Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., on Sunday night. (AP Photo)
It took all day and most of the night, but Matt Kenseth finally took the checkered flag at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday to put one of the wraps on one of the most checkered weeks in the history of NASCAR.
Luckily for Kenseth, crossing the finish line first to earn a victory was one of the rules NASCAR left untouched during a flurry of decrees from on high that changed the rules of the sport midstream.
First, Martin Truex Jr. was bounced out of the Chase and replaced by Ryan Newman after some well-documented tomfoolery near the end of the Richmond race.
Then Jeff Gordon became the 13th Chaser and a new page was added to the rulebook demanding all drivers and teams give 100 percent at all times. Finally, during the drivers’ meeting on Sunday, NASCAR scrapped the restart rule that stated the second-place car could not beat the leader to the start/finish line.
The decision on the restart rule came on the heels of two blown calls in Richmond that allowed Brad Keselowski to win the Nationwide Series race on Friday and Carl Edwards to win the Sprint Cup Series race on Saturday despite beating the leader to the start/finish line on late-race restarts. Instead of finding a way to enforce the rule, NASCAR basically said, “Sort it out among yourselves from now on.”
In terms of reinforcing the sport’s integrity, almost every move NASCAR made last week was the wrong one. It’s almost hard to tell which decision made by Brian France and his inner circle did the most damage to the sport’s credibility.
Certainly adding Gordon to the Chase was a huge misstep. It reeked of favoritism, and fans spent the days following the decision asking whether somebody like Paul Menard or Jamie McMurray would have been allowed in as a 13th entry if they had been in Gordon’s position. Most folks concluded that Gordon was added because of his stature in the sport and the power wielded by Rick Hendrick, his car owner.
But aside from that, changing your playoff field just days before the Chase starts is just a rinky-dink move, one that you’d never see out of the NFL, MLB, NBA or any of the other legitimate sports NASCAR competes against for attention in a crowded marketplace.
Still, writing a page into the rulebook that teams have to race 100 percent all the time was a colossal miscue as well. Not only is that edict completely unenforceable, but reading that headline splashed across every newspaper, website and sports broadcast made me wonder if NASCAR still has a public relations department. Do you know how bad that looks? “OK, folks, they caught us — fun and games are over; time to start racing hard every week.”
If I were a driver, I’d be livid at the accusation that racers don’t want to show up at the track every weekend hell-bent on hoisting the trophy. The only thing that prevents them from doing so are the teammates they are shackled to and a ridiculous points system NASCAR has devised that penalizes anyone who shows up each week with a “checkers or wreckers” philosophy.
Instead of throwing the drivers under the bus, it’s time for NASCAR to look at completely overhauling a system that is open to the sort of collusion we saw in Richmond last week. Instead of an empty threat, one that becomes emptier when you consider that the practice of starting and parking is still allowed, NASCAR should have attacked the root of the problem.
If you’re going to have four-car teams, you cannot have a points system to determine a champion. If you do, manipulation will always be a part of the sport. Instead, it’s time for NASCAR to use victories to determine who makes the Chase. Win and you’re in. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
Not only does that ensure each driver will go all out during the 26-race regular season without regard to teammates, it gives fans more of a reason to get excited about each individual race. If the system had been in place this season, 13 drivers would have qualified for the Chase: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, David Ragan and Brian Vickers.
The only positive thing that can possibly come from this past week is NASCAR being forced to abandon the concept of chasing points and putting the emphasis back on winning races.That will help attendance and television ratings.
Anyone who follows the sport knows that true change only happens when NASCAR loses control of the narrative, as it did in the days following the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. The change in culture in terms of safety happened almost overnight once the national media started ripping the sport for not adopting SAFER barriers and other safety measures that were readily available.
Now the points system and the manipulation it invites are under attack and NASCAR is running out of diversion tactics. Here’s hoping Big Picture Racing goes the way of Crystal Pepsi.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at email@example.com. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.
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