The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins its final Chase For The Cup, the 10 races to settle the championship on Sunday afternoon in Chicago, with the running of the Geico 400 (2 PM ET, ESPN). The controversy and chaos of last week’s final regular season race in Richmond have a dark cloud hanging over the sport.
Hard-core NASCAR fans know the details, but for those who may have only casually seen some reports in the midst of watching baseball or football this week, here’s the short version of the story….
*Martin Truex had edged Ryan Newman for the final wild-card spot in the playoffs, while Joey Logano nipped Jeff Gordon for the final automatic spot in the Top 10. (Click here for a layman’s explanation of NASCAR playoff qualification rules, which will explain why the winless Gordon could qualify in the Top 10, but not as a wild-card).
*Newman had been leading the race at Richmond, when a spin-out by Clint Bowyer—already assured of a playoff spot—knocked him out of the race. Gordon also got caught up in the pileup, Truex and Logano as the beneficiaries.
*Bowyer and Truex are on the same racing team, Michael Waltrip Racing, immediately bringing conspiracy theories to the fore. Why not have a driver whose postseason spot is assured, give himself up for one who needs to get in?
*NASCAR investigated and quickly ruled that Bowyer’s spin was intentional—the tipoff apparently being some poorly disguised verbal coding between Bowyer and the pit, along the lines of the driver asking “Do I need to scratch my arm,” and being told yes. Then the spin occurring immediately thereafter. The CIA, these guys are not.
*As a consequence, NASCAR tossed Truex out of the chase and gave his spot to Newman.
*There was still an outcry over what to do about Gordon. The problem here was that Logano was not a part of the conspiracy. How do you penalize him? Late this week, NASCAR just took the easy way out, created an extra spot in the Chase and gave it to Gordon.
The adding of an extra spot was a nice, political way of solving the problem. But to me—and to TheSportsNotebook’s resident NASCAR junkie, my brother Bill, when we spoke earlier this week—the sport should have tossed Bowyer out of the chase. He was the instigator and part of the conspiracy, and eliminating him would have sent a clear message that this won’t be tolerated.
Bowyer was in second place in the points standing (though he hadn’t won a race, meaning his actual seed for the playoffs is lower) and some fans would have surely questioned how credible the postseason would be if it missed a driver who had been so consistent all year long.
My answer is this—it would have been like last year’s Big Ten football race, when Ohio State was on probation. Yes, it’s far from ideal to have a team who is the best or has a credible case to be the best, unable to participate. But the sport’s long-term greater good is served by adherence to the rules. If college football has lived with probations over the years, why can’t NASCAR?
Of course it’s practical to just create an extra playoff spot in NASCAR and reward the victims of the cheating, whereas you can’t do that in football. I understand why NASCAR took the course they did—who amongst us voluntarily takes the hard road when the path of least resistance is available? But the hard road is often the more rewarding in the long haul, and I suspect NASCAR missed an opportunity to really clean this kind of thing up.
This is a great sport, as I have learned since beginning to cover it with Bill a couple years ago, and I don’t want to see it end up with a pro wrestling quality, or on a lesser level, be like the NBA playoffs, where it seems the fix is always kinda, sorta, but not all the way, in.
ON TO CHICAGO
Anyway, we’ve got 13 drivers eligible to win the Sprint Cup, to be decided over the next 10 races. The standings were re-calibrated to reward outright wins in the regular season—this is explained in the NASCAR playoff qualification rules— and now look like such…
Leader: Matt Kenseth
3 points back: Jimmie Johnson/Kyle Busch
9 points back: Kevin Harvick/Carl Edwards
12 points back: Joey Logano/Greg Biffle
15 points back: Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Junior, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon.
The track at Chicagoland is a modern cookie-cutter track, with no defining characteristics. It’s fairly easy to pass, so drivers need not panic if they fall behind early. While there is a lot of time in the Chase, we should note that each of the last two champions—Tony Stewart in 2011 and Brad Keselowski in 2012—have set the tone with a Windy City win.