For mid-January, there is actually quite a bit of racing news breaking lately. It comes as no surprise that Tony Stewart finds himself embroiled in yet another scuffle, but it is a welcome surprise that NASCAR is at least considering a change to its championship format.
First, the Stewart situation.
I must preface my remarks with the statement that I like Tony Stewart. I respect the man's talents and his determination. I appreciate that he supports grassroots racing. But for some reason, he continually finds himself in these situations - situations where he physically accosts someone. Whether it's slapping a tape recorder from a reporters hands or wrestling the radio headset off a track official's head, Stewart has crossed the line from fiery and opinionated to overly agressive and borderline criminal on numerous occasions.
The latest story has Stewart allegedly in a scuffle with an Australian race track owner after a heated discussion over track conditions. Stewart supposedly whacked the track owner, who apparently is a bit of a big fellow, with his helmet and the track owner returned the favor with a poke to the eye, leaving Stewart with a tell-tale shiner.
There will doubtlessly be thousands of words written and said about this incident as SpeedWeeks approaches. Every writer will want to break the story of what happened and get Stewart's quotes to puncuate the story. I'll read them with as much interest as anyone, this is a juicy story and there are still unanswered questions. To me the biggest part of the story is that Stewart finally pushed and someone pushed back. Imagine him knocking Mike Mulhern's tape recorder out of his hands and Mulhern responding by shoving Stewart between a couple of transporters and rapping him upside the head a couple of times.
Obviously NASCAR would outwardly frown on such shenanigans, but in reality it was only a matter of time before Stewart lashed out at someone and they lashed back.
The second big story is that NASCAR, after 35 years, is looking to replace the Latford System and totally revamping its point system.
Apparently the discussion among the sanctioning body and its teams centers on a system that awards race winners 43 points and descends all the way down to one point for finishing 43rd. There's talk of bonus points for winning, leading the most laps and winning the pole, but all of this at this point is pure speculation.
I'll say this: it's a start. In my last post, I called for the elimination of points determining the champion. Race winners from the first 35 races of the season would be automatically invited to the championship race, with a last chance race the day before locking in one more invitee. The final race of the year would pay a huge sum to win (like what the current champion earns) and would be named the overall series champion. You could also tweak it a little and say winners from the first 32 races of the year locked in and have a four-race "Chase" for the championship, but I think one race to decide it fits right into Brian France's "more Game Seven moments" edict.
One thing does need to be said about that as well: I appreciate France's desire to see more of those high-intensity moments in NASCAR. But those moments are not something you can create or manufacture by adding rules or manipulating competition. Those moments are rare, and that rarity is what makes them special. Alan Kulwicki's 1992 championship is special because it wasn't manipulated in any sense. Dale Earnhardt's final victory at Atlanta, a photo finish over Bobby Labonte, is special because over 500 miles Earnhardt managed to get to the line a millisecond before the competition. He didn't have a two-lap sprint to the finish after a late-race caution to artificially tighten the field.
The problem with manufacturing "Game Seven moments" is that once you artificially tighten the competition, those moments that were once dramatic lose any sense of excitement or value to the audience.
When the IndyCar Series was routinely racking up finishes that were decided by ten thousandths of a second at its 1.5-mile oval events, the first few were extraordinarily exciting. The next few were still exciting but the edge had been worn off. Then, it becomes expected and even when it happens it's not as exciting. And when it doesn't, well that entire race was a bore!
This sport is inherently exciting. Revamping the point system is a good thing, especially if it means drivers are out there racing hard to win more and running around to score points less. But manipulating the points and competition to create those Game Seven moments is a bad thing, and will eventually do more harm than good when those moments lose their luster and don't happen.