Sacramento, California – If you’ve been keeping up with what NASCAR calls its Sprint Cup Series “playoffs,” you’ve likely lost touch with racing.
Because what it is going on out there right now is not what I’d call racing, a genuine shame since I’ve truly enjoyed my sometimes intimate involvement with NASCAR over the decades.
But what we have at the racetrack now is something akin to Big Time Rasslin’ or Roller Derby.
Whose fault is it? One word: NASCAR.
The racing body built this house of horrors brick by brick, and even though the ominous writing was clearly written on the wall a year ago, the series now finds itself on the extreme end of a sham – far removed from “have at it, boys” and now firmly entrenched in the “omigod, what are they doing out there?” zone.
Two weeks ago at Talladega Superspeedway, the “greatest drivers in America” couldn’t execute 100 feet of green-flag racing on two race-ending restart attempts. Coincidentally, defending series champ Kevin Harvick, helped trigger the second incident. He was in a badly lame car and just happened to catch the rear bumper of a car blazing past him on the right. The ensuing wreck secured Harvick’s advancement to the next round.
No evidence of foul-play, NASCAR said…Wink, wink.
Then last weekend, in the endless 500-lap run around Martinsville Speedway’s oval, Matt Kenseth made good on his repeated threats to stick it to Joey Logano, who has dominated this year’s playoffs and was dominating Sunday’s race when he was intentionally wrecked by Kenseth.
By the way, Kenseth was delivering “payback” for a recent racing incident that was nothing more than hard, competitive racing between him and Logano … the kind of bumper-to-bumper battle that fans see a thousand times in a typical NASCAR season.
NASCAR has created the current situation with short playoff rounds in which a single bad race can eliminate a competitive driver … Jimmie Johnson this year, for example. So, it didn’t take long for drivers to figure out that competitors could be eliminated from the series trophy chase by wrecking them. Or perhaps you can wreck another driver who is in line to win the series championship simply because you’re mad at him.
Is any of this a surprise? No.
I wrote the following in a blog post on Nov. 17, 2014, just after the conclusion of last year’s Sprint Cup Series season: 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.
And so, here we are.
And while I appreciate the storybook ending folks want as Jeff Gordon prepares to wind up his sensational career, I have serious trouble with him inheriting what would be a fifth NASCAR championship with the aid of strategic wrecking. I would rather have the drivers decide it with their skills, no matter what form of racing we’re talking about.
For example, at the 2014 Indianapolis 500, I would have been pleased to see Helio Castroneves win his record-tying fourth Indy classic. Instead, he lost by an eye-blink in a spectacular late-race duel with winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.
But suppose a Castroneves teammate (or friend) had decided the outcome that day by, say, deliberately crashing out Hunter-Reay during a previous caution period, giving Helio the win. For my money, that would have been the most undeserved Indy 500 victory of all-time.
What’s next for NASCAR? Racing teams deliberately crashing out the cars of other racing teams, based on pre-race plans? Can you imagine the screaming if the equivalent happened in pro football? A defensive end perhaps crushing the knee of the opposition’s star quarterback two seconds after the whistle blows on a given play, all in the name of “doing anything it takes to win the championship?”
Sad. Wake me up if you ever go back to racing.