NASCAR and Football: Not That Different After All

Roberta CowanContributor ISeptember 14, 2010

HAMPTON, GA - SEPTEMBER 04:  The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series flag flaps in the wind prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on September 4, 2010 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

The air is crisp and the temperatures are starting to cool off. But the sure sign that autumn has arrived is the fact that football has returned. There are opening games, new uniforms, new players, and The Chase.

Oh wait, one of those things doesn’t belong in there. The Chase is NASCAR. But the similarities in the two sports may be a lot closer than you think.

With so many wanting to compare The Chase to footballs playoff system, I thought that it might warrant a closer look to see if there were any similarities. Oddly enough, you would be amazed at how many there are.

Let’s begin by defining and changing some terms around. Well not really; we are just going to redefine the names so everyone can stay on the same page. Let’s start with players and positions.

First off the owners in football and the owners in NASCAR have similar roles. Their responsibility is to provide the money, equipment and personnel to win. In NASCAR racing that will include the drivers. Owners are owners. They are the big dogs, the men who have the money. They are the decision makers that guide the rest of the personnel.

Now their job is not just to sign pay checks. There is a lot of coaching and planning that goes into their jobs. And ultimately like the owners in football, their success is dependant on their ability to pick out a strong coach.

In racing our coach is the crew chief. Now honestly, I debated this position until I consulted the Urban Street Monster who is a football expert and long time fan. Honestly I wasn’t sure that the car owner didn’t belong in this position.

But once I understood the real job of the coach in football, I realized that this is the crew chief in racing. His job is to direct. Call in the plays, or in racing, the changes to the car.

He keeps track of lap times and numbers and the progression of his driver through the field, or his regression through the field. He reassures, encourages, advises, and yeah, sometimes lies to keep his team and driver on track. He is responsible for every member of the team and their performance, including those that are not at the track on race day.

Next is our shining star in racing and for the most part in football too. He is the face as it is referred to in the music industry. He is the front man, the person that everyone recognizes. He is the quarterback of the team.

The success or failure of the game or race rests heavily on his shoulders and his abilities to make the necessary plays. The driver carries the ball on the track that he is snapped by the pit crew on the pit road. It’s then his job to move it up field towards the ultimate goal in both sports victory.

In racing, the driver actually creates the misnomer that could be responsible for why we are surprised by the comparisons to a “team” sport. Because he is the front man, the star if you will, it’s easy for those unfamiliar with our sport to mistake him for the only player. When in truth it takes a whole team to even take a green flag.

The teams are still made up of three groups: defense, offense and specialty teams. The defensive line actually plays before the car ever leaves the shop. They are the folks that build it, paint it and prepare it with a set up before it’s loaded on the truck to go to the track. This team is made up of engineers, mechanics, chassis specialists and paint and body artists.

It also includes engine builders, public relations people and managers who arrange for the travel and necessities that the offense will need once they arrive at the track.

A lot rides on the shoulders of the defense these days with shorter race weekends and no testing. The car that rolls off the truck at the track must be close to right on the first lap. To be off by a little is fixable. To be off by a lot makes for a long weekend and most often a poor finish.

The offense is the pit crew. These are the guys that are going to make the changes live on the track. They are made up of tire changers, tire carriers, jack men, gas men, catch can men, tire engineers, team engineers, engine specialists, the spotter, and of course, our coach the crew chief.

An average pit stop is 13 seconds in today’s racing world. So unlike the comparative model of football there is no room for error. A second in the pits is feet on the track and feet on the track can be a position or two that will be hard for a driver to make up.

These guys are truly the unrecognized stars of the game even though most are weekend only players. They receive the car when it comes in and they have to turn it around in about 20 heartbeats with no errors. A loose lug nut can destroy a car if the wheel comes off and cost a team the win.

A dropped tire that gets loose results in a penalty. Failure to get the car full of gas, a costly additional pit stop, or worse, a car that runs out of gas before it’s due. The offense on a race team must be close to perfect every single play, because in racing, you only get an average of four chances to get it right.

The specialty teams are your heavy repair guys, the support teams that man and utilize the crash carts. They fix the car when it’s been damaged in a wreck and is not drivable in its current state, or has developed a mechanical issue that prevents it from performing to its capability if at all.Their job is to return the car to play.

Throughout the season we have seen teams like Lowes literally rebuild the front of the car including sheet metal and return it to the track in 100 laps. Can you imagine being in an accident and taking your car to a shop for repair and having it back the same day? That is what these guys do.

With today’s race cars so sensitive to aero dynamics and down force, the days of chopping off the fenders and sending it back out are over.

The points are too tight to not put it back into play. But it must go back and maintain a minimum speed determined at each track by NASCAR and be drivable in a safe and consistent manner.

So the specialty team must be knowledgeable, quick and thorough all at the same time. Positions on the track are points. And with championships decided by as few as eight points, which is about two positions on the track, every spot counts towards the goal of winning the big prize.

NFL teams, are limited to the number of players they can have. NASCAR teams are not limited, except on race day. An NFL team can only have a 53 player rooster. On game day they can dress 46 players. All of those players can be used in the game. Seven will not dress and are not eligible to play but are usually in attendance at the game.

The remaining seven players are practice squad participants and do not play on the field without being activated due to injury, or other issues. These players are separated out into 11 offense players. Eleven defense players and 11 designated special team players. The other 13 being alternates based on position.

On a NASCAR team, there may be as many as 100 team members on the defense at the shop. The offense may have as many as 23 players but only six men are allowed over the wall at a time unless NASCAR allows the extra man over to clear the windshield for the driver. The specialty teams may also have as many as 13 players utilizing crew members from the offense.

The NFL plays host to 33 teams. NASCAR can boast up to 50 on any given weekend. The NFL allows for a bye-week to allow all teams to play 16 games. NASCAR runs 36 races a year. To miss a race most likely will destroy your chances of making it to The Chase and a shot at the championship.

The NFL plays nine post-season games and four pre-season games. NASCAR has 10 races in its championship and three pre races in Daytona every February. Both sports crown one team champion.

In NFL that is the winner of the Super Bowl. In NASCAR it is the winner of The Chase.

The similarities don’t stop there. There are players that struggle with coaches and to fit in with the style of play from a specific team, just as we have drivers that struggle with some crew chiefs leadership style and to fit into the environment of specific teams.

Just as in football, change of scenery often shows those players to be talented and skilled in their positions. Kyle Busch and Jamie McMurray are the two most recent and vivid examples of change of scenery.

Owner/player combinations are not unheard of in football. Just like Tony Stewart has taken an owner partnership role in his Stewart Haas Racing team, Dan Marino did the same with the Miami Dolphins.

Like Stewart, Marino was an outstanding player who wanted more control of his future. Although he never won a Super Bowl, he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Stewart who is a two time champion of the sport also seems destined for the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.

Fresh blood is necessary for the survival of any sport. The NFL has a complex and involved system called the draft where college players are ranked by teams and picked based on their position and performance.

NASCAR has the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series. The premise is the same. Drivers are rated by teams based on their performance and as the opportunities and needs arrive, they are moved up through the ranks.

Some highly rated drivers like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski all came from the highly competitive Nationwide series and have shown themselves to be successful and talented drivers. Others, as in the NFL, have struggled and failed to produce at the highest level of the sport.

Most athletes, whether they be football, basketball or race car drivers, can easily be compared to thoroughbred race horses. They are incredibly talented and have strong personalities and temperaments.

There will always be those who are noted for the attitude of thinking they are bigger than the sport. There will always be temper tantrums and high strung antics. Everything from throwing helmets in football to throwing helmets at race cars. It’s the nature of the beast.

In many cases, these antics calm with maturity. In many cases they remain for an entire career.

The common thread through this seems to be the best in any sport tend to be the most demanding of themselves and the people around them. Their disappointment is mistaken, usually by the way it is demonstrated, as arrogance and bad attitude. The truth is usually somewhere in between. And the talent of the individual is not as a rule questionable.

When I started this piece it was on a whim. I truly started it with the attitude of racing and football are two entirely different things. I am not a fan of The Chase and strongly feel that we need to take our sport back to a straight points system, so my purpose was to show that the differences in the sports made the chase system misplaced.

Although, the research and work on this piece did not change my opinion of The Chase, it did open my eyes to the fact that there are many similarities and comparisons to be made. Enough so that it is apparent that although we are excited with the coming of fall and the return of football season, we are actually watching a very similar sport from February to November.

There are more players and there are more teams. But overall if you have a basic understanding of the parts and pieces, it’s easy to understand that whether it’s the finish line or the end zone, no single player can win and no team is any stronger than its weakest member.

The Nationwide Series ran its second race with the new Car of Tomorrow (COT) at Richmond International Raceway.

An exciting race that saw tires become an issue; those that had them and those that didn’t but needed them, fought for position and supremacy, but it was Kevin Harvick who turned in a dominating performance.

Congratulations to KHI and Kevin on their win. The Sprint Cup race was a sleeper with minimum racing and what appeared to be a points protection race even though 10-of-12 positions were locked in. Congratulations to Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer on locking their positions in The Chase. Congratulations to Denny Hamlin on his win and entering as the top seat.

Authors Note: I want to take this opportunity to thank my educators on this piece. Craig Hampton, also known as the Urban Street Monster (USM), and Larry Honeycutt Sr. Your help and your education was invaluable.

I wasn’t sure I could make this piece work. I was very overwhelmed once I had the information I needed on where to start. But Sr. you were right as always, deep breath and one step at a time. USM, what can I say, for you to tell me I could call during a Chiefs game if I needed to hey that says it all. I am thankful to both of you and for both of you. You are truly friends that were sent by God to make my life a better place.