Fightin', Fingers and the Chase
A wild weekend, a successful playoff
By: Matt Taliaferro | 11/11/10, 2:14 PM EST
It seems each season there is one Chase event that throws us numerous curveballs, whether it’s points implications, controversial finishes, paybacks or penalties (Talladega and Kansas come to mind). Needless to say, Sunday’s Texas event was that race in 2010.
And if the fingers, fights, firings and point-swappings don’t spur television ratings — I don’t look for a marked up-tick in attendance — I don’t know what will ... short of an NFL work stoppage, of course.
Controversy No. 1: Kyle’s Fickle Finger of Fate
An ESPN in-car camera caught Kyle Busch flipping off a NASCAR official while sitting on pit road after being penalized a lap for speeding off the pit lane in an attempt to beat the pace car.
Was it immature and disrespectful? Sure. Was it worth an additional two-lap penalty? Not in my opinion. Fine him if you must (NASCAR did hit Busch for 25K on Tuesday), but his actions — non-physical actions, at that — were not directed toward a competitor and in no way affected the actual race.
I’m convinced that Kyle showing his posterior by way of middle finger would not have drawn a penalty had the ESPN camera not picked it up and then stayed with the shot for a good five seconds. NASCAR doesn’t like to be shown up, and when Kyle told America what he thought of the sanctioning body via bird, he was done for.
Again, nail him with a fine — I’d go $100,000 to make the point — but don’t give me this "unsportsmanlike conduct" crap if you’re not going to penalize every driver throughout the field for it whether TV points it out it or not.
Kyle was about to be out-trended on the internet when Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon went for a wild and destructive ride as a caution was displayed. Apparently Gordon was displeased with Burton and made his feelings known earlier in the lap. Burton claims he was in the process of pulling up alongside Gordon once the caution came out to give him a "Sorry, bud" –type gesture.
What happened instead brought the crowd at Texas — and many at home — to their feet. The two cars hooked together and slammed the outside wall, thoroughly destroying the machines.
A scuffle ensued, when Gordon approached Burton, but no actual fists were thrown (Rule No. 1: No hitting in the face! A thank God there was no kicking — kicking isn’t a manly go-to move unless you’re Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris). Gordon, of course, was PO’d that Burton wrecked him on purpose, saying the "I've been driving a race car long enough to know what your intentions are and I know what they were there."
I have to respectfully disagree with Four Time here. Burton could be heard over his in-car radio on the broadcast feed explaining to his crew what happened before the cars even came to rest. He’s also got a lengthy track record of clean driving. Well, as clean as your going to get in a professional motorsports series that require fenders.
I don’t blame Gordon for looking for a scrap, though. Neither did Burton, as he said later. And apparently, neither did NASCAR, as the sanctioning body gave a de facto "no harm, no foul" opinion in the media while undoubtedly high-fiving up in the control tower.
The lesson learned: Fightins’ OK, flippins’ not. At least when the flip is directed at someone in a NASCAR uniform. And caught on camera.
Oh, but they weren’t done yet
With the 24 car on a rollback and its driver headed for the helipad, Chad Knaus — no stranger to upstaging dramatic moments — drafted Gordon’s suddenly bored pit crew into service. Knaus’ boys on the 48 team had flubbed a couple stops earlier in the race, and when the superior (in-house) group became available, Knaus grabbed them.
The move sparked a flurry of opinions orbiting around whether the head coach of a four-time championship-winning team makes that move this late in the season and, perhaps most surprisingly, in the middle of a race.
The answer is yes, of course he does.
His only goal at this point of the season is to do everything in his power (legally, ahem) to win the championship for his driver, Jimmie Johnson, and his boss, team owner Rick Hendrick. If his current team is costing his driver three, four or five spots on the track each stop, you’re darn right you yank ‘em out of there and replace them with the best over-the-wall crew in the organization. After all, three spots on the track could make for a nine-point difference in the championship standings.
Crewmen at Hendrick Motorsports, and most any top-tier organization, are one step above hired guns. Yeah, they have seasonal contracts, so don’t confuse them with geeks off the street, but their sole role in a race team’s weekly exercise is to pit the car. They’re not building, engineering or setting up the machine. They fly in on Sunday morning, jump over the wall for three hours during the race pitting the car, and fly back Sunday night.
Sure, pit crews can win or lose races for a team, but let’s not confuse their working relationship with the driver with the starting five for the Boston Celtics. Chemistry is important, but only as it pertains to the seven men jumping over the wall. They can find what’s missing while pitting the 24 car and Johnson won’t know the difference (except that he won’t have to pass as many cars after a pit stop).
And finally ...
If NASCAR CEO Brian France needed any reason to not tweak the Chase for the Championship format, this season’s edition is giving it to him.
France says he wants "playoff-type moments that only can be, in any sport, created when there's a lot on the line at any one moment. That's what the essence of Game 7s, eliminations, and all that are." He reckons he can achieve (read: engineer) more of these moments by making what would be a third format change to NASCAR’s championship parameters in eight years. And the ideas he has — more participants in the Chase, elimination-style formats and multiple point-resets — will only degrade the legitimacy of the championship further.
The sad reality here is that France, as the head of a major sports league, fails to understand what the fans know to be true: What makes a "Game 7 moment" so memorable, so beautiful, is that it happens naturally and sparingly. If every basketball game came down to a buzzer beater and every football game a Hail Mary, the drama would be lost over time. The unexpected would be expected. And how do you top that?
The same can be applied to NASCAR, where everyone looks forward to races like Darlington ’03, but realize part of ìthe momentî is in the fact we were lucky enough to see it live, as it played out. And that it in no way was orchestrated.
Unfortunately, France has neither the vision nor the patience to let pure competition and an escape from corporate bottom-line thinking rule the day.
"What we’re talking about is enhancing it in a way that will bring out more of the winning moments, the big moments that happen in sports," he continued. "And if there’s a way we can do that, and there are a couple of ways, we’re going to give that a lot of weight."
Maybe Carl Edwards summed this up best. By cutting away the fat and deducing the logic for not jimmying with the system any further, Edwards commented that, "I think if you change things over and over — and this is just my opinion — but if you constantly change things, then it makes it harder to believe in and feel comfortable with."
Thank you, Carl.
Are you listening, Brian?
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro
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