Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) leads Brad Keselowski (2) in the final stages of Sunday's race in Las Vegas. Kelselowski won after Earnhardt's fuel rout out. (AP Photo)
Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a snoozer for most of the way until fuel strategy paved the way for a pulsating final lap that saw Brad Keselowski speed past Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the win after Earnhardt’s Chevrolet ran out of fuel.
It was a classic case of an exciting final lap salvaging a day wrought with monotony, but if it weren’t for the new Chase format, would Earnhardt have taken such a gamble so early in the season?
“Absolutely not,” Junior said. “I can say that without a doubt.”
No, under last year’s format, Earnhardt would have stayed on a conventional pit strategy and settled for a relatively stress-free top-10 finish. It would have been points racing at its finest.
It should go without saying that racing purists aren’t crazy about the new playoff system, which virtually locks any driver that wins one of the first 26 races into the 16-driver Chase field, features a series of eliminations once the final 10 races start and pits four drivers against each other in the finale at Homestead with the championship on the line.
From the purist’s perspective, it’s simply a case of NASCAR adding more gimmicks to an already gimmicky Chase format. Just another mirror added to the smoke show conjured up to manufacture drama. But if the new format makes drivers race more like Fireball Roberts and less like Mark Martin, I’ve got to say that I’m all for it.
Those of you planning to make the trip to Bristol Motor Speedway this coming weekend know how much it costs to go to a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. You pay to buy a ticket, park your car, fill your cooler full of Coca-Cola or whatnot, buy concessions at the track, grab a souvenir or two, bail your crazy cousin out of the Sullivan County jail ... well, you get the point.
Once you’ve invested so much to see a race in person, you’d like to think the drivers participating in the event are focused on doing anything possible to walk away with the trophy. You’re certainly not thinking about next week’s race in Fontana, so why should NASCAR have a format that rewards the drivers to settle for a good points day and get on down the road?
We only have three races under the new system to go by, but so far, there has been no shortage of excitement in the final laps as drivers have pulled out all the stops to win. There is no reason to believe that trend won’t continue this week.
As for the racing purists, I understand where they are coming from, but the battle they are fighting was lost long ago. NASCAR races, like every other major professional sport in North America, crossed the line from pure sport into the territory of sports entertainment the moment television started pumping serious dollars into securing broadcast rights. If your sport isn’t made for TV and ready for prime time, it isn’t relevant.
You can take away the Lucky Dogs and the wave-arounds if you want to, put all the drivers in true stock cars straight off the showroom floor and race for points from now until November. Just don’t be too surprised when drivers start winning races by 10 laps again and nobody under the age of 60 tunes in or shows up to watch.
In a way, NASCAR purists remind me of punk rock fans who would rather see their favorite band play in a dive bar with its principles intact than to "sell out" in order to headline Madison Square Garden.
It may be true that comparing Jimmie Johnson’s accomplishments to those of Dale Earnhardt Sr. is impossible since Johnson’s titles have come under the Chase format, but it’s no different than trying to compare Earnhardt’s seven titles to the seven Richard Petty won on a NASCAR landscape that may as well been the Wild West when compared to the era Earnhardt thrived in.
Time marches on, and sport must move along with it. NASCAR can either choose to evolve or wither away into extinction.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:10 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.comments powered by Disqus