Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Not to complain, but this rankings thing isn't the corner piece of the cake with all the icing

Each week, usually several hours after a Nextel Cup race before I leave the track, I do the rankings of the top 40 teams in Nextel Cup for the thatsracin.com web site and the weekly syndicated page that runs in a bunch of newspapers across the country, including the Charlotte Observer.

To say this process is an inexact science would be to make a gross understatement.

I've got no idea how long we've been doing them - probably eight years, since the TR site debuted around the time of the 1998 Daytona 500. I am pretty sure we've been doing the rankings since we started the site.

However long it has been, not much has changed about how they're done. I take the previous week's rankings and change the name of the race and the track for which they were done. I update the previous week's ranking for each driver. I find the printouts of the finish of that day's race and of the updated points standings. And then I start trying to decide which teams to move up or move down and how far.

I know that sounds pretty simple. Trust me, it's not.

First, you've got to decide which team is at that moment the best in the sport. Usually, to be honest, that's pretty clear - especially when you get deep into a season. The guy leading the points is there for a reason, and unless there's a pretty compelling case to make somebody else's team No. 1, that's usually a pretty good place to start.

Not always, though.

If, for instance, a guy has won three races in a row and moved from seventh in the points to second or third, you have to think about him - especially if you think the points leader is racing defensively trying to hold on to his lead. I always try very hard to put a premium on winning races, too.

I've gone through spells where I've refused to rank drivers who haven't won a race ahead of anybody who has. Still, once we're about 20 races into a season, I am far more likely to have a guy with three wins who's 10th in the points ahead of somebody with now wins who's fifth.

This sport ought be more about who wins races than it is now. A fan who buys a ticket for this week's race at Texas Motor Speedway is coming there that day to see people try to win.

It drives me nuts to hear people talking about "the big picture" when referring to a car running in the top five. When you've got chances to win, that's what you're out there to do. The championship should not be an end-all trump card in every situation.

But before I get off on my rant about a 500-point bonus for a driver's first win and first win in the Chase, an idea I still believe in, let's get back to the rankings.

Every single week I've ever done the top 40, there comes a point in the rankings where I reach an impossible situation. Usually it falls somewhere between about 15th and 25th. That day, a driver or two has done well and scored a top-five or top-10 finish and you want to move them up.

But the drivers who've been ahead of them all season finished in the top 15, too, and you can't very well move them down. Since you can't move someone up without moving someone down, that's an impossible situation.

Most of the time when I am up against that, I try to decide that if I had to bet real money on who'd wind up ahead of whom in the points at season's end, which team would I pick? That doesn't work in every situation, but the whole point of the rankings is to rate the teams based on their season's performance and their potential for success.

Frequently I get emails from fans of a driver questioning me on where their favorite is ranked. Often, the fans find a driver or two, or six, ahead of their favorite and give me a cogent, well-reasoned argument why his guy should be ahead of them. Sometimes, I run across such situations myself, figuring out that three or four weeks in a row a guy has slid a spot or two and suddenly I've let him get too low.

So a driver might finish 13th one week and jump four or five spots. That means the fans of the drivers he jumps over are firing off emails, demanding to know why. And the cycle begins again.

It's always a humbling experience to do each year's final rankings, because I go back and put beside each driver's name where I had that team ranked in the preseason. Last year, seven of my preseason top 10 were also there at season's end, but No. 2 Greg Biffle was 12th before the season and No. 3 Carl Edwards was 18th. Rusty Wallace started the year 16th but finished 10th.
None of that, however, is anywhere nearly as bad as my biggest rankings blunder ever.

In doing the preseason rankings in 2000, I typed in all of the full-time teams and started shuffling them around, moving a couple up and a couple down. Somewhere amid that cutting and pasting, I deleted the No. 10 car driven then by Johnny Benson.

Now Benson's team, led by crew chief James Ince, was starting that year without a sponsor. Unsponsored teams don't live long in Nextel Cup, so they weren't going to be in the top 25 anyway. But there's now way I wouldn't have had that team in the top 40 unless I'd just simply deleted them and not noticed they were gone.

I got to Daytona for media day that year and Drew Brown, the team's PR rep, asked me nicely why I didn't have the team in the top 40. "Sure I do," I said. But no, I had omitted them. So all during Speedweeks, I was taking grief from Ince and Brown and even, a little bit, from the soft-spoken Benson.

And then, in the Daytona 500, with a handful of laps to go, guess who was leading? Dale Jarrett came back to win that race. Benson finished 12th and the next week, I think I put him in the top 10.


RHE said...

As I was reading this and I rember watching it on tv, I found a 61 year old man with two college degrees with tears on both cheeks. Thank you