Friday, November 28, 2008

Hits, misses in preseason predictions

Now that the season is over, I guess it's only fair for us to look back at how I thought 2008 would go and see how I did with my preseason predictions.

These predictions ran two days before this year's Daytona 500 on the That's Racin' weekly page that appears in the Observer and other publications.

My first prediction worked out pretty well. Here's what I wrote:

SPRINT CUP CHAMPION: It's hard to pick against Jimmie Johnson, so I won't. The third consecutive championship will be the hardest, but somebody is going to have to prove to me the No. 48 team can be defeated.

OK, so far so good.

My next pick was who would be a surprise to either make or not make the Chase. I said Casey Mears would have a big year and Clint Bowyer "might take a half step backward." Well, Mears and Bowyer did wind up being linked -- Mears will move into Bowyer's former ride in 2009 -- but I still have to admit I was wrong twice there.

I also said that NASCAR had "painted itself into a corner with this business about letting drivers show their emotions. Somebody WILL go too far." I can't really say that happened, either.

But I did get another one right. I said, "A lot of big-time driver contracts are, to varying degrees, not locked up long-term as tight as you might think they would be. Don't think Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to be the last top-tier driver to change jobs."

OK, so I didn't really go way out on a limb there. But Tony Stewart leaving Joe Gibbs Racing certainly qualifies as making that a good call.

Fellow Observer reporter Jim Utter said Kyle Busch would be champion, but he also said the biggest issue facing NASCAR would be "the impending budget crunch on the economy, which affects everything from the reporters sent by media to cover the sport, to the lack of big-money sponsors for teams, to the cost fans face to watch races."

So he was dead on the money there. He also correctly said the best championship battle would be in the Truck Series.

Jim Pedley of the Kansas City Star picked Jeff Gordon as his champion, said Earnhardt Jr. would win four races and predicted that a driver from Canada would win a Cup race this year. But he was right in saying all three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas would make the Chase.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Here's an alternative format for Chase

I have never truly liked the idea of a Chase for the Sprint Cup format that puts everything on the final race to pick a champion.

Some people do. One of the ideas that keeps popping up for that is to "eliminate" a driver from the Chase each week. The driver among those qualifying for the Chase who finishes lowest at Loudon in the first Chase race would be knocked out. The next week at Dover, the driver among the remaining 11 with the worst finish would be out.

That would continue until there are only three drivers left for the final race at Homestead. Then, the driver among those three who finishes best would be the champion.

I hate that for two reasons.

First, and fundamentally, the championship should not hinge on who beats who in one race. That would create a "race for the championship," no dobut, but it would do so in a much more arbitrary and artificial way than the current format tries to do.

This year, for instance, the championship would have come down to Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick at Homestead. While Jimmie Johnson had the most Chase-race points, he would have been knocked out when he finished 15th at Texas.

My second problem with this "last man out" approach is that it would turn the focus in the first nine Chase races to who's running poorly, not who's running well. I am always trying to put the spotlight on who wins races because that's what should be important.

So, if you insist on having it where you have to earn your way into a chance for the championship at Homestead, there'd be a better way to do that.

Instead of saying the worst Chase finisher is eliminated, how about saying anybody who qualifies for the Chase has to WIN a Chase race to earn his way into the championship finale. Only Chase drivers could qualify this way because your regular season has to mean something.

However, to appease all of those who think that the Chase "excludes" people who didn't qualify for it from being part of the final 10 races, let's add this wrinkle. The driver who earns the most points in the first nine Chase race without winning one of those races -- regardless of where he stood in points after 26 races -- earns a "wild card" slot in the championship finale.

At least that way, getting a title shot in the finale would involve winning races and running well and not depend on who doesn't run the worst.

As I said, it's not a road I'd prefer going down. But if you're going down it, you might as well choose the right lane.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Earnhardt yardstick really isn't a fair measure

Look, you don't have to be a genius to figure out that if you write about Dale Earnhardt Jr. race fans are going to get fired up, especially when you're talking about drawing conclusions about his performance or his standing in NASCAR.

The reason I wrote a blog Friday about what Jimmy Spencer said on last week's prerace show is that I felt people would be interested in hearing what Spencer said when we asked him to expand on his remarks when he was on "The Morning Drive" on Sirius NASCAR Radio.

I love it when people accuse reporters or people who write on the internet of "just trying to get hits" or merely writing something so people will read it. Well, duh. What are we supposed to do? Look for obscure things to report about people nobody gives a dang about?

But anyway, back to Earnhardt Jr.

If you're a Dale Jr. fan and you believe that "the media" has put unreasonable expectations on him as a driver, I would point out to you that the reason he said he was going to Hendrick Motorsports was to win races and contend for championships.

The media didn't say that, he did.

He made the Chase this year, but was never, ever a factor in it. He won just one points race and, more to the point, his team did not seem to get better as the season went along. Indeed, he was much stronger earlier in the season than later. Was that because his team fell off or because other teams got better at a faster rate than his did? I don't know, but it doesn't matter.

When the championship is on the line during the Chase your team has to not only be at its best, it has to be better than everybody else.

I will guarantee you that Earnhardt Jr. was disappointed that his team didn't wind up beating any other team that made the Chase.

On the other hand, I will also guarantee you that if you're one of the Dale Jr. haters who thinks you're insulting him by saying he'll never be as good as his father, you're never going to hear Earnhardt Jr. himself argue with that. While he has said he wants to be a champion, he has never said he wants to be his father. In fact, he's gone out of his way to say he knows he'll never be that.

And this just in, nobody else will be, either.

Dale Earnhardt will be in the first class to enter NASCAR's Hall of Fame. There's absolutely no question or argument about that. He, Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bill France Sr. are slam dunks for the inaugural class. Earnhardt changed the sport and he was one of the great figures in all of American sport.

If you're trying to hold Dale Jr. - or any other current driver - up to the Earnhardt standard, he's absolutely going to fall short. But there's nothing wrong with measuring Earnhardt Jr. to the standards he set for himself, which are by the way the same standards any top-tier driver should be reaching toward.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Was Dale Jr. a failure at Hendrick?

Jimmy Spencer is never at a loss for an opinion, which is a good thing because Speed pays him to give his opinions on television.

Before last week’s final Sprint Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Spencer’s opinion was that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been “a failure” in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports. We had him on “The Morning Drive” on Sirius NASCAR Radio Friday morning and he talked about why he felt that way.

“I had really high expectations for Junior this year,” Spencer said. “But I don’t think his performance this year was a whole lot better than it was when he was in the 8 car. He did make the Chase this year, but that was because he didn’t blow up a lot of engines.”

Earnhardt Jr. did win one points race, at Michigan, and the Bud Shootout at Daytona. But he finished 12th in the Chase standings.

“I think it’s a lack of focus,” Spencer said. “He’d be running in the top five and then he’d start arguing with his crew.”

Spencer said he speaks from experience from his own years as a driver.

“I lacked focus,” he said. “We were leading a race at Bristol and I made a pit stop and had to come back in and get a loose lug nut fixed. I was mad at the crew and I lost focus on doing my job and got into a wreck.

“Focus means you have to keep your head on. If you make a mistake or if the team makes a mistake you have to deal with it. It’s like in golf. If you hit a 7-iron you can’t be thinking about what went wrong the last time you hit it. Boris Said told me that on a road course if you miss a turn you can’t go back and do it again, you have to keep going.

“When your car is off a little bit and the team makes a chance and it doesn’t react the way you wanted it to, you can’t blow up. You have to stay clam and feed information back to the team and you have to let them do their jobs and keep doing your job.”

Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., is the driver’s cousin and sometimes they fight like brothers. If they were winning races and contending for the championship, people would be talking about how honest they are with each other in their communication. But when things aren’t great, their relationship is often construed as a detriment to the team.

Earnhardt Jr. has steadfastly stood by Eury Jr. He said he doesn’t want to race against him and get beat by him, he’d rather race with him and win together.

Until they start winning at the same kind of level that Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch won at this year, though, the No. 88 team isn’t going to get where it wants to be.

Is it fair to say that team was a “failure” this year?

Well, I don’t think anyone would say that Earnhardt Jr. and his team attained “success” in 2008. And in this context, isn’t “failure” the opposite of that?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

How three drivers dominated

When you look at this season's final results for the Sprint Cup Series, it's hard not to be a little puzzled.

You can say that three teams dominated the season, but you have to be careful how you use the word "team." Roush Fenway Racing won 11 races this year. Joe Gibbs Racing won 10 and Hendrick Motorsports won eight. That's 29 of 36 races.

But if you look at it, Carl Edwards won nine of the 11 at Roush. Kyle Busch won eight of the 10 at Gibbs. Jimmie Johnson won seven of the eight at Hendrick. So those three drivers won 24 of those 29 that their teams won. It wasn't that multicar teams dominated as much as it was that particular drivers and their teams did.

I actually have a theory about why that is.

I believe that the new car that Sprint Cup teams used this year is a big part of that. Specifically, I believe that teams haven't figured out nearly as many ways to adjust on the car and make it both comfortable for a driver and fast enough to be competitive as they had with the old car.

What that means is that a team gets the car as good as it can get it. From that point, it's up to the driver to adapt to the car. It's no longer - or at least not right now - a matter of conitnuing to work on the car to give the driver the feel he's looking for. The successful teams are the ones where the driver has been able to adapt to how the car feels when the team finds a way to make it go fast. The driver becomes the variable, not the car.

That doesn't necessarily mean that Johnson, Edwards and Busch are the best drivers. This year, though, they were able to adapt their styles better to this car. Either that, or what is best for this car is also what is best (or significantly better) for them. Maybe both.

I don't think that Hendrick, Roush or Gibbs would set things up where one team is far and away better than all of its others. I think those teams share information freely, so it's not a matter of the 48, the 99 or the 18 having big secrets.

What I believe is that the three guys who dominated this year reached a point where they decided that the new car is what it is. To make it go fast, you can't drive it the way you drove the old car and you can't keep searching for that old car's feel. You have to learn what "right" is in this car.

To me, that's another reason Johnson's third straight title is so impressive. Clearly at the start of the season Johnson was not getting along very well with the new car. He and his team tested extensively and I think Johnson learned as much about how to change himself as the team did about changing the car.

Just my theory.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NASCAR driver of the year? I vote for ...

On the way home from Homestead the other day, I started thinking about two votes I had to cast this week.

One was for the Driver of the Year Award, which is picked by a panel of media members that I am on. The other was for the Richard Petty Driver of the Year Award, which is chosen by the members of the National Motorsports Press Association.

The first award includes all forms of motorsports that compete in North America. The second is basically the NASCAR driver of the year honor.

My problem was this. I knew that the top candidate for the overall award from the National Hot Rod Association was record-setting Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher. Scott Dixon, the Indy Racing League champion, was the clear choice from open wheel.

But then came NASCAR and the vote for the NMPA award. I couldn't compare NASCAR's top driver with Schumacher and Dixon until I decided who to vote for in the award named after Richard Petty.

Jimmie Johnson won his third championship and seven races this year. Say what you will about the system, but Johnson won the title with the one that's in place. He also beat Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, the other two candidates, for top honors in the sport's premiere series.

Edwards won 16 times in the Cup and Nationwide Series and finished with more top fives (19) and top 10s (27) in Cup than anyone else. He also finished second in the Cup and Nationwide standings and was closing fast at the end in both series.

Then there was Busch. In 84 total races in Cup, Nationwide and Trucks this year he won a remarkable 21 times. His bid to win the Cup title fizzled when he got off to a slow start in the Chase, but he tied Sam Ard's record with 10 Nationwide wins and had 57 top-10 finishes all year -- 36 in 48 starts in Nationwide and Cup.

You can't flip a three-sided coin, as far as I know, so what I decided to do was to ask listeners to the Sirius NASCAR Radio show, "The Morning Drive," that I co-host each weekday.

Between the calls and e-mails, we probably had 50 or 60 votes. It was pretty close, but the pick was Busch because of his overall excellence this year. It's the same rationale that made sense to me in 2001 when Kevin Harvick won the Busch Series title and did so well after being called on to replace the late Dale Earnhardt in Cup.

Harvick got the award in 2001 and Busch got my vote in the NMPA balloting this year. We'll see in January how the rest of the NMPA voted and who gets the award.

As for the broader Driver of the Year contest, I went with Schumacher. Nobody dominated his sport like Schumacher did this year. The driver of the Top Fuel car owned by his father, Don, won 15 NHRA races and had 76 round wins. He became the No. 1 Top Fuel winner of all-time in the process and, unlike Busch, he did win his championship.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Max Siegel on a difficult week at DEI

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Normally, the final week of a NASCAR season feels like the last day of school.

After nine months of seeing the same people just about every weekend, it’s time to go back and finally unpack the suitcase and reintroduce yourself to the family and the neighbors.

Somebody always figures out how many days it is until the new year starts in Daytona, and everybody gives a good-natured groan when they hear that number. It’s usually a lot of “Happy Holidays!” and see-you-soon hugs and handshakes.

Not this time.

Homestead-Miami Speedway is not a bad place. We’re not that far from Key West and even closer to South Beach. The weather is absolutely glorious.

But it’s a depressing place to be this weekend. Instead of a sense of accomplishment for those who’ve had a good year and a sense of hope for those looking for better luck next year, there’s a sense of dread. Instead of being relieved to be at the end of a long season, too many people are fearful over what next week will bring.

Nobody really knows how many people in NASCAR will lose their jobs at the end of this season. With Dale Earnhardt Inc. cutting 116 positions this week on the heels of several other, smaller layoffs by other teams, the number is already well north of 200. Some believe that number could be 1,000 – or more – before the bloodletting is done.

It doesn’t really matter, at least not in any human terms, what the actual numbers are. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers when things are this bad and forget that each person losing a job is a person – somebody with a family and a mortgage and a car payment. Not to mention a passion that has driven them to come into the racing industry in the first place, a passion they may have to abandon as teams all across the NASCAR spectrum trim their payrolls.

Max Siegel knows that all too well.

As president of global operations for DEI, Siegel spent his week letting those 116 people know they weren’t going to have jobs once DEI completed its merger with Chip Ganassi Racing. DEI had four Cup cars and Ganassi had two, but those six teams will be streamlined back to four in 2009.

“It was a very tough week,” Siegel said Saturday at Homestead. “It’s gut-wrenching to try to go through and make those decisions. You’re balancing the best interests of the business and the impact you’re having on somebody’s life. It’s very emotional. It’s a very difficult thing to do.”

Nobody likes firing people. But without a merger, DEI might have ceased to exist and nobody would have had a job.

“You go and try to stabilize your business and you’re trying to save jobs,” Siegel said. “On the one hand you feel relieved you’re able to keep people employed that you’re passionate about. On the other side, it never leaves you the impact you’re having on other people.”

What makes it harder, Siegel said, is that the people you’re letting go are losing jobs they really, really want to keep.

“Everyone who works in this sport does it because they love it,” Siegel said. “They make tremendous personal sacrifices. The season is long and you make a commitment and give it everything you have every single week. It’s extremely difficult.”

Siegel said he’s going to stay on at the merged company for at least as long as it takes to get the new arrangements in place. Beyond that, he’s not sure. In this economy, nobody is.

DEI gave severance packages and out-placement counseling to the people it let go. Siegel said everyone in the motorsports industry is trying to help each other out as much as possible.

“We just tried to make sure people were in the best place they could be,” Siegel said.

Still, things were a long way from being easy. “There’s shock, anger, a high level of anxiety, confusion – a wide range of emotions,” Siegel said. “People deal with those in different ways. …It’s sobering what’s going on.”

Friday, November 14, 2008

Questionable reporting? That's when the ask exceeds any real grasp

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Thank goodness this weekend is the end of the NASCAR season. I think some of my fellow media members need some time off.

Or maybe some counseling.

It’s Friday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Sprint Cup qualifying just wrapped up. David Reutimann and Scott Speed make up an unlikely front row for Sunday’s Ford 400.

The big story, of course, is Jimmie Johnson’s bid to win a third straight Cup championship. He leads Carl Edwards by 141 points coming into this race, and despite the fact that Edwards will start fourth Sunday and Johnson only qualified 30th fastest, Johnson is in good shape to do just that.

But beginning at Thursday’s contenders press conference up in Coral Gables, reporters have been asking about and writing about how upset they are that Johnson and Edwards don’t appear to despise each other.

Question after question on Thursday picked at that topic.

Darrell Waltrip said it bothered him for Johnson and Edwards to be saying nice things about each other instead of trying to pick at one another or play mind games. Waltrip couldn’t operate that way.

And that’s fine. DW was, and is, a different kind of cat. But if Johnson tried to act like Waltrip, it would come off as phony.

Fans complain about drivers being “vanilla.” That topic is constantly overdone, and I quickly grow weary of hearing fans tell me they want drivers to be more colorful.

No, they don’t. Let a driver show a little bit of temper or a little bit of anger and the fans jump on him like bees on a bucket of honey. Ask Kyle Busch how that’s worked out for him this year.

I don’t think all drivers should be vanilla. But I think a driver should be whatever flavor he truly is.

It would have been a spectacularly bad idea for NASCAR to try to muzzle Waltrip back in his day. Waltrip’s personality added a lot to this sport and he would have been wrong to have tried to be somebody he’s not.

By the same token, it would be just as big of a mistake for Johnson to try to be something he’s not. He’s not a loudmouth. He’s not the kind of guy who likes to make snide remarks about his fellow competitors. He just doesn’t work that way and nobody should expect him to just for cheap entertainment thrills for a few race fans.

On Thursday, former champion Ned Jarrett was at the NASCAR press conference and people started asking him if it’s “good for the sport” that the two championship contenders seem to actually be able to tolerate one another.

One reporter asked Ned and his son, Dale, another former champion, if they didn’t feel that a driver has to be a jerk, or at least act like one at times, to be a good competitor.

The Jarretts both blinked and just looked at the questioner. It was like the guy was speaking a language the Jarretts, two of the classiest men in all of sports, didn’t understand.

The topper came Friday, though, when somebody in the media decided he’d work on a story about why Edwards’ teammates at Roush Fenway Racing don’t openly and intentionally start Sunday’s race with the plan to wreck Johnson to try to help Edwards win the title.

The same guy also asked Rick Hendrick, Johnson’s car owner, why he wouldn’t order his drivers to wreck Edwards to secure the title for Johnson’s team.

Every time the question was asked, the driver being asked reacted as though he thought somebody might be trying to pull his leg.

Matt Kenseth gave a couple of pretty good answers. Why would he not intentionally wreck Johnson? “Common sense?” Kenseth said. “Being a grown-up?”

Good grief.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bumped broadcast symptom of a bigger ill

In the grand scheme of things, ABC's decision to dump the final 34 minutes of Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Phoenix over to ESPN2 might not matter all that much.

We do have bigger things to worry about, not only in NASCAR but in this great big world of ours. Race teams are fighting for survival and NASCAR management either doesn't care or doesn't have any good ideas on how to help them. Some teams have lost or will lose sponsors and even those who have contracts with sponsors don't know if those sponsors will be in business long enough to honor them. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people who'll be at the track for this weekend's season-ending Truck, Nationwide and Cup races can't be sure if they'll have jobs on Monday.

Compared to all that, switching Sunday's broadcast from one station to another doesn't seem that important.

But it is.

One major newspaper columnist wrote afterward that ABC's decision ends the argument as to whether NASCAR is a major sport once and for all. The end of an NFL game doesn't get handed off from network television to second-tier cable. Networks, broadcast or cable, usually don't bail out on playoff games -- especially if the option is a piffle of a program like "America's Funniest Home Videos."

A lot of us who work around NASCAR have known for a long time that the sport's leadership has basically handed control of the sport over to television. TV sets the starting times. NASCAR will let it's television "partners" push around the timing of the green flag if a baseball game leading in goes to extra innings or if a football game goes to overtime. Qualifying and practice coverage is shuffled off to other cable outlets, shown on bizarre tape delay schedules or omitted entirely.

All of these things could be written into NASCAR's television contract. The TV deal could stipulate that no race can be moved to another network unless the start is delayed more than, say, two hours. The TV contract could force networks to commit to support programming. All of that could happen if NASCAR had the power to set those conditions and the will to stand by them even if it meant taking less money from partners willing to make the commitments they'd have to make to comply.

In the final half-hour of its telecast from Phoenix, ABC got a 4.6 rating. The 30-minutes it aired "America's Funniest Home Videos" got a 3.8. So ABC lost viewers. What it didn't lose, however, was revenue. ABC had aired the commercials it had sold for the race coverage. It had picked up all the money it was going to get there. By switching to its regular prime-time schedule, it also collected the money it was owed for commercials sold on that programming.

Were viewers served? Were race fans served? Not those who didn't hear or otherwise notice the announcement of the switch. Not those who were taping the race hoping to view it later. Not those who don't have ESPN2 on their cable.

What happens this week, if there's a South Florida rain shower and a race that won't start until about 4 p.m. Eastern is shoved back past the scheduled 8 p.m. close of ABC's broadcast window for NASCAR? Will Jimmie Johnson's championship celebration be shown as part of a special on ESPN Classic at midnight? If so, the sad truth is that NASCAR apparently couldn't do anything about it.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Economy may require more than a debris caution

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Things are getting so tough in the economy these days that even people in stock car racing are beginning to notice it.

“I learned a very valuable lesson,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday at Phoenix International Raceway. “I think that when things are going really, really well ... you want to hire this guy because he’s a buddy of yours and you want to bring this guy in because you’re related to him and this guy in because you heard he’s great. You’ve got to be careful.

“ ... You need to just take what you can afford and when it comes to assets, people, parts, pieces, everything. We were all on the upswing for so long I think a lot of people kept it under control and some people got a little ahead of themselves a little bit.”

That may not sound like piercing business analysis, but the Sprint Cup garage can be an insulated place. The real world doesn’t always get through the gate.

This situation, though, is different. When General Motors announced Friday that it lost $2.5 billion in the third quarter and could run out of money by next year without government help, people had to notice.

“We certainly worry about it," Jimmie Johnson said. "I think everyone in the world is worried about their financial future."

A GM official told that the company would be able to honor its contractural obligations to NASCAR teams in 2009. But GM has already made cuts in its marketing plans and teams clearly can’t expect the manufacturer to add a lot of things to what it is absolutely committed to provide.

GM has called off any talks of merging with Chrysler and its racing officials have nixed any NASCAR mergers that would involve associations with teams running another manufacturer’s product.

The effect of that for NASCAR is that some teams have fewer options as they try to stay alive and competitive than they would otherwise have had.

There’s talk of layoffs – hundreds of them – once the current NASCAR season ends. Hendrick Motorsports and Earnhardt Jr.’s team, JR Motorsports, have already cut staff. Depending on how you count it, as many as 15 current full-time Cup teams face questions about their sponsorship for 2009. You can multiply that number by two or three if you include the Nationwide and Truck series.

Earnhardt Jr. was probably right Friday when he said GM is too big for the government to allow to fail outright. But if you think NASCAR is going to come through the next 18 months or so with things just like they are right now, you’re nuts.

Everybody seems to understand this. Everybody, perhaps, but NASCAR itself.

Actually, to be fair, NASCAR seems to be aware that things aren’t lovely. Plans to allow Cup teams to test 24 days next year seem to be on hold.

What NASCAR needs to do is make that number zero. Some teams will still go to tracks not on the circuit to test, but if NASCAR allows 12 days of testing on tracks where Cup cars race then every team that wants to be competitive will have to test 12 days.

NASCAR also is right not to make rules changes to the new car. New rules make teams spend more money, and that’s not smart right now. The racing might be better if cars were allowed to raise the splitter and travel more as they go into the turns, but now it not the time to introduce those variables to the sport.

What NASCAR isn’t doing, though, is providing enough of the kind of leadership this sport needs. I know NASCAR wants to treat teams like independent contractors because that makes their business lives a lot less complicated. But I don’t know if that model works anymore.

Can NASCAR just sit around and afford to let six, eight or 10 race teams just go away, figuring someone else will come eventually to replace them?

I guess it can, but I don’t think it should.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Shorter fields would short some teams

FORT WORTH, Texas - Can I ask something? Because I am confused.

What good would it do for NASCAR to officially shorten its fields for Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series? Why does that make any sense, even if the economy completely tanks?

There was a report a couple of weeks ago that NASCAR was thinking about making 36 races the number in a full field for Cup races, instead of 43. NASCAR has denied it, but that hasn't kept people from still writing and talking about the idea.

The only problem with that is that it doesn't make the slighest bit of sense.

Let's suppose things get as bad as they possibly could and three for four races into the 2009 season only 34 or 35 cars show up for a Cup race.

Would that be the end of the world? It would absolutely be treated as such, of course, but the truth is there would still be the same number of cars capable of winning the race - 15 or so - in a 34-car field as there are in a 43-car field.

Chances are also good that if you had 34 full-time teams show up, there would be five or six one-and-off teams show up, too. Call them "start and parks" if you want to, but someone running five or six races as a start-and-park team might figure out that they could make a go of this and one day in the future there would be a new team formed out of that.

But let's say the sport goes eight or 10 weeks with fewer than 43 cars showing up and NASCAR reacts. It cuts the 43-car fields to 36 and cuts the qualifying-exempt number from 35 to 30.

So right off the top, you've taken something away from five race teams they've done nothing to deserve losing.

Anyway, you've decided that 36 is the maximum. So what if 39 teams show up? You're telling me it's a good idea to send three of them home because you've decided that it looks better for you to say your maximum is 36 and not 43?

Of course it isn't. If you can run 43 cars, and you have been for years, you've got no business lowering that maximum if it means you're going to be sending teams who're trying to hang on for dear life home for no good reason.

It just doesn't make any sense. At least not to me.