Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Where Are The Lead Changes?

Jeff Owens looks back at Watkins Glen and believes NASCAR's increase in race winner points has intensified the excitement of the chase to the Chase. He cites the fact that several drivers overdrove their cars and spun out while in the general area of the leader and that Jeff Gordon spun out while leading with two to go; he also notes how Carl Edwards almost crashed on the final lap trying to catch Tony Stewart, and he cites some driver quotes to the effect that they were trying hard to win the race.

Owens notes how skepticism of this minor increase in race winner points - which is aimed at seeding of Chase contestants when the top twelve in points are reracked for the season's final ten races - began as soon as the change was announced and persisted as the season ran through one uncompetitive race after another. Owens' argument, however, begins falling apart when he calls the Watkins Glen GP "the most furious competition we have seen all season." Obviously Owens ignores the incredible war for the win in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona, a finish infinately more ferocious than anything that happened at Watkins Glen.

The points weren't particularly on the line, since the spread among the top twelve is for the most part too much of a chasm to matter. It is hard, however, to equate the varied spinouts of this Watkins Glen race with particularly great racing. If anything, they showed how useless road courses are to racing, since whenever someone drove hard they spun out.

But the key problem is really pretty simple - if they were really trying that hard, where were the lead changes?

By now of course it is undeniable that Winston Cup has been in a competitive funk for many years now, and Watkins Glen was just another Dead Lane Era race. The Jeff Owens article, though, comes amid recent weeks of rather public defensiveness by NASCAR about the quality of its competitive product, a defensiveness justified with continued slumps in ratings and attendence at Winston Cup races.

The increase in race winner points really affects nothing because all it does is seed the reracking of points for the playoffs and adds nothing to the actual point award for drivers; it does not make winning races relevent to the championship. And for all the rhetoric about wanting to win at Watkins Glen, all season long this minor increase in points hasn't done anything as far as the intensity of racing.

To live up to its billing, this points change would need to see racing like in the Firecracker 400 finish every week - the drivers would have to be fighting for the lead every race, lead change records would have to be threatened or broken, something that bhas not happened to any relevent degree since Bristol reached 41 lead changes in 1991. Ken Squier noted decades ago, "Lead changes tell the story of why this kind of racing provides the ultimate in competition." This remains as true today as back then, because lead changes are the only credible gauge of a race's competitiveness. And this increase in race winner points falls short yet again.

Talladega has regularly exceeded 40 lead changes every race in this decade; there is no reason why every other track can't do the same.

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