuck Noll and the Steelers?

I didn't think so.

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