My Year in NASCAR – Week 4

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Bristol SpeedwayThis Sunday it was “the fastest half mile in the world” at the Food City 500 in Bristol, Tennessee. Bristol is about fifteen second laps, beating and bumping, driver theatrics, and in a perfect world, stock car carnage.

The stadium seats 160,000, and fans flock to it from around the country for its famously high-contact races, or at least they used to until driver friendly changes were made to the track in 2007. The changes left more room to maneuver which meant less bumping and less wrecking. Fan reaction was decisive. Attendance plummeted hard. The average NASCAR fan, it turns out, is not as interested in nuance as I had assumed (I’m not talking about the diehards, but the masses of semi-serious’s and casuals that it takes to pack a mega-stadium in the middle of nowhere). These folks really like wrecks. In fact, they demand them. So last year NASCAR responded by going to work messing with the track surface to get Bristol back to how it was before, and fans started to come back.

If success at Bristol is measured in terms of successfully engineering a high frequency of crashes, then NASCAR did passably well on Sunday. The Food City 500 had plenty of wrecks, but they were mostly of the “blown tire followed by a slide into the wall” variety. Some of them were significant in their effect on the outcome (A race leading Jeff Gordon blew a tire and swallowed up Matt Kenseth in his drift toward the wall) but none of them were of the hair-raising variety that could get the grandstands roaring.

Kasey Kahne won anticlimactically. He took the lead on a restart with forty or so laps to go. His victory was so much of a forgone conclusion from there that even I, someone who watched his first race four weeks ago, knew it the moment he pulled ahead. I threw up my hands and said “Well, that’s that” and was disappointed that there wasn’t anybody around to ask me why I was so sure. The Fox crew has been beating it into everyone’s head all season that the 5 car is fast.

The only drama left was whether Joey Logano would catch up to Denny Hamlin to dish out some revenge (for the spin out Hamlin had handed him when the two were racing near the lead earlier in the race) and the battle between Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch for second. Logano didn’t get his revenge. There was a post-race confrontation, but it was underwhelming. And I’m not sure who ended up getting second, but who cares? We’ll get into why it barely matters below.

Danica Patrick was a non-factor, but Darrel Waltrip found an opportunity to take another shot at her. They played her pre-race communication to her teammates in which she urged communication to avoid crashes, and Waltrip laid into her for her being too consumed with the prospect of a wreck. Waltrip has the vibe of an even-keeled consensus type who speaks on behalf of a NASCAR inner-circle that isn’t too high on Danica as a race car driver. It’s like they’ve agreed they’ll happily accept the attention she brings to the sport but only on the condition that once a week Waltrip gets to take a quick jab at her to undercut her seriousness.

With Bristol in the books, Brad Keselowski leads the Sprint Cup standings and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in second despite neither of them have won a race this year. It turns out NASCAR has a curious bummer of a scoring system that’s similar to the one the Tour de France would have were it taken over by Maoists. It goes like this:

All 26 pre-Chase Sprint Cup races races are weighted equally.

First place get 43 points, second gets 42, third gets 41, fourth gets 40, fifth gets 39, and so on down to 43rd.

Winning a race is worth three bonus points, and leading at least one lap during a race is worth one.

From a Sprint Cup points perspective, winning a race is less than ten percent better than finishing second, and finishing second is less than three percent better than finishing third. NASCAR seems to be operating under a point system that can punish ambitious driving in the front third of the field more than it can reward it which places very little premium on what I had understood the objective to be—winning the race, and that demands conservatism by turning the Sprint Cup’s thirty-six race season into one long negotiation for track position. Consistency, not winning, wins the Sprint Cup, which is why guys who almost won but didn’t are never as devastated as you hoped they’d be in post-race interviews.

The point system was even worse before “The Matt Kenseth Rule” was instituted. In 2003, Matt Kenseth won the Cup, despite having won only one race. Ryan Newman won eight races that year and finished fourth. NASCAR did some soul searching and handed down the decree of three bonus points for race winners henceforth.

Why three? It feels like it was an afterthought that they farmed out to one of their less important executives. And that executive didn’t consider the value of three points in relation to the number of points first place gets anyway. And that the executive arrived at three by poking his head out of the office and demanding an intern say the first number that popped into his head. And that the number the intern said was “four,” but the executive decided, no, that’s too many.

NASCAR is a berserkly insular monolith, so fussing is a waste of time. And anyway, next week is Fontana, so it’s impossible to stay grumpy.

 

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