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Columns
Second Place
Bob Pockrass, SportingNews.com

1. NASCAR’s new Chase proposal just another gimmick

NASCAR wants to radically change its championship format. Again.

The NASCAR spin will try to convince everyone that a sport that stands still, that doesn’t change, is a sport that falls behind. The reality is that a sport that changes its fabric so often – beyond adding a team or two, the most successful sports rarely change their formats – is a desperate sport, an insecure sport trying to manufacture a recipe for excitement instead of organically relying on its natural flavor.

NASCAR officials are getting feedback from others in the industry as they seriously consider changing the format for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup. They are not refuting a Charlotte Observer report that the proposal would include a 16-driver Chase with four drivers being eliminated after the first three races, four more after the sixth Chase race, and four more after the ninth Chase race. Points would be reset after the ninth race. That would leave one final race with four drivers racing for the Cup championship.

Please let this just be one of those ideas that NASCAR floats for a couple of weeks before it makes a decision that in the end has no resemblance to the original proposal. Please, NASCAR fans, make your voices heard and hopefully NASCAR’s ability to track fan sentiment on social media will convince it that this idea would move NASCAR from professional sport to professional gimmickry.

The 10-race Chase currently features 12 drivers – the top 10 in points at the end of the 26-race regular season, plus two wild cards based on wins. NASCAR made an unprecedented move last year, however, adding Jeff Gordon as a 13th driver to the field after determining that Michael Waltrip Racing and possibly other teams tried to manipulate the final regular-season race to get its drivers into the Chase.

Talk about a proposal that would cheapen the sport’s championship. It would render totally worthless any comparison to previous championship races and formats. It would make the championship much like the Daytona 500 – a crapshoot. Maybe the winning driver isn’t great but that driver had a great day and things fell his or her way.

NASCAR already has its big one-race day, and now it wants to create a system that gives the stink eye to everything that makes NASCAR competition special. NASCAR is about performing on a variety of racetracks. It is about not just being strong for one or two weeks but for several. Part of what makes racing great, what makes racing different, is that the field isn’t always the same.

Apparently NASCAR isn’t satisfied with its current format because NASCAR Nation hasn’t embraced Jimmie Johnson’s six championships in the past eight years. ESPN saw a slight increase in TV ratings in the Chase last year, from 2.7 to 2.8, but apparently that’s not enough for NASCAR.
Few would argue that Johnson didn’t earn his championships. Granted, they say that the 10 tracks in the Chase are Johnson’s best, but that still is more than 40 percent of all the tracks where NASCAR runs. Johnson finished ninth at Homestead last year to clinch his sixth Cup title with an astounding 5.1 average finish in the 10 Chase races. He had a classic Chase, an incredible Chase, and NASCAR wants to throw all that away to put drivers in a situation where finishing ninth can’t be good enough to win the title.

NASCAR would probably try to use Dale Earnhardt Jr. as an example of why the proposed system would be better than the current one. He had an engine failure in the opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway but finished sixth and second in the next two races and likely would have made the cut after four races. Instead of never really getting back into the mix last year, under the new proposal, all of a sudden he’d be back in it with the points reset.

The thing is that Earnhardt could have been in the mix despite the engine failure if NASCAR would just award 15 or 20 points more for winning a race. He would have that win-and-get-back-in mentality much more throughout the Chase. That tweak would generate more excitement because typically three or four drivers still are in contention in the season finale. There would be someone who could capture it all with a win – just as Tony Stewart won the 2011 Chase by beating Carl Edwards to win the season finale.

The Stewart-Edwards battle proved just how exciting the season finale can be in this system. And, to be fair, the Nationwide Series championship, which has no Chase, came down to the final race last year with just eight points separating the two contenders.

This new system would just celebrate mediocrity even more while trying to manufacture an exciting finale. A driver could make the Chase with a win (the proposed way to get to 16 drivers), just be very good in the three three-race segments by finishing 12th, eighth and fourth in the standings, and then have one great day to win the championship.

Last year the championship was worth $5.27 million. Fourth place was worth $1.41 million. It’s ridiculous that $4 million and the glory of a championship could come down to one race where one engine failure or getting caught up in someone else’s wreck could determine the championship.

If NASCAR thinks it had a manipulation scandal at Richmond, just wait and see what would happen if this proposal becomes reality. The monkeying around in the pits and on restarts – not to mention in technical inspection – would be at an all-time high with four drivers in a winner-take-all race with $4 million on the line.

Maybe that’s what NASCAR wants. Maybe that’s NASCAR’s idea in its never-ending quest to be just like the NFL, where every playoff is sudden death.

The problem is that NASCAR is not football. Never will be. Football is a great game with hometown allegiances and great personalities and a feeder system that breeds new, fresh talent that allows for parity.

NASCAR’s problem isn’t the Chase. It’s an economic model that requires teams to hire not the best talent, but the best sponsored talent, with limited vendors for equipment that stunts competition, coupled with the inability to create an exciting game thanks to a mechanical exercise in the hands of engineers instead of drivers.

Those problems are harder to tackle. Instead, it’s easier to think up gimmicks. Congratulations, NASCAR, on doing so.

 

2. Who will speak for Kevin Ward Jr. in biased Tony Stewart situation?

Investigators could complete their inquiry into Kevin Ward Jr.’s death in the next week, although it could take longer.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone if it takes longer. The investigation obviously is different than a normal car wreck that occurs in Ontario County (N.Y.), where investigators and prosecutors know how a car should react in certain situations.

This is an investigation involving a car they need to learn. They need to learn how the suspension works and how a sprint car reacts on a dirt track. They must consider the sightlines of a car that has a big wing above it, with dirt being kicked up in the turns and poor lighting at the track.

But in trying to understand these cars, investigators might have a hard time finding unbiased people to talk to.

Friends of Ward, who was killed when Tony Stewart's sprint car struck him, likely will have one view of the tragedy. And then there’s everybody else with knowledge of sprint cars. It’s likely there are few unbiased people.

If a driver has been wrecked by Stewart, by one of his other sprint-car drivers or is upset at a ruling at one of the tracks he owns, that driver could try to make a case against Stewart, whose car struck and killed Ward in an Aug. 9 race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

Other drivers likely would give Stewart the benefit of the doubt and explain things that could help him. They look up to Stewart and what he’s done for short-track and sprint-car racing. He has invested in it, owning teams and tracks. He has defended it when people have questioned the safety. He has worked to make it safer.

In other words, he’s a racer. And racers tend to protect racers. Racers need to protect racers.

If Stewart faces criminal charges, it would be a cloud over the entire motorsports world. His businesses – four Sprint Cup teams included – could suffer. Fans could be lost. Sponsors would be lost. And that means jobs would be lost.

There seems to be an inherent bias that most in the motorsports community would lean toward trying to protect Stewart. That’s not Stewart’s fault, and it’s not to imply any coercion.

In racing, a driver is taught to leave the pits when the jack drops; that it’s a crewman’s responsibility to get out of the way. So if someone is in the way of a car, it’s an accident, not the driver’s fault.

Many in racing believe this was just a horrible accident made by a young driver who should not have climbed from his car and walked out onto the track. It’s a pretty well understood code in sprint-car racing that a driver doesn’t get out of his car and get close to moving vehicles.

So Stewart is getting the benefit of the doubt in the motorsports world, which also knows of his many impressive efforts of compassion.

With the beating he is taking in the media, he needs people on his side to explain the workings of a sprint car to investigators and the general public. He needs people to explain to investigators logical reasons why what could be perceived as a negligent act wasn’t negligent at all. Stewart, as a three-time Cup champion and with his investment in the sport, deserves to have as many people on his side as possible.

But so does Kevin Ward Jr., the subject of this investigation. Obviously he wouldn’t have gotten run over if he didn’t approach the cars on the track. What should he have expected Stewart to do? Why would he seem to violate the law of common sense?

Who will stand up for him beyond his friends and maybe those who have had a run-in with Stewart? Who would be forthcoming if they have information or an explanation that might not shine Stewart in the best light, especially if they could face scrutiny and possibly be shunned by the racing community that they consider their family?

Many influential people in the sprint-car world and NASCAR world are viewing this as an accident. They have knowledge and insight that backs up that belief, and they do a great service for their friend and fellow racer in doing so. They also do a great service to their sport – it’s racing. They accept death as part of the sport, now let’s race.

They very well could be correct in their backing of Stewart. But investigators need to get a 360-degree view, and Stewart himself needs an investigation that goes to great depths to exonerate him so there are few lingering questions about his role.

What I wonder is, would the racing world not give that full view to investigators in order to protect itself?

If there is something that needs to be said for the one who can’t speak, who, beyond Ward’s friends and those who want to scream into a microphone on a news show, will say it?

3. Is it right time for grieving Tony Stewart to race?

HAMPTON, Ga. – Tony Stewart showed all the grief and heartache one would expect from someone involved in the death of a 20-year-old fellow driver.
 
Stewart’s soft-spoken manner seemed genuine during his two-plus minutes reading a prepared statement Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The fact that the sprint car he was driving Aug. 9 struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. has certainly shaken him.

But he has decided to race. And it begs the question: Is this the right time?
 
Racecar drivers are a rare breed. We watch them do superhuman things with superhuman bravery.
 
But they are human. And the human side of Stewart overflowed with emotion, his voice quivering as he talked Friday. As he looked into the cameras to speak about the Ward family, he had a look of compassion combined with a bit of shock.
 
If it wasn’t Tony Stewart, we’d be saying he’s not in any condition to race.
 
But Stewart is a three-time Cup champion, a fierce racer and competitor. His intensity and skill behind the wheel often is unmatched. He has made a living racing well amid controversy. But he’s never had to make his living racing amid a tragedy he was directly involved in.
 
No one was expecting Stewart to make jokes or even smile during his brief meeting with the media. But for a driver who appears to still be grieving, is it best having him behind the wheel of a racecar going more than 200 mph?
 
Only Stewart knows for sure. And if he has any second thoughts Saturday or before the race at Atlanta Sunday, he should pull himself out of the car.
It could be argued that this is his job, that everyone at some point has to get back to work. But Stewart doesn’t need to work to pay the mortgage. He doesn’t need to work to prove to his team that he’s strong.
 
Stewart is human. And humans know that grief has no timetable. What might rattle someone for a week will rattle someone else for a month. Ever wonder how ridiculous it is for companies to give employees only a certain number of days for bereavement leave? Like someone in HR knows how much time you need when you lose your aunt.
 
That’s the danger in this situation. There is no playbook. Drivers have been able to get back in their racecars after crashes where other drivers have been killed.
 
But as Stewart’s business adviser and Stewart-Haas Racing Executive Vice President Brett Frood said Friday, this wasn’t the typical racing tragedy.
 
“I can't imagine what he's going through,” Frood said. “I can't imagine what the kid's parents are going through.
 
“It's something, as Tony said, that he hopes no one in this room or certainly anywhere will ever have to go through. He was involved in a tragic accident.”
 
Frood, who knows Stewart as well as anyone, likely would be among those who would have told Stewart not to race if he thought Stewart would not be able to mentally handle the weekend.
 
He said Stewart can put the helmet on and perform. And in the first practice Friday, Stewart calmly explained to his team in detail what the car was doing. He appeared to be on his game about 90 minutes after appearing emotionally scarred and wound up 10th in the first practice session.
 
Now he’s supposed to continue to perform at a level that few can achieve. Now he’s supposed to perform at a time when there certainly are people who think it is disrespectful to Ward's family and to the investigation into Ward's death to race before he is fully cleared of any criminal charges.
 
That is a valid concern and argument, and Stewart can’t let any of those who think differently influence him this weekend. He has made the choice to try to return to normalcy.
 
Those who are familiar with crisis communications say Stewart has handled it well. In an email to Sporting News, noted defense attorney Mark Geragos said that “he has handled a very difficult situation as well as one could.”
 
Former NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston, an expert in crisis communications, said getting back in the racecar will benefit Stewart in trying to return to some form of normality.
 
"The most important thing is that Tony addressed the media in person and explained his feelings and provided a glimpse into what he has been going though,” Poston said. “It was obviously heartfelt and sincere.

We know Tony Stewart has a heart, an aching heart caused by a tragedy that has created so much pain as well as angst that it makes one wonder whether this is the right decision.

So let’s hope he knows what he’s doing, that the superhuman racecar driver in him can overcome the person who appeared so human on Friday.

4. Tony Stewart pays more than NASCAR fine for emotional outburst

After Tony Stewart backed into Brad Keselowski's car as part of the postrace ruckus Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, many of his fans had to rejoice:

Awesome, the old Tony Stewart is back!

But then there also was this reaction from the general public:

That’s not exactly a good thing for Stewart to be doing.

Stewart is in a position that every time he shows emotion, he will be scrutinized. As long as the family of Kevin Ward Jr. claims that Stewart’s emotions got the best of him Aug. 9 at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, where Ward was struck and killed by Stewart's sprint car, any time Stewart shows any emotion, it will raise questions about that night.

Stewart was exonerated by a grand jury that he did nothing wrong that would require the state to pursue even minimal criminal charges. He has said the incident was "100 percent" an accident when his car struck and killed the 20-year-old driver, who got out of his car and approached Stewart’s car under caution. He said that people who believed he could have acted recklessly with his sprint car that night either don’t like him or don’t know him.

But it’s incidents like the one Saturday night that give those people who don’t like Stewart or don’t know him – including those potentially on a jury determining the outcome of a civil suit from the Ward family – more fodder in forming their opinions.

On its own, what Stewart did Saturday night was pretty tame. He got hit in the aftermath of Keselowski ramming into Matt Kenseth as they were entering pit road following the race. Stewart, justifiably upset over being hit, then put his car in reverse and slammed the rear of his car into the front of Keselowski's.

NASCAR, determining Keselowski’s actions were unsafe as the drivers entered pit road following the race, had no choice but to fine Stewart as well. Citing safety factors, NASCAR fined Stewart $25,000 for putting his car in reverse with several other cars around him and for causing damage to Keselowski’s car.

He went the wrong way. He could have hurt Keselowski if Keselowski didn’t have his safety belts on.

So the fine was reasonable. But Stewart will pay a bigger price than the fine. It might not be fair in the eyes of those in the racing world. But outside of it, he’s still under scrutiny, which is evidenced by the news reports before the fine ever came out.

On Monday morning, Good Morning America did a piece focusing on Stewart. NBC’s NASCAR show included its legal analyst talking about the impact of those actions on a potential civil suit from the Ward family.
Those are legitimate news pieces, although Good Morning America had soundbites from Kenseth and Keselowski that could be construed as if they were talking about Stewart instead of each other.

GMA also had USA Today columnist Christine Brennan saying that ramming another car is “unconscionable” in the wake of what happened two months earlier.

That is a little bit harsh, considering that it is not rare in the sport for drivers who have beefs with one another to take their anger out on the track afterward. That Keselowski wasn’t even mad about it shows that he believes Stewart had reason for his actions.

In other words, that’s racing.

But the code on the racetrack and in the garage compared to the code of society is different. Just as any athlete who gets in trouble outside of the sport is judged by their actions on the field afterward, Stewart doesn’t get a free pass. A pitcher who gets cleared of criminal charges in a barroom brawl would be more heavily scrutinized the next time he beans a batter, whether justified or not. It might have been just part of the game and far from unconscionable to bean the batter, but it can make people wonder if the pitcher has anger management issues.

Stewart might not care how he is portrayed from a personal standpoint, and his current sponsors got behind him knowing full well about his fiery demeanor. But as the owner of four Cup teams and with many employees who rely on him to help land sponsorship, Stewart is walking a public image tightrope of fiery racer vs. out-of-control maniac.

How long does he remain on that tightrope? That’s hard to say.

What makes Tony Stewart great to his legion of fans is that he breaks away from the pack, that he wins and carries himself in a way that he makes things happen no matter the obstacles. He does things his way as much as he can. He lives his life without a restrictor plate.

To take the fire away from Tony Stewart is like putting a restrictor plate on an engine. It is still an engine though the restrictor plate sucks away some of the power, some of the force, some of the awesomeness.

But sometimes a restrictor plate is necessary to keep cars from getting out of control. They don’t necessarily improve the racing, but the consequences of not having them could be worse.

Unfortunately for Stewart, when it comes to showing his emotions, being part of the pack, or even lagging behind the pack right now might be the best place for him to drive.

5. Round the track: Team alliance drama shows lack of trust in NASCAR garage

The drama and concern caused by the creation of the Race Team Alliance has little to do with how money will be distributed from the next big television contract.

It has little to do with the alliance’s stated goal of landing better deals in a variety of common spending areas for all teams.

It has everything to do with trust.

Think about it. The team owners are saying: “Trust us, we just want better deals with a combined economies of scale and don’t want a fight with NASCAR.” And yet few believe them.

NASCAR is saying “Trust us, we have run this sport successfully for 60 years, we know what we’re doing.” And yet few believe them.

It’s a sad reality, somewhat embarrassing but easily understandable in a sport run by a benevolent dictatorship trying to delicately balance the interests of everyone in the sport. To do that, there needs to be trust. And the RTA’s formation, and the reaction to it, is a sign that trust has eroded with the economy over the last six years.

If team owners had total trust in NASCAR, the sanctioning body could have taken a leadership role in working on costs and spending issues by the teams. NASCAR could use its weight (and official sponsor status program) to work better deals for the benefit of the entire industry.

NASCAR already does that for merchandising. It would seem that if that formula worked well and everyone felt they were getting an equal shake, that model could be used in other areas.

Instead, the teams opted to do it without NASCAR, either not believing NASCAR had capable people to pull off such deals or not trusting NASCAR that it would work for the total benefit of the teams and not try to cut a deal that would benefit itself.

NASCAR’s initial response to the RTA was that it didn’t know enough about the group to comment and now it has reportedly told the group to communicate through its attorneys. That reaction shows a lack of trust in the owners by NASCAR, which apparently is unsure of the group’s intentions.

Why? Probably because the owners have never gotten together in such an alliance before. In the past they each took whatever NASCAR did and dealt with it individually. They might yell and scream in the NASCAR hauler, but they never organized like this.

Somewhere deep in the bowels of its Daytona Beach headquarters, NASCAR officials are probably wondering if these owners are just interested in increasing their purchasing power or have other motives, having just found the guts to challenge the sanctioning body.

Outside of NASCAR, even after repeated statements about the group’s intentions, Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman can’t gain the trust of the NASCAR industry.

Speculation about there being more to the group’s intentions than what Kauffman says shows that no matter the respect those in the industry have for the current group of team owners, in this society, there is a perception that highly successful people hold their plans close to the vest before they’re ready to pounce.

Their stated plan seems so simple that if the better-deals-on-rental-cars mission is true, they would have done it years ago. There has to be something more, something behind another curtain we can’t see.

The television deal is the easiest thing to point to, and again it boils down to a lack of trust. NASCAR is set to earn $19 million more a year from 2015-2024 than it earns in 2014 from the television contract. It has yet to detail a plan for that $19 million. If the teams trusted that NASCAR would spend that money for the good of the sport and primarily for their benefit, would they really be forming an alliance?

Instead, the teams are organizing amid a seismic shift in NASCAR leadership.

President Mike Helton has become less and less visible. Former Cup Series director John Darby, well-liked even if he might have dragged his feet on changes he was skeptical of, has slipped into the background. Sometimes change is needed, but change doesn’t come without the relative outsiders who are now executives needing to prove themselves.

Brent Dewar, a former Chevrolet executive, now heads the business side of NASCAR as chief operations officer. Gene Stefanyshyn, a former car designer for Chevrolet, is now in charge of car design as well as other technological initiatives dealing with inspection and officiating. He has spearheaded several changes and while he has shown the ability to listen, there will be skepticism until the racing improves more and his other changes stand the test of time.

The new executives don’t have the trust in the NASCAR industry of someone like Steve O’Donnell, the veteran racing operations executive who has used years of balancing the wishes of NASCAR and the teams – as well as a public persona on Twitter that shows he truly cares about the sport and its fans – to earn respect as someone looking out for everyone’s best interests.

The sport is a gumbo of entities all with the hopes of making money. They need each other but also at times battle for the same revenue streams or need one side to give up money for the benefit of another.

NASCAR needs a good chef to mix it all. NASCAR, the team owners and the drivers should combine to hire someone who works at arm’s length from them all, much like NASCAR’s chief appellate officer. Give that person – Ray Evernham? Jay Frye? Andy Petree? Dale Jarrett? – a budget and a significant fund to start programs that could benefit the teams.

Maybe it’s too late for that. Maybe NASCAR is now stuck with the RTA, a sign that this is not the sport of 10 years ago. It’s a sign that after 60 years, NASCAR’s saying “trust us, we know how to run this sport” just doesn’t hold the weight it once did.