NASCAR's upcoming election, the lure of plate races; more mailbag
NASCAR officials will soon have to decide whether the Chase should be changed
There's a love/hate relationship with plate races, they produce nail-biting finishes
Plus, the bizarre theater that was Talladega's ending and more reader questions
Midterm Election Day may be in the past, but for NASCAR, the real election occurs over the next three weeks. For after the mounting criticism surrounding the Chase for most of its seven-year existence, officials must decide whether the current version is to blame for much for the attendance and ratings declines we've seen this Fall.
With commissioner and CEO Brian France publicly mulling changes, NASCAR couldn't have picked a better Chase to hold a referendum. With five of six playoff races down more than 20 percent in the Nielsens, Sunday's Talladega mayhem produced the best possible result for the sanctioning body: no serious wrecks, 87 lead changes, and a three-man battle for the championship in which Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick left separated by only 38 points. It's easily the closest competition under the Chase format since Kurt Busch headed to Homestead with Jeff Gordon and Johnson breathing down his neck in 2004. More importantly, for the first time the unpopular four-year reign of Johnson atop the Cup series charts is in serious jeopardy, drama injected into a title race fans had begun assuming would automatically go the way of the No. 48.
With that type of setup, you'd think the ratings for Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead would experience some sort of uptick -- especially if Hamlin repeats his spring Texas performance by taking home both the win and the point lead this Sunday. It's the kind of nail-biting ending that passionate fans would seem unable to ignore.
We'll see. If the TV ratings do tick up, then it's a sliver of hope what this playoff format needs is this type of razor-thin finish every time to bring people back into the fold. And if they don't... it's a clear indictment of a format that couldn't have a better trio of stories as we hit the homestretch. After all, there's a big difference between a 10-15 percent drop in regular season ratings and a 20-25 percent dip during the playoffs, the part of the season in every other major sport where people pay attention -- not run away.
So which side will you be voting for this November? The mailbag would certainly like to know. Tbowles81@yahoo.com and Twitter @NASCARBowles is what gets your name in print as we get started with this week's batch of comments and questions about Talladega and other NASCAR storylines:
B+? C'mon. You gotta be kidding. That was absolutely the most boring race I have ever watched. It was exciting to see the Nos. 24 and 48 charge, then nothing until the last minute. Be honest. D. Flat old D. Not D+, but D. (And that's not because the Big One never happened)
-- Steve Donley, Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada
Northwest Territories? Wow, you know you've made it when even the Eskimos are sending you mail straight from the igloo. But your point, Steve, is one that was echoed by many fans following the race, back-and-forth competition up front seemingly farcical when the Johnson/Gordon duo rose from outside the top 20 all race to challenging for the lead in just eight laps late. It was all part of a risk/reward strategy where both the point leader, along with challenger Denny Hamlin, knew one of 'Dega's big wrecks would kill their title chances -- so why bother competing until both absolutely had to?
"I hate that I had to race like that," Hamlin said, who fought back from a lap down at one point after he tried to sandbag so much, he lost the draft of the lead pack. "Unfortunately with our points format, it's how you have to race."
Winning a title by playing not to lose -- how is that ever a good way to entice fans to watch your product? And then there's the matter of those ugly wrecks, unavoidable and costly for drivers whose lives are put on the line the second they start spinning. Per usual, a handful of NASCAR aficionados on the losing end came out and attacked the plate racing concept. "I just don't know how long we can keep coming [here]," Tony Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb said on Sunday after they wrecked. "Where you can have a one-lap race and have the same drama you have in 188."
"I hate this place," added A.J. Allmendinger after ending his day hitting the wall upside down. "I always have and always will." Carl Edwards caused a lack of serious accidents "just plain luck," while the most damning comment came from driver Bill Elliott, who said after wrecking out on Lap 141, "I told them in there (the care center) they better be getting ready."
So why did I give the race a B+? Because for every plate-racing critic, you could find someone with a very different take on the race.
"It was just wild at the end," said Paul Menard. "Everybody was pushing the hell out of each other. It was a lot of fun."
And it's that nail-biting finish, Steve, which makes plate racing hard to argue with. Four, five-abreast racing heats up with 20 laps to go, and even though it's a type of manipulated competition the manufactured excitement creates a show where you can't look away. Those 26 leaders and 87 lead changes don't mean much to restrictor-plate detractors, yet for those desperate to see more than the typical 10 or 12 we'll get at Texas this weekend seeing cars run side-by-side, even though they can never stop doing it proves a welcome change.
Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were among the handful of drivers who didn't hang back, producing that hair-raising passing up front regardless of the risks combined with a number of underdog, single-car teams who usually start-and-park going the distance and running inside the top 10 due to parity rules that clearly play in their favor. As long as we have people continuing to do that, there will be plenty who tune in for the type of racing plates create -- and considering the lack of passing in other races this season, a B+ at minimum seems appropriate when you're dealing with a racetrack that produced the two most lead changes of all time for both its Cup races in 2010.
The trouble with the end of these races is that they finish so tight, the TRUE results come out at the speed of snail.
SpeedZine is talking about the weird ending to Sunday's race, where five minutes of video replay determined the outcome rather than a race to the checkered flag. On Sunday I said I didn't have a better solution, and in the two days since the yellow-flag ending to this year's Indy 500 has come to mind as an example of why. With Mike Conway seriously hurt, one of the scariest crashes in the track's history put safety at the top of everyone's list, no one complaining about a single-file ending in which second-place Dan Wheldon had virtually no chance to catch Dario Franchitti under green anyway. Where were the critics after that one?
The answer, of course, is there's a difference between a likely outcome and a questionable one. Nobody knows what would have happened had Harvick and Bowyer been able to race back to the line, a side-by-side battle that could have gone either way instead of having it decided by when someone in the NASCAR tower chose to push a button. But does every ending of every race need to be manipulated so we're assured that photo finish across the line? The Indy 500 doesn't have green-white-checkered endings because the 200 laps is equivalent to sacred tradition. If someone wrecks on the last lap while two cars are running nose-to-tail for the lead, guess what? The race is over, because those are how the circumstances naturally played out.
As for replay, I know it's a long time to find the answer but it's also the same type of solution other sports apply in questionable situations. It's a computer aid to a human fault, for as long as they're employed the natural imperfection of officials ensures their calls will occasionally impact an outcome. It all adds up to coming up with no better way in which the sport could have handled this one ... but if you have a better answer, write us! I'm all ears.
Did you notice how Jimmie Johnson threw Jeff Gordon right under the bus in an interview after the race? Will this hopefully be the straw that breaks the camel's back for Gordon to stop catering to Johnson? Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson seem to be out for Johnson FAR more than they are for the team and Gordon needs to call them both on it.
--- Matt Lewis, Kaukauna, Wisc.
Matt, I don't know what interview you're referring to but I figured that Martinsville would have been the kicker for a No. 24 team that's constantly playing second fiddle. I couldn't believe how many times in that race Gordon would let the No. 48 in line as a courtesy, only for Johnson to fight tooth-and-nail with his teammate when the circumstances switched the other way.
That expectation to bow down to the title contenders (and keep in mind, Gordon was one until last week) seemed to extend well into Talladega, where Gordon's worries over lagging back too long seemed to be ignored over the best way to latch together with the No. 48. Some heard such trepidation in "Four-Time's" voice they even suggested the "engine problem" Gordon claimed eight laps after he and Johnson teamed up to head to the front late was a made-up fantasy. I wouldn't go that far, but based on actions throughout the season and some public comments this Spring Gordon appears to be getting fed up with the reigning four-time champ. After all, no matter how much stake you own in the No. 48 team the prodigy can only beat the teacher so many times before he loses it.
The question is whether Gordon will ever stand up and do something about it. And if he's kept his on-track cool for the last five years, it's hard to believe there's going to be a change in attitude now -- especially when a Johnson title benefits him in the wallet as well as all of Hendrick Motorsports.
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