Back before the season started, NASCAR CEO Brian France announced that NASCAR would loosen the leash for the drivers in 2010. The new edict, now known as “Have At It, Boys” was designed to allow more of the personalities of the drivers to come across behind the wheel.
“It’s time for us to allow the drivers to drive,” France said back in January. “Our history is based on banging fenders.”
He’s right. NASCAR has always had feuds between drivers that have shown themselves on the track. Allison and Yarborough, Earnhardt and Wallace, Earnhardt and Elliott, Earnhardt and everybody, Stewart and Montoya: they are all feuds that at one time or another have captured the attention of the NASCAR fan.
This year it didn’t take long for the long-running dispute between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski to spill off the short tracks and onto the high speed front straightaway at Atlanta, with breathtaking results.
Kyle Busch and David Reutimann made NASCAR’s new 2010 philosophy on self-policing the new Chase reality Sunday at the Price Chopper 400 at the Kansas Speedway.
On lap 51, Busch made contact with Reutimann’s rear bumper, causing him to spin and slam the retaining wall. After repairs, Reutimann returned the favor.
“Just getting wrecked that early in the race gets really, really old,” Reutimann said, clearly frustrated with his hopes for a top-10 finish lost in the crash.
Running several laps down, Reutimann found Kyle Busch running in seventh place and swept across the racetrack to tag Busch in the left rear. The contact sent both cars spinning, with Busch receiving rear-end alignment damage that effectively dashed any hopes of contending for the win.
Kyle Busch stepped on a landmine. Whether or not it was of Busch’s own making is up for debate, but the two combatants are racing for different prizes.
So it’s a tale of two teams: one competing against 11 others to win a Sprint Cup championship, the other trying to collect wins and trying to get as close to 13th in points as he can.
“Then the retaliation—I mean, to a guy that’s in the Chase racing for something, and he’ll be back here next year. He could have wrecked me in any of the first 26 races and that would have been fine,” Busch said after the race.
Reutimann is racing to get wins, run as well as he can, and build something for next year. For Busch, the time is now. He came into the race just 45 points out of the lead, and running seventh he was on track to post another top 10, keeping him in the hunt. Reutimann’s retaliatory strike relegated him to a 21st place finish—80 points out of the lead and flirting with an insurmountable gap.
For Chasers, the consuming force during the race is the position of the other 11 guys they’re competing against for the championship. Who’s ahead? Who’s behind? How many points can we make up if we finish this far ahead of the other guy? All of these issues put Chasers in their own points race against 11 other teams, while 32 others operate on their own agenda.
The conflict of racing one group of drivers for a title and another group of drivers for position is a fine line that every driver in the Chase must walk. They all know that ruining another driver’s day, particularly one not in the Chase; can have catastrophic effects on a championship.
Retaliation is tricky. Ask David Reutimann. During his sweeping run across the track, he ended up with more damage than the intended target. Another chaser might not take that chance if they know there’s the possibility that their car may suffer more damage in the counterattack, hemorrhaging more points than if they had quietly limped along.
On the other hand, who’s to stop someone who is just racing for wins to take a shot once their chances at going to victory lane are slammed into the wall? Nothing would be more devastating than to teach a Chaser a lesson by taking them out of the Championship hunt.
That may have happened to Kyle Busch on Sunday at Kansas.
Just imagine if Kevin Harvick went to Homestead with a slim points lead, and Joey Logano decided that the final race would be a fine time to exact revenge for their early season tussle in the Nationwide series race at Bristol. Harvick’s championship hopes could be dashed by someone who has no shot at winning it.
There’s no easy solution to the problem; in fact, one solution may be to do absolutely nothing. You got in the Chase by racing 42 other teams and being among the top 12. Win the Sprint Cup by doing the same thing again over the last 10 races. Use the points as a performance measurement against the whole field, and let the chips fall where they may.
Then again, are we really looking to figure out how each chase performs against the field? By its very nature, the Chase creates a glass ceiling above 13th place. NASCAR is telling those below, “You weren’t good enough to compete for a title this year. There were 12 guys more deserving. They’re different.”
That’s why NASCAR resets their points and starts them at totals beyond the reach of the rest of the teams. There’s no controversy that way; 13th place in points after Richmond can’t creep into the top 10.
If NASCAR has made the decision that The Chase is an exclusive club, give it an exclusive hierarchy and points system. If a team is out of the Chase and can’t win it, they sure shouldn’t be able to deny it to someone else.
Let’s base the points in the Chase against other drivers in the hunt. Win a race and get 120 points. Second Chaser gets 100. That’s a 20 point difference to emphasize winning. If a Chaser doesn’t win, the highest finisher gets 110. From second back, reduce the number of points by ten with each of the 12 positions. Last among the Chasers on any given weekend gets you nothing.
This improved system would have two benefits: it would keep drivers outside the Chase from being able to impact the points since Chasers are in a 12 driver race, and it would keep the Chase field close. Nobody could get taken out of the Chase with one bad finish. They’d have to consistently finish at the back of the Chase rundown and not earn points.
If you were to end up with a tie at Homestead, season win totals could be the tiebreaker, then it’d go to laps led. That would make a win mean something. As it is now, finish fourth in the first Chase race with four regular season wins and you’ve caught the guy who finished fifth with five overall wins.
Better yet, if you’ve got fewer wins than the other guy and you’re three spots behind him at Homestead, you know you can get by him, earn the points, and take the wins out of the equation.
The objective would become be the best among the best. A non-Chaser running 10 laps down couldn’t knock you out and relegate you to a 21st place finish and a devastating points day. Worst you’d get is 12th place.
Sunday Kyle Busch was the lowest finishing chaser, so he would have gotten nothing. However, he won’t have to gain points by improving position against non-Chasers for the next seven weeks to make it up. Just run better than the other members of the exclusive Chase Club.
Using that system (ignoring the Bowyer penalty) all 12 Chasers would be within 120 points of co-leaders Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. Four drivers would be tied 20 points behind for second. Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth would round out the Chase rundown 120 points back. That means all the ground could be made up in one race provided that one of the points leaders finishes last (and received no points) among the Chasers.
NASCAR says that the Chase is its version of the playoffs. In any other sport, teams that have been eliminated can’t impact the ultimate outcome. Why not? They’ve been eliminated. Let’s give the Chasers a chance to fairly compare themselves against the best: the other 11 drivers on that podium at Richmond.