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The Race That Left People Laughing At NASCAR

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Farce (n). A light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather than upon the development of character.

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Sport (n). An athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.

Have trouble telling these two words apart? NASCAR, for all intents and purposes has been a sport since 1949, one I’ve been lucky to cover for a living at least part-time since 2006. But their Sprint Cup event I watched on Sunday, disguised as a 500-mile competitive “race?” That was the total definition of “farce.”

A light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation…

Kevin Harvick, the sport’s reigning champion knew he was in trouble. Heading to a green-white-checkered finish his No. 4 Chevrolet had an ailing engine and would never come up to full speed on a restart. Just a few moments earlier he had pulled out of the way to let the field go by, but a wreck before the green flag even came out “froze the field” and kept Harvick restarting midpack. That extra time allowed the team to realize an ugly truth; once Harvick pulled out of line, crucial positions would be lost and the points he would need to advance to the next round of NASCAR’s “playoff” would slip away.

“Hopefully, they wreck right past the start/finish line,” crew chief Rodney Childers said on the radio. “If not, we’ll be out.”

So Harvick, as the cars came up to speed, became the epicenter of the very wreck that would save his Chase chances. Failing to come up to speed, competitor Trevor Baynewas passing him on the right when Harvick turned hard right into Bayne, spinning out the No. 6 car and causing a multi-car crash that ended the race. It was the equivalent to a wide receiver blatantly elbowing five defenders in the end zone, knocking them all to the ground and then catching the Hail Mary pass to win the game without getting called for pass interference. (Let’s add in the P.S. that all five guys wind up missing the next game, too; Harvick’s incident totaled several cars and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage).

NASCAR has had to live with the aftermath since. Several drivers, including fellow competitors Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, and Matt Kenseth — all of whom were eliminated from title contention on Sunday — called the wreck intentional.

“What a joke, we have a car with no motor wreck the field to end the race. Complete crap,” Hamlin tweeted in a reaction that’s might have drawn a private NASCAR fine. “Sorry to anyone who spent $ coming to this circus.”

A circus-like atmosphere is what it felt like, advancing to the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs reduced to running the lotto machine and seeing what numbers came out. As much as Harvick and his team have defended the move — officials have only circumstantial evidence, nothing hard so no penalties have been issued — it’s impossible to ignore what millions heard and saw on television.

“From my perspective, I’m not gonna throw stones because I don’t believe that’s probably the right thing to do,” Harvick said Tuesday. “And I never really saw the No. 6 car until he was by me and doing what he was doing.

“It was just one of those situations where you can’t stop [and pull off the track with a sour engine]. You have to continue to try and let it [all] play out.”

"He's trying to get out of the way, but not lose too many spots — it's easy," Childers added.  "We're not the ones that invented this (expletive)."

That swear, of course refers to NASCAR’s 10-race playoff system that has endured multiple changes and continual criticism over its 12-year existence. NASCAR CEO Brian France harps on the “Game 7” moments the playoff creates, including a “final four” season finale at Homestead where the four remaining drivers in the “elimination” format have a “winner-take-all” battle for the trophy. But the way in which the drivers have been cut down — multi-race winners Jimmie Johnson and Kensethhave already been eliminated — has left a sour taste for many and made it difficult to explain the system to new fans.

“What all my friends don’t understand is you still go race, the playoffs are over and you lost in the playoffs but you’re still racing,” said Harvick, referring to the fact Kenseth and Johnson still start the remaining races on the schedule — the Chase reduces title contenders from 16 to four by Homestead while others compete for the win within a 43-car grid. “I don’t understand, you’re the loser... how do you keep going?”

That’s the reigning champion explaining how his own friends are confused by the system, folks. It’s one where Harvick is put in a position where manipulating the finish is his only option despite having a dominant season where he’s led almost twice as many laps (2,056) as anyone else in the series this year. It’s a playoff where Johnson, after four race wins, drops out because of a $5 part that leads to a 42nd-place finish at Dover. Where Kenseth, a five-time victor entered Talladega in a “must-win” situation to advance (he didn’t) because rival Joey Loganowrecked him while battling for the win the week before.

Some call this format exciting. Others, most importantly the drivers themselves, seem ready to rebel which leads to the second part of that farce definition — …rather than upon the development of character.

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Nothing about this playoff system is developing “character” for anybody. You’ve got people questioning the integrity of the sport, drivers threatening behind the scenes to flat out wreck each other at Martinsville Sunday for “payback,” and NASCAR fans themselves simply walking away.

Facts prove it. The rating for Talladega in 2003, the year before the first round of the sport’s Chase system pulled a 5.5, the highest ever in competition with the NFL at the time. Sunday’s race? It earned a 2.6 on NBCSN, meaning the sport’s TV audience has been cut in half by comparison in this, the 12th year A.C. (After Chase). Football, meanwhile continues to cruise with ratings anywhere from 7.8 to 15.0 on the Nielsen scale depending on what game you’re looking at. Television audiences for MLB, NHL and the NBA are up for their respective postseason competitions; you can’t say the same for NASCAR’s farce.

People have been batting around solutions all week, ranging from eliminating Talladega off NASCAR’s postseason schedule (due to its unpredictable, random nature) to taking Harvick out of the Chase because of Sunday’s incident. Neither will happen; Talladega is still one of the most-watched races all year and there will be no “smoking gun” of hard evidence that will convict Harvick, a major difference compared to the Clint Bowyer “Spingate” incident that caused NASCAR to add a driver to the Chase field in 2013 when it was proven a race team intentionally manipulated the finish.

No, instead NASCAR will keep moving on with the status quo; the dilution of half its audience has not been enough to get it to abandon the idea of a postseason system. The impending departure of title sponsor Sprint hasn’t done the trick. No new owners attempting to enter the sport at the Cup level for the past several years (and sticking) have done the trick. Drivers at their wits’ end about racing at the artificial competition, restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega haven’t got them paying attention. I don’t know what it’s going to take.

All I can tell you is that as the owner of a NASCAR business and someone who has built a career in this sport, who still makes money in it and remains blessed to cover it, I’ve never been more concerned and nervous about its long-term viability. You know what I would tell a potential teenager looking to get involved in NASCAR right now? Find a career elsewhere because I’m not sure you’ll have one here in 10 years.

It’s the most disturbing reality of all. I hope more people speak up and utter their true fears because that’s the only way real change will come to a sport I saw hit rock bottom Sunday.

Let’s try and take a quick look at the next round of NASCAR’s postseason, as difficult as it is for many to put Sunday in the rear-view mirror...

FIRST GEAR: Martinsville Mayhem?

Kenseth is mad at Logano. Several drivers are angry at Harvick. Kenseth is mad at Ryan Newman. Harvick is mad at Jimmie Johnson. The list goes on...

Tempers are flaring at a time when “payback” could come at NASCAR’s shortest and slowest track, Martinsville Speedway. It’s a place people feel they can spin someone out, evening the score without risking serious injury to their rival. The goal is to get even, leaving the victim with a 40th-place finish and hopefully thinking twice about making contact with them ever again.

In the past, that’s been a healthy part of short track racing. Is it healthy now for a sport that’s already reeling from a debacle of a finish? That’s debatable. However, I’ll be shocked if we don’t see at least one of these off-track feuds make their way onto it this Sunday.

SECOND GEAR: Superstar Status for Logano

Lost in the shuffle of Sunday is Logano’s third straight victory in this Chase, the first time in NASCAR’s new format a driver has been able to sweep a round from start to finish. Logano now has six victories on the year, a career and season high and would have all but clinched the series title under the non-playoff format (his lead over Harvick would stand at 49, over a full race’s worth of points).

Can the driver once nicknamed “Sliced Bread” slice his way through the competition and close the deal this time? Heading into the playoffs, Harvick was the favorite on the heels of a dominant regular season but now you have to switch that label to Logano. The No. 22 team has avoided the mistakes of Harvick’s No. 4 and appears tight-knit and focused on the task at hand. Even a spin at Martinsville at the hands of Kenseth shouldn’t deter them from the next round and at this point the Chase is theirs to lose.

THIRD GEAR: Ugly Endings for Underdogs

Talladega is usually a chance for the small teams to shine, restrictor plates putting even the most underfunded operation in play for an unexpected victory.

That didn’t happen Sunday. A combination of long green-flag runs and trip-ups for a few expected “dark horses” left no major surprises inside the top 10. Ryan Blaney had his engine blow for the Wood Brothers while running near the front; Michael McDowell had a pit road penalty and then wound up wrecked by the Harvick incident in the final two laps. The end result was a missed opportunity for many during a crucial fundraising time for next year; a good finish could have made the difference on a potential sponsor for a guy like Blaney to run the full season in 2016.   

FOURTH GEAR: A Surprise Chase Winner?

A quick look at the Chase’s final eight reveals a few drivers that could be unexpected champions. Kurt Busch was under suspension for the first three races of 2016; brother Kyle missed the first 11 due to injury. Jeff Gordon, in the midst of his final season of Cup racing, has advanced to the final eight without a victory.

With that trio making up 37.5 percent of the eight-driver field chances are high at least one makes the final four at Homestead. Will the fans accept their unconventional title bid as it edges closer to reality? That’s the next hurdle in a long list NASCAR has faced as of late.

OVERDRIVE

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. ran ninth for a Roush Fenway Racing organization looking a bit better as of late. Two top 10s in the last four races seems to have quieted rumors Stenhouse will be out of the No. 17 Ford following the season... FOX Sports commentator Michael Waltrip ran a competitive 13th and still plans to run the restrictor plate races in 2016. The co-op effort with Premium Motorsports will probably be where that happens once Michael Waltrip Racing officially shuts down in April 2016.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Photos by ASP Inc.