Its been fascinating to watch the gyrations of Nascar this season as they perform their version of moving heaven and earth to keep their worse nightmare from happening. And that would not be Danica saying she wants a career in Indy cars, where she has a chance of leaving a reasonable legacy, forgoing a back of the pack cash cow career for the jr./Hendricks empire. No, what Nascar’s worse nightmare would be is for Jimmy Johnson and Chad Knaus to win a fifth championship….in a row.
When the Johnson/Kaunas combo racked up #4 last year, in the very format Nascar created to keep this exact thing from happening, breaking a cherished record from one of the sport’s cherished icons, the Ivory towers in Daytona shook with frustration. There is a group of records that Nascar wants enshrined forever to be revered, admired, looked at thru rose colored glasses with “they don’t make them like that anymore” forefront in the thought process. But broken???? Never!!! THAT really was totally unacceptable. Petty’s 200 wins is safe, cutting the number of races in half in 1972 took care of that one. Richard’s 27 wins in a season(1967) took place during that time of 70+ races a year. And it is ok that Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt stand like twin sentinels at the entrance of the hallowed halls with 7 championships each. Another part of this inner chamber is……woops….was Cale Yarborough and Jr Johnson with their three consecutive championships. Truly that was truly a remarkable achievement. Most thought that record would never be broken, I know I did. And especially not by a clean cut, soft spoken young Man from off road racing in California, crewed and coached by an equally clean cut, soft spoken young Man from Illinois. You could not create nor scrip a more opposite ying to the yang of the hard living, hard driving, cussing and fighting, rule bending, moonshine making, folk hero team that they dethroned as the most dominant duo in Nascar history. And it could get so much worse. One thing Nascar, and the rest of us for that matter, can do is count. To at least eight anyway. And if the dynamic Johnson/Knaus duo were to pull off #5 this season, that would mean that the record shared by the sports two greatest Titians is surely not safe. We all would know that #5 would put 7…and then 8 within striking distance, especially when one factors in Chad Knaus being 39 and JJ at the ripe old age of 35. Hence, something had to be done to keep the unthinkable from happening. Just allowing the teams to simply race never even entered the equation.
Up until a few years ago Nascar prided itself on its point system. It rewarded consistency, demanding basically a 7th place average for the season. Oh sure, there were rumblings, like when Terry Labante won the 1984 Winston cup championship with only one victory. I very much remember Darrell Waltrip saying “this sport is all about consistency, the point system did exactly what it was supposed to do, it rewarded consistency.” And that’s exactly what it did. While admittedly boring that year, that very same system gave us the most compelling championship battle in history. At the final race of the 1992 Season, Davey Allison led Bill Elliot by 30 points and Alan Kulwicki by 40. For good measure Harry Gant and Richard Petty were less than 100 points back . The race itself was one for the record books with Kulwicki emerging as the champion over Bill Elliot by a scant 10 points. I can still see them racing side by side for the lead, both knowing that it was not only for the race win, but the series championship as well. While that was one of the great ones, there were others. Rusty Wallace won by just a few points, Dale E took at least one of his by not a whole lot of points either. Throughout the years, Nascar’s point system for the top divisions have produced a compelling, season long drama that perfectly mirrored the the sport itself.
But my how times do change. Along comes 2003, and with it a certain Roushketeer named Matt Kenseth. With longtime pal and crew chief Robbie Reiser calling the shots, Kenseth, some said, took the axiom “finish 7th and win the championship”, and ran with it, not only winning the 2003 championship with just one victory, but leading for 33 weeks, and clinching it before the last race of the season, thereby making a moot point out of the talking heads in the booth nattering; “ if (insert driver here)finishes 38th, and (other driver ) leads the most laps and wins the races, (one of the two) will win by one point.” After the 2003 season a new phrase crept into the garage and talking head land; “points racing”. Nascar saw its jaded, instant gratification, couch potato audience slipping away, and rather than simply understand that what happened in 2003 was nothing more than an aberration, reacted like all power mad dictatorships, furiously attempting to micromanage and control the outcome of its championships, which for the most part throughout the years have been fairly closely contested.
But as what so often befalls control freak dictatorships, Nascar has failed to see the obvious outcome of its knee jerk reaction to the ebb and flow of the racing format it created in the first place. As what it does so often, it arrogantly decided to flush not only its own tradition down the toilet, but the very core of the tradition of the very sport of auto racing itself. Instead of rewarding season consistency like what every series of the entire sport has done since the beginning of time, it created a format that rewards the well heeled teams like no other ever has. Not to mention doing away with season consistency. From 2004 on, a large, well funded team; deep in resources and talent would sense that one could simply cruise into the so called “chase”, and then start the season that matters. No longer is it necessary to be great all year, all a team needs to do is be great for 10 races. You stockpile cars, bringing out fresh ones for every chase race. You use your team depth to write volumes on the tracks the chase is contested on. And then, you drop the hammer for 10 weeks, and presto, you win the championship…and win it again…and again…and…well, you know. And while Nascar guards some of its legacy like a pit bull guards her young, it has no problems throwing any part of its legacy it deems unnecessary (or unseemly for that matter) under the bus.
Having tossed its successful, decades long point system into the dumpster, Nascar saw to its dismay that its actions threatened its sport’s cherished records. The sanctioning body now set about doing the one thing that would ensure two things; 1- that no-one could ever win 7 championships again , much less the magic 8, and that no one driver will ever dominate the sport again. Notice I did not say “team”, Nascar could care less if two or three teams field all the cars, looking at it from their point of view, its easier to control things that way. Auto racing is a driver driven sport, it always has been, that’s about the only thing Nascar and the rest of the sport have in common, and its about the only part Nascar leaves alone.
Traditionally the most dangerous time of a race has been the start, and for obvious reasons. Cars being bunched up, cold tires not up to pressure, cars coming up to speed, all can and at times do create the chaos of grinding crashes. For the most part though, the skilled drivers of the Cup series avoid that carnage because one of the oldest saying in racing is “you can’t win the race on the first lap.” So Nascar’s double file re-starts “shootout style”, and am I the only one who was ready to vomit after hearing that a few dozen times, for most of the race went along ok, with only an occasional car or two destroyed by that system during the course of an event….until, of course, the last 20-30 laps came around. Then of course, the; “can’t win the race on the first lap”, morphs into: “NOW I can win this race, just watch and see.” And nowadays, mysteriously, Nascar always manages to find invisible, magic pixie dust somewhere on the track with about 20-30 laps to go. Of course magic pixie dust cautions in Nascar are nothing new, they have been doing this for years, and everyone knows it. Of course, talking about it is a major no-no, ask Denny Hamlin about that.
Regardless, the field is bunched up, 40 some odd ultra competitive drivers, who know that the ONLY thing that matters is winning, are put into a situation where they simply have no choice but to drive thru one another. Turning Nascar’s version of the sport of auto racing into the roulette wheel of Nascar. And thereby ensuring that while anyone can “win” a race, and anyone of the group that makes it into the chase can “win” the championship, winning MULTIPLE championships will require a degree of luck that simply will be impossible to generate. Lets go back to the Roulette wheel for a moment. Sure you can spin a 21. Then maybe three more numbers. But what will your odds be of repeating that process the next time you are at the table? By turning their “races” into spectacles of chance, Nascar has ensured that the odds of Jimmy Johnson winning 4 more championships will be beyond anyone overcoming, because the skill, the working all race to build up a lead, the entire concept of winning a race not only because of a good team, but simply driving away from everyone else, has been deliberately taken away, replaced with the crew chief making the right pit call, not screwing up the pit stop, not spinning the tires on a restart, shifting just right, anticipating the green perfectly, and oh, by the way, not getting wrecked by the rejuvenated field that you had beat until a butterfly landed on the rumble strips. On any given day, someone will do it all right, and survive to melt down a motor doing donuts. And during any given year, someone will do things right often enough, have the breaks fall just often enough their way, have lady luck smile just often enough their to win the “championship”. In the final irony, it could well be Jimmy Johnson who does this. If things had been left alone, there would be no way JJ would win it all this year, not with the slump the #48 team has hit. But Nascar’s obsessive micro management has ensured that Johnson will get a second chance. After all, since the record has already been broken, why not make it 5 in a row now, that will be just as preserved and revered as time goes by. But But winning 7 championships? Or 8? Neither will ever happen, because now, its not about greatness, its all about luck and preserving a preordained history…just the way Nascar wants it.