The disappointment was plainly evident on the face of Dale Earnhardt Jr. just minutes after he climbed from a smoking, oil-dripping race car that had failed in the critical first round of his championship hunt.
"It’s tough," he said. "It’s going to be really hard to win a championship this far behind.”
The mood was equally downtrodden nearby, as Joey Logano's team packed up his broken down Ford as the race roared around them. Logano could only shake his head and wonder what could have been.
"Everyone was doing the right thing," Logano said. "We have a really fast race car and we put it on the pole and led laps; it just wasn’t our day I guess.”
Earnhardt and Logano, just three days before, had been sitting inside a building on Chicago's Navy Pier during a media and fan event beaming about the possibilities before them. Both were entrants to NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup postseason process that would decide the sport's 2013 champion.
Now, after just one race, both are staring at the realistic possibility that they won't have a fighting chance to even be in title consideration as the races of the 10-race hunt click off. It's a fact that has less to do with how well Logano (-52 points), Earnhardt (-53) or any other title contender will perform after a setback and more to do with what they can possibly earn while on the comeback trail.
NASCAR's point system—simplified to some extent before the 2011 season to award one point to the 43rd-place finisher and 43 points (plus a bonus of three points and up to two more for leading the most laps) to the race winner—just simply makes a poor finish in the stressful 10-week stretch nearly impossible to comeback from.
It's an issue that's rooted squarely in how those points are distributed.
Consider: In 2011, two-time series champion Tony Stewart became a three-time series champion when he held off Carl Edwards in the final laps of the final race. Stewart won that day—his fifth win of the 10-race Chase—yet still tied Carl Edwards for points scored in the process. Stewart, based on his wins, was given the tiebreaker and the title.
You may be wondering how that illustrates the issue of comebacks being a problem in NASCAR. After all, the Stewart-Edwards duel was the first time in NASCAR history that a points battle for the title had finished tied. That's pretty great, right?
Of course it is. But there's just one problem: Expecting a near repeat of that scenario each season is a fool's errand. It's like the sport won the lottery in its first time playing. Plus, there's the fact that Stewart won 50 percent of the Chase races and still needed a tiebreaker to take the season crown.
What does that have to do with Earnhardt and Logano in 2013 and their incredibly tough ability to come back from an early deficit? Just about everything.
The same issues that prevented Tony Stewart's five wins in the 2011 Chase from allowing him to leapfrog way out in front of the field—it's of my belief that winning 50 percent of the contests available to 12 direct competitors (13 in 2013) and 30 other indirect competitors is cause enough to give the winning driver a sizable points advantage—are the same ones that will saddle Earnhardt and Logano to an unlikely return to Chase contention this year.
First, the Chase is made up of drivers who compete at the front of the field most of the season. By nature, those drivers are going to continue to race up front during the 10-race battle—they did, after all, qualify by consistently racing in that manner.
However, the Chase drivers will still compete in a structure that awards points to drivers outside of the Chase. When a Chase driver falters, not only do they lose ground compared to championship-contending drivers, they lose even more points, thanks to the middling teams not in the Chase also finishing ahead of them.
Pick almost any sport and it becomes clear that allowing those to interfere in title decision that haven't qualified for the process just doesn't exist.
This issue is compounded when you start to see the incredible gap that finish deep in the field like Logano or Earnhardt experienced Sunday night after a dreary day at Chicagoland Speedway. Prior to NASCAR changing the point system, a last-place finish was worth a minimum of 17.4 percent of the race winner's total point collection for a race. Now, it's dropped to a measly 2.1 percent.
That enhanced percentage gap in point allotment for drivers finishing in the back also translates another way for drivers finishing in the top 10. Instead of being able to make significant gains by turning around the next week and winning a race, winners of today's NASCAR races actually pocket a point total 1 percent less on a driver who finishes 10th than in the previous system. That means that NASCAR has made comebacks tougher, mathematically, because not only do those who fall back take a tougher lump, it's tougher for them to actually climb back up.
Toss in the extra drivers who somehow get to score points in direct competition to playoff-qualified drivers and the Chase becomes a lesson in rewarding consistency in finishes and not mano-a-mano competition. Just ask Carl Edwards—he didn't win once in that storied 2011 Chase and finished one point from a championship thanks to a 10-race span of nine top-10 finishes and one 11th-place finish.
Is that what the sport really wants? Is that what it really needs? Would outsiders and new fans have understood when the guy who won half of the playoff races and the final one wasn't crowned the champion?
I don't think so.
Other sports have built the reputation of their championship battles by not allowing middling, consistent performances to rule the championship structure. Winning matters.
NASCAR could fix this in 2014 through a couple of approaches. First, they could introduce Chase-only scoring that rewards title-contending drivers points based solely on where they finish among themselves—one point for last of the 12 and 12 points for the top finisher, with a race-winner bonus.
Or NASCAR could take an approach that they've needed for a long time—and especially now, in light of the Richmond race manipulation penalties—and only reward points to top finishing drivers on a scale that slates heavy value to winning and quickly decreases to zero around 10th. It's a two-bird-one-stone gain: Winning means more and tanking a race to boost a teammate's points ranking by a few points just simply wouldn't matter.
NASCAR should consider these suggestions because the sport has simply become too driven by unimportant and unassuming accomplishments. Fans attend sporting events in large part to see direct competition (which could be found in a Chase-only scoring format) and often to see the underdog have a shot to win.
NASCAR has its underdogs in Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. right now. The only problem is that the deck is stacked against them.
All quotations obtained firsthand from NASCAR team post-race transcripts.
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