Fans have stopped booing Jeff Gordon.
They know he’s getting a raw deal. Gordon, in fairness, should be the favorite for the Nextel Cup. Instead, fans are faced with a real possibility that Clint Bowyer could be the next Nextel Cup champion.
Wouldn’t that be absurd?
After winning last week’s Nextel Cup race in New Hampshire, his first Cup win this season, Bowyer is in fourth place in driver’s points, a mere 15 points behind Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson, who are tied for the points lead, and only 5 points behind Tony Stewart, who is in third. All three of those drivers are past Cup champions, as are Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, who are seventh and twelfth, respectively. Bowyer leads fifth place driver Kyle Busch by 20 points.
“I think it just proves that anybody in the top 12 can win this championship," said Gordon after the race. He is, of course, correct: that is precisely what NASCAR had in mind when it created the Chase concept. The purpose of the Chase was to reset the field so that the last races of the season would maintain fan interest at a time when other sports, particularly football, were pulling viewers away from NASCAR races.
But, Gordon was leading by 317 points before the Chase reset the points and dropped his lead to five, a cut of 312 points. He has won four races so far in the season. There is simply no way that Bowyer could win the Championship, were it not for erasing all but 5 of Gordon’s points.
There is simply no room for considering this fair. This is not a case of “may the best man win.” It’s a case of cooking the books to get the result that NASCAR wants, or thinks it wants.
Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty share the record for the most NASCAR Cup championships, at seven. But Petty won several of his championships during the period in the 1960’s that the Chrysler Hemi was the dominant motor in NASCAR and Petty Enterprises was Chrysler’s top team. Only a handful of other teams could compete with Petty’s team. Earnhardt, while not having the equipment advantage enjoyed by “The King,” also won his championships in an era when the depth of the competitive field was much less than it is today.
Jeff Gordon, on the other hand, could have been the driver that would have matched the Petty and Earnhardt record, or even broke it. He has won four Cup championships, all under the same points system that applied to Petty and Earnhardt. Had the points system not been changed to create the Chase, Gordon would have been the 2004 Cup champion, as well. It appears likely that, but for the Chase, he’d be the 2007 Champion, too. That would put him at six. Breaking the record would be a realistic possibility.
Instead, we could have Clint Bowyer as Champion, with one race win.
Wasn’t the Chase supposed to prevent that?
The Chase was invented because Matt Kenseth gamed the system to win the Championship in 2003, but won only one race the entire season. Kenseth lead in points almost the entire season that year, and locked up the title with one race remaining. (Though he claimed that he was trying to win races, anyone listening to him on a scanner during that season knows better. At the Brickyard 400, Kenseth and his crew chief, Robbie Reiser, got into a heated exchange over the radio during the race over pit strategy. Reiser favored a strategy that gave them a shot at the win. Kenseth wanted a different strategy, one that would guarantee a top five and assure him of points.)
So, Kenseth won the Cup in 2003.
But Ryan Newman won the most races in 2003: seven. He finished sixth in points, 311 behind Kenseth.
NASCAR changed the system. They changed it again in 2004, to add 5 more points to the number awarded for winning. They gave winning an additional 5 points when they changed the rules before the current season to expand the Chase to twelve drivers from ten.
The Chase has actually made it easier to game the system than it was when Kenseth did it in 2003. Resetting the points when the Chase starts means that a driver doesn’t have to be quite as consistent and have quite as many top-ten finishes as he would have needed in 2003. He can squeak in by being twelfth and have a shot at the Championship. Under the old system, he’d have needed to be closer to the points leader, because he would have needed to make up the points difference. That problem, however, has been eliminated by NASCAR.
All for the sake of entertainment.
NASCAR is one click of the television remote away from being irrelevant. NASCAR grew because it became fashionable. It can shrink just as quickly if it becomes passé.
NASCAR’s fans are loyal, vocal, opinionated, and exceptionally knowledgeable. They’re not fools.
The people that buy the tickets pay for them with money they earn. They don’t clip bond coupons. They get for what they give and believe that if they give more, they’ll get more. They are, in essence, the people that believe in the fundamental American tradition.
There is nothing more fundamental in the American tradition than fairness. Americans have always believed that “be fair” is the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Ten Commandments.
No driver currently behind the wheel is owed more by NASCAR than Jeff Gordon.
He deserves to win the Championship by being the best.
If NASCAR is lucky, Gordon will win it anyway.
But if Bowyer wins the Championship, fans will turn off. They will turn off the television. They will turn off the entire concept of NASCAR.
Because, if Bowyer wins the Championship, it won’t be about racing.
And if it isn’t racing, why bother?
Fans have stopped booing Jeff Gordon.
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