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NASCAR’s Imperfect Perfection

by | Nov 22, 2017

I will confess to not following NASCAR Cup racing week-in and week-out.  NASCAR’s season is a long one, most of the races are too similar to one another, the cars are too generic, and, well, don’t get me started on the overall dreadfulness of restrictor plate racing.  With plenty of other racing series to follow, ranging from the local short tracks to the international circus of Formula One, NASCAR would have to be far more compelling to divert my attention from all the others.

But as a New Jersey native living less than 20 miles from Wall Stadium Speedway, I just had to pay attention to the championship run this year.  Fellow Garden Stater Martin Truex, Jr., had become one of the four finalists for the championship, and having seen Truex (and other members of his family) race at Wall Stadium in years past, I found myself rooting for the local hero.

Truex, with a gritty run, claimed the crown with what was necessary – a finish in the season finale ahead of his three title rivals – and with what proved to be an additional necessary accomplishment, a victory in the race itself.  The final 20 laps of the race were nail-biters for Truex fans as he willed his car to stay ahead of the evidently faster car of fellow title contender Kyle Busch.

With his championship, Truex gave NASCAR a few gifts: A popular young champion with a backstory full of unfailing determination in the face of professional and personal challenges, and a deserving champion who would have been the titleist even under the old, pre-“playoff” points system.

Nothing in the season-ending race produced what NASCAR had termed a “game 7 moment,” yet comparisons to stick-and-ball sports is exactly what the organization has been seeking ever since Matt Kenseth secured the last full-season championship in 2003.  In that year, Kenseth earned the championship by taking the points’ lead with an early-season win at Las Vegas, then held on to the top position with solid finishes through 33 consecutive weeks to clinch the title prior to the final race.

Several things stuck in NASCAR’s craw about what Kenseth did:  That he held the lead in the points for virtually the entire season; that he clinched the championship prior to the final race; and that he became champion with only one race victory all year long.  Add to this the fact that Ryan Newman had won a series-high eight races that year but was scored sixth overall in points, and NASCAR decided that a change was needed.

So before the 2004 season got underway, NASCAR implemented its first whack at a “playoff” system.  It was called the “Chase,” and what it did was draw a line through the schedule after the first two-thirds of the year, re-set the points for the top ten, and then run the last third of the year with only the top ten being eligible for the championship.  In addition, the points earned for a race victory were increased.

It wasn’t perfect and NASCAR tweaked it every year, expanding the number of eligible drivers, re-jiggering how the points were assigned, and generally trying to find a formula that would produce the kind of late-season playoff excitement enjoyed by other sports.

Older die-hard fans were not amused.  Resistant to change for the sake of change, they complained that racing is unique in that an individual champion had always been determined by a season-long point tally.  Every year since the implementation of the Chase (now called the “playoffs” by NASCAR in a remarkably inappropriate bit of wordsmithing), there have been online postings about who would be the “real” champion had the old system been retained.  (To be fair, sometimes the championship result would have been the same.  Cream does continue to rise to the top.)

And such complaints were amplified by some recent occurrences.  First, Ryan Newman came within one position of winning the 2014 championship despite having won no races during the year.  Newman and his team had played the system perfectly to become one of the four finalists, but his lack of race wins that year was a source of irritation to the traditionalists.  Next, Kyle Busch won the 2015 championship despite missing a significant chunk of the season due to injury.  Busch became eligible to run for the championship because he secured a victory after his recuperation, but the fact that he won the title will less than a full-year run rankled a lot of fans.

Still, NASCAR is not about the revert to the old ways and the organization continues to make ongoing refinements to the formula for determining the champion.  Nonetheless, this year the potential existed for Truex, with the best overall season record going in to the finale (most wins, most top tens, etc) to be denied the title based on one race finish.

So what this means is that NASCAR has achieved its goal of matching the stick-and-ball sports.  Like those sports, NASCAR has in place a system for determining the champion that is imperfect.

Photo courtesy Renee Tidaback, Facebook