Much ado about nothing: NASCAR's wild card
In terms of competing for a championship, NASCAR's wild card chase is proving to be much ado about nothing. The drivers who legitimately claimed wild cards are at or near the bottom of the standings with little chance for a comeback. The driver who made the Chase thanks to Brian France's lese mageste remains a distant long shot. And the aftershocks of Richmond continue to ripple through the sport in the form of angered sponsors and splintering teams. Maybe this whole wild card thing wasn't such a bright idea after all.
The concept of adding two wild cards to the championship chase was NASCAR's way to try and make winning more important and inject more drama into the Race to the Chase. The 2010 season saw Jamie McMurray win three races (including two premier events) yet fail to qualify for the playoffs. Fans howled that McMurray was far more deserving of a playoff spot over drivers such as Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton, who finished the season winless. Moreover, the race to make the playoffs lacked any real drama coming into Richmond. Why not shake things up and give drivers who actually won races something to offset the bad luck factor?
So a pair of wild card entrants joined the Chase field starting in 2011. The idea was to take whomever had the most wins but fell outside the top ten in points and give them a spot in the playoff field. The idea had merit but had zero impact on the actual Chase field in its first two years. In both 2011 and 2012, the wild card recipients were also the 11th and 12th place teams in season points. In 2013, after the various changes and penalties were sorted out, the net result was the same; 11th place Gordon, 12th place Ryan Newman and 13th place Kasey Kahne made the field. The mad scramble we saw at Richmond ultimately saw the same teams make the playoffs that would have done so without a wild car program.
It's also interesting to note just how the wild card recipients have fared once making the playoffs. In 2011, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski got the wild card spots. Keselowski finished in fifth, 84 points (or nearly two full races) behind eventual winner Tony Stewart. Hamlin barely made the post-season banquet with his ninth place run, 119 points off the lead. 2012 saw Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon make the Chase as wild cards. Gordon finished a distant tenth, 97 points behind champion Keselowski. Kahne made a decent run at the top but still finished fourth, 55 points behind the Blue Deuce. The final points position for Kahne belied the fact that he was never really a championship contender with zero Chase wins.
2013 seems to be shaping up for more of the same. Of the three wild card entrants, only one actually qualified for the Chase on the track (Kahne). Newman and Gordon both made the field in the week following Richmond thanks in no small part to the furor that arose as more came to light about how the race ended. At eight and ninth positions, Gordon and Newman are already deep in the Chase field. They haven't done that badly but it's hard to make up ground when the leader wins both races and the second place car finishes right behind him. Kahne has already conceded his 2013 title hopes and sits in last place, 71 points behind Kenseth with eight races to go.
In adding the wild card program, NASCAR forgot one elemental fact of racing. When the points reward consistency, the most consistent teams will finish near the top over the long haul. Any one can win a race or two and look good in the moment; frankly, Kenseth is a shining example of that right now. Wins are great but it only takes one bad finish to wipe out virtually everything a team gained from those wins in the first place. A team could easily win a title by averaging a fifth place showing over the course of a season even if they never win a race. There are plenty of examples of this in both the pre and post Chase eras.
The reason is simple. NASCAR (and its fans) have always valued a top ten finish over a fluke victory. That's why the tenth place finisher earns nearly as many points as the race winner. It's why you hear hear drivers and crew chiefs talk about a “good points day” when their car never had a prayer of winning. Why risk a perfectly good fifth place run by stretching your fuel or burning up the tires? There's no real reward to winning besides bragging rights and a nice trophy that will collect dust for the next 20 years. That's also why you'll see teams patch together a battered race car even if the repairs leave the team with zero chance to win. A handful of late race cautions may take out a dozen cars, resulting in that all-important top ten finish for the drivers who survive. That emphasis on consistency and turning laps that don't matter is why Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson sat atop the regular season standings- and it's also why Kenseth, despite five wins, was in sixth (and Kahne, with two wins, was in 14th).
Looking back at McMurray's 2010 season, it's clear why his team didn't make NASCAR's playoffs. Despite those three high-profile wins, the #1 car was not an elite team. They had seven finishes of 30th or worse and only three of those finishes were the result of a crash. They had another six races where they finished in the twentiess. In other words, over the course of a 36 race season, the team finished 20th or worse 13 times, over a third of the season. Contrast that with a mid-level Chase driver such as Greg Biffle. Greg has six finishes of 30th or worse and another six in the twenties. The numbers seem fairly close, do they not?
The real difference came in top tens and laps led. Biffle finished the year with 19 top ten finishes and 543 laps led. Meanwhile, McMurray had only 12 top ten finishes and 346 laps led. The disparity is even worse when compared to some of the higher placing teams. Eventual champion Jimmie Johnson had 23 top tens plus over 1300 laps led. Denny Hamlin, who finished second had 18 top tens and nearly 1200 laps led. Over the course of 36 races, Hamlin, Johnson and Kevin Harvick were the best teams on the track. They deserved to run for a championship and they likely would have even if the Chase had never been invented. McMurray, on the other hand, had a few bright moments in what was otherwise a fairly pedestrian season. He didn't deserve a championship and his presence in the Chase would only have served to highlight that fact.
The highlighter is now applying a neon yellow coat to this year's wild cards. It frankly could be applied to most of the cars at the bottom of the regular season standings. The wild card and Chase points reset offers hope to fans of drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano. But they don't make the cars go any faster at the track and they don't make someone who's run at the bottom of the top ten all season somehow become an elite team.
If the sanctioning body is truly concerned about integrity in their sport, NASCAR ought to face the fact that their wild card system is much ado about nothing. The teams that receive the wild card aren't going to compete for a championship. The financial rewards of making the Chase, on the other hand, will lead more teams into temptations like the ones MWR surrendered to. There's only so much NASCAR can do to police the teams and spotters; as in many other places in life, those breaking the rules will always be one step ahead of those enforcing them. What NASCAR can do instead is admit that the wild card was a good idea that just didn't work- and go back to allowing a season's worth of results to stand for themselves.