Banquet 400: Winning Isn't Everything?
by Christopher Harris
It's time for a change.
Three events into the Chase for the Championship, which I'll once again admit is a success story that I didn't see coming, and there's exactly one format adjustment I'd make. I'm not claiming I'm the first to think of it, but I'll bang the drum a little louder. (No, I'm not talking about fewer commercials, or side-by-side racing. That's needed even more, but corporate whore-mongering is what our sport does best.) Here's my latest stump: winning should count more.
As it is, the Chase is turning into a war of attrition. It doesn't matter if you win, as much as it matters if you don't finish 40th. And that's dumb.
NASCAR needs to award bonus points to an event's winner. It's really stupid that the first-place driver receives just 10 points more than the second-place finisher. And heck, if the second-place guy happens to lead the most laps, it's just a five-point margin. What incentive do teams have to really "go for it" in these 10 races? Shoot, did you hear Matt Kenseth after last Sunday's race in Dover? Kenseth was peeved because his crew chief told him to go for it, and they wound up running out of gas. And Kenseth's logic, while it seems backwards on its face, actually makes perfect sense: if the #17 team had simply come in for a splash of gas, gone to the tail end of the lead lap, and finished fifth, it would've been a better day than trying for the win, running out of fuel, and finishing 10th. The risk-reward ratio, in Kenseth's (correct) mind, wasn't worth the risk. Was he going to get so many more points if his fuel held on and he won the race? No. Finishing fifth with no risk would've been better.
And that's dumb. This is sports. Don't you want guys busting their humps to win, not massaging their humps to finish seventh?
Guys like Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and maybe even Jimmie Johnson have one bad race (okay, Busch has had two), and they're done? There's no way for them to make a Hail Mary and somehow, surprisingly get back in this thing? What that makes drivers do is race not to lose. If they were rewarded handsomely in the standings for winning, they'd be rewarded, y'know, for winning. Heck the whole original idea behind the Chase was to take drivers who, by the letter of the law, were "out of it," and give them new life in a "playoff" system by smooshing the points back close together again. Wouldn't giving a points incentive for wins do the same thing?
Last Week: Mea culpa. I never did get a head-to-head selection online in time for it to be of any use to you, the reader, and so I had only my straight-up picks to fall back on. Kenseth had the best car, and I had him as my #1 pick, but he ran out of gas at Dover, so Jeff Burton won the race. I, uh, didn't have him. So that's a losing week, our first in two months. We lose 0.5 of a unit (three bets of 1/6th of a unit), which brings us down to a positive net 18.77 units on the season. We've still won you money in 19 of 27 events.
Note: Please come back late Saturday or early Sunday when we'll post our head-to-head selection of the week. We'll do it when the online books post their head-to-head odds. We promise.
Take Matt Kenseth (6-1), 1/6th unit. I think Kenseth is as close to a lock to win a race as you can get with 43 cars starting at a track where he's never won. In my mind, everything is in alignment. First, he's peeved because of the happenings at Dover last week. Next, he's peeved about not winning at Chicagoland this summer, when Jeff Gordon (8-1) bumped him aside; Chicagoland is a rough parallel to this weekend's race in Kansas in terms of track-style. In addition, Kenseth was excellent on the two-milers in California and Michigan (he won two of the four races at those venues), which are some others that give good indications about Kansas performance. Finally, he was excellent at the Kansas race last year, when he finished fifth (and three of his Roush teammates finished ahead of him). All in all, despite the fact that he's still close to the points lead and has incentive to take it relatively cautiously, I think Kenseth wins this week.
Take Kasey Kahne (7-1), 1/6th unit. And if it ain't Milwaukee Matt, maybe it's California Kasey. (Okay, Kahne is from Washington State, but to me, he oozes Cali). Kahne was fastest in the Friday practice session and also won the pole for Sunday. Like Kenseth, he won at both California and Michigan this year, and finished fourth in the two events he didn't win at those venues. He didn't perform well at Chicagoland (22nd), but I saw a statistic on NASCAR.com this week: he's completed the most green-flag passes at Kansas of any other driver. That's good enough for me, and only a completely amazing string of wins is going to get the ninth-place Kahne back in the Chase mix, so he's got incentive to go for the gusto.
Take Dale Earnhardt Jr. (15-1), 1/6th unit. Junior has had a really great season at Michigan, California and Chicagoland, but it hasn't translated to any wins; he hasn't been a great downforce-track driver over his career, but things really do seem to be turning around for him in that respect. The truth of that matter is that I thought hard about putting Jeff Gordon in this slot, but I felt about the same about Junior and Gordon (this year each has roughly a sixth-place finishing average at the three tracks I just mentioned), but I can get Earnhardt at double the odds, so I'm going with him. Junior qualified 12th, right outside Gordon, who qualified 11th. The rub here is that it seems to me Junior, as much as any other driver, is trying to finish fifth in all these races, rather than win them, because he's got a championship on his mind. But I'm still picking him, because when Junior gets a car locked in, he can't help himself, and if that happens on Sunday, he'll go to the front and stay there. These are really nice odds for a guy who I think will at least have a top-five car.
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