September 10, 2010
RICHMOND, Va. -- You know the story of the tortoise and the hare. In the one race everybody knows about, the tortoise took the hare by running slow and steady (and because of a particularly lengthy pit stop by the hare, of course). But put the tortoise and the hare against each other for another 25 races, you think you'll get the same result even once?
Put more in NASCAR terms: The Chase, as constituted, rewards consistency over achievement. That's no secret. But is it keeping some of NASCAR's best drivers on the outside?
Case in point: Juan Pablo Montoya. The fiery wheelman of the No. 42 ranks 17th in the Chase standings. But his driver rating of 94.0 ranks seventh overall. He's been passed 1,754 times under green-flag conditions – the lowest of any driver. Of his passes, 76.8 percent are considered "quality," the highest of all drivers. And he ranks eighth in quality passes overall. Oh, and he has more wins than Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton, more top-10 finishes than Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, and more top 5s than Clint Bowyer.
So how come a guy as talented as Montoya isn't in the Chase? Tortoise and the hare.
"It's points racing," says Montoya. "There's no reward for how good your results are, but for how good your average is. We had a lot of bad weeks – seven DNFs, a bunch of weeks [seven] where we were running 37th, 38th at the end."
Certainly, Montoya isn't advocating that he get an exemption into the Chase for being a good driver while he's in the hunt. He and his team screwed up over the course of the season and put themselves out of the hunt and acknowledge that it's a "wake-up call" for the entire No. 42 team. But there's got to be a way to keep the best drivers in the mix later in the season, to reward talent and daring over – or at least equal to – smooth, make-no-waves consistency.
Matt Kenseth has finished no higher than 10th in 16 of the last 18 races, yet he's already locked into the Chase. Why? Because he's only finished worse than 20th twice in that same stretch.
So what's the answer? How does NASCAR reward its best drivers while still keeping everyone in the mix? Certainly, you could factor in driver rating and other statistics, but that puts NASCAR in the realm of the inscrutable BCS, where everyone simply has to take it on faith that the computers have crunched the numbers the right way.
No, the more effective way would simply be to give more weight to the factor which everyone knows is the hallmark of a good driver – finishing position. Give more weight to the top-five positions. Get rid of the lead-one-lap bonus and replace it with lead-five-laps (or some other percentage to be determined by track) bonus. Shoot, throw a few bonus points to the team with the fastest pit time. That way, a few strong finishes more than offset a couple of poor ones – finishes where an unfortunate wreck or engine trouble sabotages and supercedes talent.
As with any system, you can always find examples with which to pick it apart.
"Some people are complaining about guys having wins or multiple wins and not getting in the Chase," Greg Biffle said on Friday. "Do you take Jeff Gordon out and put Jamie McMurray in because he has two wins and Gordon doesn't have any?"
Well, perhaps. But I'd look a little farther down the line, to Biffle's teammates Carl Edwards and Kenseth.
Both Edwards and Kenseth have mastered the art of consistency, with Edwards working his way up into the sixth position in the standings despite only leading 38 laps all season, 32 of which came in last weekend's race at Atlanta. And Kenseth has been remarkably unremarkable statistically, ranking outside the top 12 in many of the same statistical categories in which Montoya performed well.
Put it this way: All else being equal, which driver do you think is more of a championship caliber right now: Kenseth or Montoya? Jeff Burton or Kasey Kahne?
There's no perfect system, certainly, but one which takes into accout more valuable performance metrics and values daring over smooth, ride-around consistency is a system worth considering.
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