Fixing the field

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

Only in a sport where the eighth-fastest qualifier starts at the back of a 43-car field is something like this possible.

We're talking about the transfer of owners points from Kurt Busch to Sam Hornish Jr., which assures Hornish of a spot in the first five Sprint Cup races in '08.

On the surface, it's a minor story, one that seemingly won't have much impact beyond Bristol, when Hornish will have to get in on his own. But deeper down, the swap is yet another example of NASCAR playing God, which to the sporting fan translates to the fix being in.

Real quick, let's get this out of the way: We understand what NASCAR is trying to accomplish business-wise. We get that sponsors need to have certain assurances, and this points swap assures the sponsors for both Busch and Hornish that their logos will be racing around Daytona come the third Sunday in February.

But here's a question: Who cares?

Sure, sponsors are forking over millions, but fans are, too. In fact, it could be argued that a $100 ticket, two nights at a $250, price-gouging hotel and a couple of days off work is a bigger financial burden on a fan than a $15 million primary sponsorship is on a Fortune 500 company.

What we're hearing over and over is fans don't care about whatever rules NASCAR has in place to take care of its owners and sponsors. They just want to see the fastest 43 cars race on Sunday.

It's a pretty novel idea, the fastest cars qualifying for a race, only it's been shredded by the champion's provisional and the top-35 rule, both of which, outside of the Gatorade Duel 150s, have made qualifying day about as dramatic as a Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals game. We know the outcome; the only thing we don't know is the final score.

Again, we get why NASCAR put the rules in place. We get that having the sport's biggest names racing on the weekend is a good thing – for the gate, for the television ratings, whatever.

But if Tiger Woods tanks in the first two rounds of a golf tournament, the PGA doesn't have a set of rules to keep him around for the weekend. He's sent packing.

Does it stink for the tournament's sponsor? Yeah, it stinks for everyone, especially those who planned their entire vacation around watching Tiger stick a 3-iron from 250 out.

But there's something to be said about legitimacy, and the impact it has on longevity. Giving Tiger a free pass would not only compromise the idea of competition, it would diminish what Tiger is able to accomplish on his own.

Sure, keeping him around on the weekend would no doubt be good for those immediately involved – that weekend's sponsor, the broadcasting network, those fans who have attended that tournament – but the long-term effect would be a devastating blow to the public's perception of the PGA Tour as legitimate sporting competition.

Perception is everything in sports, and once the public perceives the fix is in, well, you're done. Why do you think Pete Rose still isn't in the Baseball Hall of Fame?

The tweaks NASCAR has made to its competitive model over the last several years have given some fans – not all of you, but a good many – a reason to think the fix is in. Of course, the most notable of these tweaks is The Chase format, which if television ratings are any indication, hasn't captured much attention from the casual fan, for who it was created, and, in fact, has caused a great number of diehards to tune out entirely.

"We absolutely realize and understand that not all of our fans like the changes that have been made," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. "We are trying to manage change as best as possible for the fans, the competitors, the promoters and our partners."

Poston added that change "often runs in cycles" and that NASCAR's front office realizes that the idea of tweaking the sport has run its course.

"The fans will see fewer changes in terms of the things we control like competition and rules in the near term," Poston said.

That's good news, but has the damage already been done?

Fair or not, there are a number of NASCAR fans out there who are ticked off, and their only recourse is for the sport to go back to how things used to be.

Right now, though, that's not happening. Instead, all we're seeing is a convoluted points swap which, when put in context with all the other changes, is one more log on top of an already scorching fire.

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