Sunday, September 7, 2014

OPINION: As Chase begins, NASCAR’s police work not yet over

Jimmy Insolo's backup car he drove for Bobby Allison, 1983
SOURCE: Scott Baker, www.bakerracingpix.com
When the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship begins next Sunday in Joliet, I am concerned that Chase teams will be tempted to manipulate the outcome through their technical alliances.  And I believe that manipulation will be evident in who finishes at the bottom of the field - and when they fall out of the race.

In NASCAR’s past, championship-eligible teams have entered backup cars in the season finale in order to make sure their driver had a car that would start on race day.  One of the earliest examples I’ve found was in 1983.  That year, Bobby Allison was gunning for his first-ever Winston Cup, having come close several times before.  At the mechanically-demanding road course in Riverside, California, his DiGard Racing team entered a second car to be driven by west coast driver Jimmy Insolo.  If Allison’s #22 Buick didn’t start, he was to jump into Insolo’s car with a “1” decal hastily applied to resemble a “12.”  Fortunately, Allison’s car did start, and he went on to claim his only season title.  Insolo, meanwhile, parked after just one lap, ending his 29th and final series start.

Richard Childress used the same strategy in 1993, having the late Neil Bonnett qualify a #31 Chevrolet for his close friend Dale Earnhardt.  Two years later, Rick Hendrick did the same to help Jeff Gordon win his first title, putting Jeff Purvis in a car that ended up actually finishing better than Gordon did that day.  And, more infamously, it was used by Jim Smith in the Truck Series finale at Homestead in 2003, much to the disgust of Brendan Gaughan.

This year, there’s a new championship format, and with it the chance that backup cars will again play a role.

I believe this strategy is all but certain to be used in the season finale at Homestead.  With the finishing order of one race determining which of four drivers will win the championship, it only makes sense that each team would ensure their backup car was in the field as well.  This is because the three alternatives are equally undesirable: (1) lose laps working on the car and any chance of racing the other three contenders, (2) frantically buy someone else’s ride in an unproven or underperforming car at the last minute, or (3) rely on NASCAR to make an “except in rare instances” waiver like in the 2001 All-Star Race.  Instead, like Allison, Gordon and Earnhardt, all four drivers can control their destiny, knowing they have another car they can run in case theirs doesn’t start.

It would be very easy for any of these teams to qualify backups.  First, NASCAR’s cap on the number of cars a team can enter has increased the number and depth of technical alliances, meaning that a single Chase team can potentially control several satellite teams.  Second, in 10 of the 26 Cup races run so far, 43 or fewer cars attempted to qualify.  This means that a backup Chase car has few backmarkers to contest for qualifying spots.  Third, a number of teams at the back of the field lack speed in qualifying and finish laps down in the race.  Again, this will work to the Chase teams’ advantage as their cars are more likely to run consistently-fast laps in NASCAR’s new qualifying format.

Whether or not these backup cars will continue to run after the primaries start up is unclear, and in reality, irrelevant.  The finishing position at Homestead - not the number of DNFs - will control who wins the title.  Once the primary car starts, the backup has served its purpose.

However, in the other nine Chase races, fans and officials alike should be very wary of teams using this exact same strategy to avoid elimination in the first three rounds.

NASCAR’s new bracket system has created four championship races in place of one, meaning that the sanctioning body will have to be even more vigilant than usual.  In each of these races, all of the Chase teams will be in the same position as Earnhardt in 1993, always keeping one eye on the back of the field to make sure they’re safe.  This is because, unlike Homestead, the number of DNFs will play a factor in how many points the title contenders can earn - or lose - in each race.  And that number can be easily manipulated.

Since 2009, the worst a Chase driver could finish was around the 39th spot as a handful of “start-and-park” teams left races early on a weekly basis, regularly filling spots 40th-43rd.  However, this year, few teams are employing the “start-and-park” model, and those that do only do so part-time.  This has resulted in 23 different drivers finishing last in the first 26 races for 22 different teams.  Chase drivers A.J. Allmendinger, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Denny Hamlin have all finished last in 2014, earning the fewest points possible.  A similar result in the Chase with, at most, two races to make it up, could prove disastrous.

Because of this, Chase teams may be tempted to enter backup cars in the other nine races and choose the moment they park - if at all - to score additional points.  This can be done defensively, such as parking a backup car at the very beginning before trouble strikes, or right when the Chase driver has an issue to keep the driver falling that one extra spot.  It can also be done offensively, holding off the parking of the car until after a Chase rival falls out, creating a 2-point gap in case disaster strikes their own car.  Using this strategy would also raise the points floor back to 2009 levels by populating the final few positions with “start-and-park” teams, keeping the Chase team from ever being in a position where they would finish last.

And, when it is done, it will be noticeable.  But only if NASCAR is willing to police it.

Using this strategy before Homestead flies in the face of the “100% rule” and all else that occurred in the aftermath of Michael Waltrip Racing’s alleged manipulation at Richmond last year.  It reduces the chance of sudden reversals of fortune that distinguish auto racing from other sports.  It also creates the possibility of a bidding war between teams who are essentially buying points by entering additional cars.  Some may be able to afford to enter more cars than others, giving them more influence in determining the final finishing order.  Others may resort to manipulating their technical alliances, working out arrangements with satellite teams to park their cars at opportune moments.  And underfunded teams bumped out of Chase race fields by backup cars could lose the valuable purse money they need to survive.

So, when the Chase begins, take a moment to glance down at the bottom of the running order.  Not just because there’s a good LASTCAR championship battle - but because that will be where the battle for the real trophy is being waged.

1 comment:

Alex Levitt said...

Here's the thing though, there would actually have to be more cars than necessary, making the process complicated. The owner of the equipment also owns the backup, so say Hendrick wanted to give Gordon an insurance car with Harry Scott Motorsports, the car would have to already be with HScott, and Gordon would have to have his own #24 backup. The only scenario in which I see it happening is if a team runs less than four cars, and adds a third or fourth, like maybe Penske running the 12 or Gibbs running the 19