By Matt Crossman
There is an old joke about a kid in pre-school in North Carolina. The teacher asks him to count. He says, "one, two, Earnhardt, four, five..." Now that joke has to be updated, because only in NASCAR can counting to 12 end at 13.
The last week has been one of the most fascinating in the history of NASCAR. Everything that makes the sport great has been on full display: furious racing, a wild finish, anger, frustration, bitterness, sorrow, confusion, joy. But enough about Jeff Gordon.
At the end of the regular season, which was only last Saturday but seems like ages ago, Gordon was the first driver who did not qualify for the 12-man Chase For the Sprint Cup. The final race was so controversial -- three Michael Waltrip Racing drivers were docked 50 points apiece for manipulating the outcome and two other teams were cited for cutting a deal so one driver could pass another -- that NASCAR chairman Brian France decided it was only fair to give Gordon a freebie. Gordon is now the 13th driver in a 12-man field, France's idea being Gordon would have made it if all that had never happened.
Fans are mad, media are mad, drivers are mad and owners are mad. Their voices growl like a throttle pushed to the floor. Their pitchforks shine like buffed hubcaps. Their emotions rise and fall like a tachometer at a road course.
The season's final 10 races will create the most controversial championship battle in NASCAR history, as four drivers (Gordon, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer) enter the Chase under sketchy circumstances. If any of those guys wins the championship, his name would have an asterisk beside it, especially if NASCAR finds a corporate sponsor for it.
The impact of the last week will go far beyond this season. The Chase, how drivers race each other, and how NASCAR monitors competition are all ripe to change.
Or -- and this is key -- this being NASCAR, nothing will change. We asked three racing legends to weigh in on the excitement of the last week.
Thing that should change but won't:
The Chase has become way too important, at least in the eyes of primary sponsors.
Perspective from Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett: "(The Chase) is good for the sport. It puts a lot of pressure on the drivers -- I would guess that's what NASCAR intended. It inspires people to do stuff they wouldn't ordinarily do."
This is the 10th year of the Chase and the fact it has made NASCAR more exciting is indisputable. But the pressure to qualify for the Chase has pushed drivers and teams over the edge of common sense.
Consider Brian Vickers, who drives for Michael Waltrip Racing. He pulled off of the racetrack late in the race last Saturday, thus costing himself multiple positions in order to benefit his teammate, Martin Truex Jr. That is the exact opposite of competition. Not only did Vickers intentionally finish worse than he could have, he wrote an impassioned defense of that practice in USA Today.
NASCAR's greatness is built on the idea that drivers would run their grandmothers into the fence for a win. Now drivers see no problem in getting out of the way so their friend can finish better. Not to put to fine a point on it, but who in the world wants to watch that?
Thing that should change and will:
Teammates won't be able to help each other so much.
Perspective from Hall of Famer Bobby Allison: "I never was a big fan of multi-car teams. I always thought it would be a good idea for NASCAR to charge $50,000 for a license. And for each other car, add a zero to the end. The second car would be $500,000. The third car would be $5,000,000. The fourth would be $50,000,000. NASCAR could use that money to fund (underfunded teams)."
The addition of Gordon brings to four the number of Hendrick Motorsports drivers in the Chase. Ryan Newman drives cars owned by Stewart-Haas Racing but made by Hendrick Motorsports. Call him a half-teammate of the Hendrick guys. Kurt Busch is the only driver from a single-car team to make the Chase-ever-and he is a half-teammate to Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick.
A single-car team without a technological alliance can't compete because the expertise and manpower required to make a car go fast are too expensive. For the foreseeable future, that won't change. But NASCAR's massive fines and penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing will have far-reaching and long-lasting impact. Nobody will try anything like what MWR did again. That's NASCAR's hope, at least.
Teammates didn't used to work nearly so well together. Dale Earnhardt didn't like having teammates because he was the Man in Black and the Intimidator and a seven-time champion and there was no way on God's black asphalt he was going to let Mike Skinner lead a lap to get bonus points just because the same man signed both of their paychecks. As recently as a few years ago, fellow drivers at Roush Racing didn't much like teammate Carl Edwards. They called him "The Carl," and Edwards returned the non-love, once feigning a punch at Matt Kenseth after a race.
The economic realities of the sport demand that multi-car teams exist. It would be better if the drivers of those cars didn't like each other quite so much. NASCAR officials can't make a rule mandating that, but they can-and from now on say they will-penalize such blatant public displays of affection.
Vickers made a salient point in his USA Today piece: There was no rule against doing bad on purpose to help his teammates. It says something about the state of the sport that there needs to be one.
Thing that should change and will a little but not entirely:
NASCAR needs a better rulebook and more consistent enforcement.
Perspective from Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace: "I don't think I've ever seen as much change as NASCAR has to do and is going to do. I don't know if I've ever seen Brian France as pissed off as he was. I personally don't have a problem with it. This is an unprecedented day. Whether you agree or disagree, we all feel that what he's doing is something that needed to be done."
The sport promised to crack down on the manipulation that marred the Richmond race. Only NASCAR would pledge to strictly enforce rules on Saturday when its very chairman made one up on Friday.
Another rule tweak that could gain traction from all of this: Over the years, some drivers have said that Chase drivers should have a separate points system-relative to each other, not to the whole field. That would largely prevent what happened at Richmond from happening in the postseason.
Still, as much grief as NASCAR gets for the inconsistent way it polices its sandbox, the sport's blindfolded dart-thrower approach to rules and enforcement is part of its charm. And there's no such thing as a rule that teams won't exploit or try to get around.
NASCAR teams break rules all the time but would never admit such a thing. They swear they walk up to the line and never cross it. Or they deny the line is even there, finding gray in rules any neutral observer would consider black and white. Even the length of races is open - for example, only one of the last five Daytona 500s was actually 500 miles.
All of this makes teams and drivers behave like kids chasing the water as a sprinkler rolls back and forth. They swear they won't get wet. They follow the water... right up to the edge, but not in, then dash back, over and over again. And so here we are, gaping at a handful of drivers soaking wet, all of whom bow before the altar of Our Lady of the Checkered Flag and swear that they are dry.