Monday, November 17, 2014

Note to NASCAR: Let's change the course

Mark Glover’s AutoGlo car reviews also can be seen on the Business page of The Sacramento Bee’s website

Sacramento, California – OK, NASCAR just concluded its latest “playoff” format scheme to crown a new Sprint Cup champion, which turned out to be Kevin Harvick.

Good for him.  Now scrap the format, please.

In a format that was supposed to reward winning races in a season, we came within one bobbled restart of winless Ryan Newman taking home the Cup.

That’s not a good plan.  Just the very thought that it could happen again – and likely will at some point up the road if things remain unchanged – gives me the shivers.

Please understand, it’s not that I have anything against Harvick, who raced hard in a good car all year, or Newman, a bulldog in shape and substance whose relentless driving style is easy to like.  Both drivers played by the rules as written.

You just can’t have a nationally popular auto racing series crowning an undeserving champion.  And it came close to that the first time around.

And, oh please, I’ve heard all the arguments to the contrary.  It was exciting right to the last lap of the final race.  Look at the improved TV ratings.  Love those post-race fights, by jingo … and on and on.

OK, I’ll give you that.  But I’ll also wager that I could take the top 10 drivers in the series in any given year, pick four from the group by coin flips and still put on an exciting show in the final race.  Yes, if you have ANY format that guarantees four eligible champions going into the last race, it’s a pretty good bet that it’s going to be an entertaining scrap.

But just suppose that the quartet going into the final was composed of, say, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski.  You think folks would have tuned in for that?  Why yes, I believe they would.

And for me, this is where the biggest problem surfaces with the current format.  NASCAR spent decades building up its individual driver stars, and this effort produced spectacular results in fan attendance and TV presence.  So now, you have a format that eliminated the biggest names (and biggest race winners) from the “playoffs” before the final green flag of the year.  Not good.

And worse, under the current format, with short three-race segments in the early playoff rounds, a big-name driver can essentially be eliminated from the Cup hunt with one wreck not of his own making.  And that’s precisely what happened with Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt.

Keep this format in place, and I can pretty much guarantee that the inevitable will occur: A driver or his teammate will deliberately wreck a competitor to eliminate him from the playoffs.  It will happen.  Count on it.

Call me old-school, but I still favor a championship system that takes the whole year into account.  It’s done in other racing series – that includes other NASCAR series – with no problem whatsoever.

You want to put more emphasis on winning, fine.  Award more points for individual race wins; don’t let a single race win amount to a free pass to the “playoffs.”  This would eliminate the super bonus of “one-off” wins, a la road course specialist A.J. Allmendinger taking the checkers at Watkins Glen this year and jumping right into the Sprint Cup chase field.

By awarding points instead of free passes for race wins, you force a driver like Allmendinger to earn his Chase spot over the long haul, along with other drivers doing hard work in races throughout the year.

Sure, I’m weary of NASCAR tweaking the “playoff” format, but something needs to be done to avoid a less-than-deserving Cup winner.  This is a series that runs pretty much from Valentine’s Day to Thanksgiving.  That’s a long time, a lot of hard work and oceans of sweat.

The body of work over a year should stand for something.  Here’s hoping NASCAR will adjust its big show accordingly.

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