No tears for Gordon, Newman, or Keselowski
The controversial end of Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 400 left several drivers on the outside lookin in at NASCAR's 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Clint Bowyer's much-discussed spin gave Martin Truex a chance to slide in while Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman fell out. But even so, there's no reason to cry for Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman or Brad Keselowski today. Their respective teams simply weren't good enough over the first 26 weeks of 2013.
When NASCAR added the wild card qualifiers to the Chase format, the idea was to reward drivers for winning races. The impetus was a season by Jamie McMurray that saw the driver win three major races yet fail to qualify for the playoffs. The reaction was to add a pair of wild card spots to NASCAR's playoffs, ensuring that if another driver had a similar season they would still have a chance to compete for a championship.
The idea was to make winning more important and add drama heading into the final regular season race. The results hadn't matched the ideal before this year; in both 2011 and 2012, the 11th and 12th place point finishers also received the wild card berth. But the wild card concept established the precedent that winning mattered. NASCAR would go the extra mile to reward drivers who took home checkered flags. One win might get you in, two wins would probably do it and three wins was essentially a golden ticket to the Chase.
Looking at this year's top ten Chase qualifiers, the drivers fall into one of three categories. The first is made up of drivers who have looked dominant at times and won several races (Kenseth, Johnson, Kyle Busch). The second group has drivers who have won on occasion but relied on consistency as well (Biffle, Logano, Harvick, Edwards). The final group didn't win a race but made the Chase by turning in solid finishes week after week (Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch). All three methods work and can lead to a championship under the right circumstances.
The wild card winners (Kahne, Truex Jr.) had to sweat out their spot in the playoffs because they didn't fall into any one of those three. Kahne had too many issues finishing races, thanks mainly to four crashes involving Joe Gibbs Racing cars. Truex had a similarly elevated DNF rate and also lacked the top five and ten finishes achieved by most of the Chasers.
Yet compared to the three bubble drivers who came up short, the wild card winners earned their spots over the entire 26 races of NASCAR's regular season. Even with the two wild cards, NASCAR's points system still values finishing races. Both Gordon and Newman owe missing the Chase to that simple fact. They have five DNFs apiece- two more than any driver who made the Chase. For either driver, substituting one top ten for one DNF would have resulted in their team making the Chase.
Moreover, wrecks are more than just a function of bad luck. Trouble usually finds cars running in the middle or rear of the field. When a car runs up front and leads laps it is far less likely to be caught up in someone else's mistake. Such is the case for these two. Newman led a grand total of two laps in the five races he failed to finish. Gordon led 66 at Bristol and wrecked while racing Matt Kenseth but otherwise led 15 laps in the other four races where his day ended early. Those teams either made mistakes that dropped them deep into the field or missed on that weekend's setup and ended up in the same place. That's why it's so important to qualify well, to move forward early in the race, and to be out in front of trouble when it occurs.
Relive Jeff Gordon's greatest moments on DVD
The case against Brad Keselowski is both more troubling and more difficult for the defending champion to accept. Despite switching to a new manufacturer with a new engine program, Keselowski began the year much as he ended 2012. He finished in the top ten in seven of the first eight races and spent the first third of the year inside the top six in points. Even after a some tough luck results he sat within the top ten in points as late as the second Michigan race. With only three races to go before the Chase began, all Keselowski had to do was average a top 15 finish over the last three races and he would make the Chase.
That's where everything fell apart. He missed a golden opportunity at Bristol when he wrecked with fellow Chase bubble members Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman. Though he got back onto the track to finish the race, he was a disappointing 30th place. Keselowski followed that up with an engine failure at Atlanta that was especially painful since virtually every other contender on the bubble finished in the top ten. That left the defending champion needing a win and lots of help to have any hope of getting back in the title chase. He had no choice but to get up front and hope to stay there but either the car or the driver fell off after playing bumper cars mid-race with Kevin Harvick. He finished a distant 17th and dropped behind Jamie McMurray in the season standings. His only consolation was watching teammate Joey Logano qualify for his first Chase and give Roger Penske a chance to repeat as a championship owner.
Brad's season shows just how important getting a win when you can is in today's NASCAR. He had several real opportunities early in the season but chose to points-race instead and post solid finishes. The most obvious example came at Watkins Glen just a few weeks ago. Keselowski had the opportunity to move Kyle Busch out of the way and win the race. Instead, he decided to play it safe and brought his car home second. Many analysts hailed the move at the time, saying how it showed a more mature Keselowski who knew what was necessary to become a champion.
The problem is that to win a championship first you must win races. Ryan Newman posted one victory over 26 races and was dragged down by his failure to finish races. Both Gordon and Keselowski failed to win a single race so far this year. While it's possible to make the Chase without wins (as three drivers did this season), a team must be near-perfect to pull it off. There can be no mistakes and there will be no mulligans. Bowyer's average finish this season is 12.3 with only two DNFs. Meanwhile, Gordon is at 15.5 with five DNFs. Their top five and top ten numbers are similar. The failure to finish is the real glaring difference between the two.
So there's no tears to cry for Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, or Ryan Newman. There was no elaborate conspiracy theory that kept them out NASCAR's playoffs. The actions by MWR drivers Bowyer and Brian Vickers at Richmond were just the final act in a season-long play of good but not good enough. Each had their opportunities in 2013 to win races and run for a championship. Each will likely have the opportunity to do again in 2014; Keselowski and Gordon with their present teams and Newman with an unknown (but speculated to be Richard Childress Racing) contender. Instead of blaming phantom spins and brake checks, each of these teams can look in the mirror to see why they missed the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.