Is NASCAR a Team Sport?

On Sunday, Kyle Busch (the younger brother of Kurt, NOT Kurt, for anyone reading this who does not know anything about NASCAR) won his third race of the season. It’s his third win in four races. You might think this puts Kyle Busch pretty high up in the points standings, but you’d be wrong about that — Kyle is currently 33rd in points.

OK. There’s an explanation for that — Busch missed the first part of the season after breaking his leg in a wreck at Daytona. Under the points system that existed before last season, Busch’s season would be over, but the new system says that a driver who attempts to race all the races, finishes top 30 in points, & wins a race (unless more than sixteen drivers do so) qualifies for the Chase, NASCAR’s playoff system. Busch was granted a medical waiver that made him eligible if he did the other two things, & he’s probably two or three races away from breaking into the top 30. Once the playoffs start, Busch will be right back in contention.

This has been the subject of some debate, but that’s not really the thing I want to talk about.

I’m not a fan of the Chase system — at least not the one that started last season. Under it, drivers are eliminated over the course of three rounds of three races, culminating in a championship race where the highest finishing of the four remaining drivers is awarded the championship. DOES ANYONE SEE A PROBLEM THERE? Forty-three drivers start each race, which means Homestead features four drivers running for a title & thirty-nine drivers running around in circles presenting obstacles for the drivers. Someone could dominate the season — Kevin Harvick is the current points leader & has seventeen top 10 finishes in nineteen races — & get spun on lap one of the championship race & then BOOM, season over. At the VERY least, expand the Chase to twelve races & make that championship race into a three race series, which would give us a better chance of getting the winner right. I could get behind that. It’d be fun.

Anyway, the title of this article. There are two different championships awarded in NASCAR, one for the driver & one for the car owner. In the minor leagues of NASCAR, the winners of these often differ — a car in which driving duties are split amongst Sprint Cup drivers dropping down for a race & rookies running the standalone events often have better results over the course of the season than drivers running the series full time. At the Sprint Cup level, though, these things are pretty much always the same. Since the Chase was instituted in 2004, there have not been any differences between ANY of the drivers in the Chase & the cars in the Chase.

There was a chance for that this year with Kyle Busch. Because Erik Jones, Matt Crafton, & David Ragan shared the 18 car during Busch’s absence, Busch’s win at Infineon qualified that car for the Owners Chase. If Busch had struggled the rest of the season, if he’d crashed out of a few races & his injuries had led to some inconsistency, we could have had that happen, & if Busch had then gone on a strong run during the Chase, qualified for the Owner’s Chase Finale, & then won at Homestead, the 18 car would have been the championship team, while (let’s say, for the sake of simplicity) Kevin Harvick was the driver’s champion.

This is all hypothetical, but I think we can figure out which championship would have been celebrated the most.

LOOK SEE THAT TOP TEN IS MORE FAIR THAN THE DRIVERS ONE.

Is NASCAR a team sport? In 2002, Sterling Marlin spent most of the season near the top of the points standings before an injury sidelined him for the last couple of months of the season. Jamie McMurray drove the 40 car. He won in his second start. Looking at the points standings will tell you that Marlin finished 18th in points & McMurray finished 46th & if the only place you go for your sports information (& I KNOW YOU DO) is Wikipedia, you’d never know that the 40 car ended up 8th in the standings.

The driver is the public face of the team. The driver’s championship is prioritized over the owner’s championship. The problem with this is that, while the driver is an EXTREMELY important part of the team, they aren’t the ONLY part, & sometimes it’s better for the team for the driver to NOT be out there at all costs.

The Chase has given a lot of teams hope that they can sneak a championship, or at least sneak a top 10 points finish at the end of the season. Because of this, teams are wary of switching out drivers. Pre-Chase, bigger teams (Chip Ganassi did it fairly often) would sometimes bring in experienced road racers to run at the road courses. Post-Chase, where a driver missing a race ruins your chances of making the Chase (that pesky rule about starting every race), this move has ceased existing,

That was my pet peeve reason, because who doesn’t want to see Boris Said or Ron Fellows in good equipment? Here’s the real reason that I think NASCAR should focus more on the “team” aspect of the sport than the “driver” aspect — injured drivers should not be putting themselves at risk by returning to their cars early. In the NFL, if a running back gets hurt, they don’t come back for the Superbowl with a broken leg just because there’s some rule about how your main starting running back has to play YES THIS ANALOGY IS FALLING APART I KNOW in order for you to win a championship. Kyle Busch came back from his broken leg & performed well, but what if the bones hadn’t healed as fast? What if he’d come back because he needed to in order to have time left to get into the Top 30 & by doing so had gotten hurt even worse?

The driver’s championship pre-2014 was simple — he’d sit out until he was ready because his chances of winning a championship were gone. In the world of the new Chase, though, things have changed. I think the medical waivers given to drivers are a good thing because we shouldn’t punish someone for getting hurt, but I can also understand the arguments that say “YOU CAN’T MISS TEN RACES & BE THE CHAMPION.” & yeah, there’s some truth to that — but if Kyle Busch wins the championship, you know what it means? That Joe Gibbs Racing has won the owner’s championship was well, something they would be qualified for even if Busch hadn’t gotten a medical waiver. This, I’m saying, is what should be deemed the most important thing — the team winning. It would give deserved recognition to all four drivers who piloted the M&M’s car & you wouldn’t have all the NASCAR purists yelling BUT HE MISSED SO MANY RACES (though, shit, you’d have them potentially yelling about how Kevin Harvick would have won the driver’s title if Kyle hadn’t been allowed in it & how Harvick was getting screwed & stuff).

Look, we’ll probably never see a driver’s champ & an owner’s champ that differ, not under the Chase’s current rules, so let’s just start making the owner’s title the one we care about — it’s going to be safer that way. While it won’t affect who takes home the championship trophy in probably every season between now & the end of NASCAR, because continuance is a HUGE thing, it would be important if we see another Marlin/McMurray situation — let’s say a driver is fifth in points & gets injured with three races left. In the Chase, that driver is DONE under the current system. Would’t it be better if, at the end of the season, we recognized the team as still being the fifth best team? If the point standings in 2002 had said “8th Place: #40, Chip Ganassi Racing, driven by Sterling Marlin & Jamie McMurrary.” Yes, I say. If Ky;e wins this year, I don’t want to celebrate just him — the three drivers who took over for him deserve credit as well. Problem: they won’t get it, at least not in the history book of Wikipedia.