Money is the root of Chase problem- and also its solution
There are numerous benefits to making NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. It provides hope of a championship for teams that otherwise would never be in the title conversation. For fans, there is a reason to think your driver may still have a chance. But the main benefit of making the Chase is the money it brings to both team and driver. Between end of year bonuses and sponsor exposure, there are millions of dollars at stake. So if NASCAR wants to prevent the shenanigans of Richmond from taking place again, they need to address the real issue it happened in the first place; money. Instead of monkeying with the Chase field, NASCAR should have simply declared Michael Waltrip Racing ineligible to receive its year-end payout instead.
The last week has been a nightmare for NASCAR. Normally, the Chase kickoff week is a celebration of all that is good in motor racing- not the endless drumbeat of “manipulating results”. Instead of flashbacks to the greatest moments in NASCAR's regular season, we've been treated to a never-ending loop of radio recordings from the Richmond race. And NASCAR's response to this was to twice alter its playoff field in a knee-jerk response to public criticism in a vain attempt to protect its shattered integrity.
That NASCAR had to take some sort of action is a given. The unrelenting voice of fans and media alike created a credibility problem that the sport had to address. No sport can sustain the appearance of being fixed. Fans want to know that what they're seeing on the field/track is on the level. They want to believe that everyone gives 100% all the time. Intellectually, we know this may not always be the case. But there's a difference between resting your starters in a week 17 football game and a quarterback intentionally tossing passes to the opposing team. With so many fans perceiving Richmond to be the latter, the perception of NASCAR as WWE had to be countered in some way.
Maybe there's no way Brian France and company could have anticipated all of the week's events. But even a child knows that money makes people do stupid things. And stupid amounts of money make people do incredibly stupid things- like say on a team radio, “I hope we get something good out of that,” as Gilliland's spotter did. They had to know that teams will do almost anything to get a teammate into the Chase field. They had to know that MWR likely wasn't the only team running the numbers and either laying back or trying to cut a deal. The fact that the teams involved made no effort to conceal what they were doing speaks volumes as to how common and acceptable its been in the past.
Money is the root of what happened and money is at the root at its solution. Kyle Busch admitted as much during the week when he estimated just making the Chase was worth over $3 million to a team. Winning a championship is worth several times that. So if NASCAR truly wanted to eliminate this kind of action in the future, make the punishment fit the crime. Instead of treating the team as if they had some sort of unapproved part, they should have declared that MWR is ineligible to receive any money from their end of year points position. That's not a small fine easily offset by race winnings. It's a line in the sand that no one would ever risk crossing again.
Taking away the series-ending cash has a number of benefits but the most significant is that it would enable NASCAR to apply a penalty within its long-standing rule of not changing the results at the track. That rule has been in place for a very good reason; fans don't want to find out on Monday that what they saw Saturday night meant nothing. The events at Richmond hurt NASCAR's credibility but the truly damaging blow came in the repeated changes made in who qualified for the Chase field.
If NASCAR wants to be considered a legitimate sport like its stick and ball counterparts then it has to act like one. When's the last time you saw the NFL add another team to its playoff field, no matter how qualified that team was? The answer is never. If your team got screwed by the refs, the NFL will admit that a mistake was made. But they won't change the results of the game. NBA refs regularly miss calls over the course of the season that cost teams games. Those games become incredibly important come playoff time. But the results aren't changed.
Changing race results cracks open a door that NASCAR should have left shut. In particular, the addition of Jeff Gordon to the Chase field puts NASCAR squarely in the business of making judgment calls. At least with the Truex-Newman substitution, NASCAR pretended that they were applying a points penalty the same way they always have. Truex lost points due to a penalty and he no longer had enough points to make the Chase. And by golly, that means Ryan Newman now receives the second wild card and is in. It wasn't nearly as blatant a case of NASCAR saying, “It's our ball and we'll do what we damn well please,” as the Gordon move was.
The next time something happens on the track that negatively impacts a team, that driver's fans will scream for NASCAR to act. They will rightly point at Gordon precedent as an example of where NASCAR acted in the past to “do the right thing” and correct a “mistake”. They will scream out at the injustice, knowing that if the outcry is loud enough that this generation of the France family (unlike the last two) will bend.
Where does it stop? What kind of mistake will be considered worthy of intervention and which ones will simply be ignored? Will it come down to fan reaction? Or will the size of the team involved determine whether an exception is made? Those are all questions that NASCAR doesn't want asked because they all lead to a further loss of credibility for the sport. A solid percentage of fans already believe that NASCAR favors some teams and drivers over others. How many fans will leave the sport if NASCAR essentially proves that to be true?
We've already seen an example of this. During the afternoon portion of Sunday's race at Chicagoland, a NASCAR official on pit road incorrectly held the #48 driven by Chase contender Jimmie Johnson. He thought the team didn't get all of its lug nuts tightened and it wasn't until a crew member went back to check that the car was allowed to leave. Johnson entered the pits in first place and left in the bottom half of the top ten. He suffered at the hands of NASCAR and those positions have a direct bearing on the championship Chase. Should NASCAR turn around now and give him those positions back? The question would have been laughable a week ago but now it's worthy of consideration.
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That's the brave new world that NASCAR entered this past week and it's one that still doesn't address the root problem of what happened at Richmond. Teams still have an enormous incentive to make the Chase and NASCAR's message to date has essentially been to be more discreet next time. MWR suffered primarily because Ty Norris talked too much. Come next September the same pressures will be there. Like a borderline baseball player staring at a bottle of 'the Clear', the rewards still far outweigh the risks. If the sanctioning body truly wants to prevent this from ever happening again they need to recognize what's obvious to almost everyone else. Money talks. Take away the millions teams stand to make from the Chase and no one in their right mind will risk it. But tell them where the gray area is and they'll stand in line to get there.