Tag: Darrell Waltrip

Nobody’s Perfect With NASCAR Stats

It started out as a seemingly easy task, take all the NASCAR stats I could find and compile them into my own database. This way I could run queries of things I found interesting and just get information that normally I’d have to rely on other sites, such as Racing-Reference.info. Make an Access database and enter in data, that’s easy, right? WRONG!

What I learned quickly, and this isn’t getting into the obnoxiousness of Microsoft Access features, is no matter your source, odds are your information is wrong. And I’m not talking about Racing Reference or even DriverAverages.com (another fantastic, but lesser known site). I’m talking about information direct from NASCAR itself.

NASCAR historian and statistician Greg Fielden painstakingly compiled race recaps and results going from NASCAR inception in 1949 until 1989 in a four volume book set entitled Forty Years of Stock Car Racing. These books, along with its lone supplemental book for years 1990-1993, are a fantastic source of NASCAR history and stats. I found out recently he even has a similar book about the Convertible Series that was running during the early days, but do not count as NASCAR Cup Series statistics. Fielden (along with Peter Golenbock) also helped put together the NASCAR Encyclopedia, billed as the “complete record of America’s most popular sport.

Why do I gush about Fielden? Well, besides the fact he’s been able to do what I’ve always dreamed of doing in NASCAR (he also worked for CBS and TNN as their statistician for their broadcasts), it is because he and NASCAR are the only sources of information for any site that houses NASCAR stats. For example, Racing-Reference is built around Fielden’s work, whereas Driver Averages is built upon NASCAR’s stats.

The question then becomes, why does this matter? It matters because sometimes data from each source doesn’t matches the other. You’d think that if two people were keeping track of the same thing, you’d have identical results? Well, in this case, you do not. Fielden even devotes four pages in NASCAR Encyclopedia explaining why the data doesn’t match.

When it comes to the early days of NASCAR, not every track kept accurate accounts of the races, be it how the cars started or even how many laps many of the drivers complete. It makes sense when you think back to how things might have been in the late 40s and 50s when tracks were Mom and Pop operations. There was no digital scoring, everything was done by hand and stopwatch. Even re-watching races from the late 1980s I’m still amazed there were not more scoring issues even then. Most of the time it was simply the top ten finishers that were published in newspapers, with no other documentation.

If you haven’t guessed, I’m a Fielden supporter in that he reviewed everything he could to come up with the most accurate set of data there could be. That even means making common sense judgement calls (more on this later) rather than just looking at it as black and white numbers. This might be hard to imagine (sarcasm), but NASCAR has always been wishy washy on enforcing things, which brings us to the first and most glaring of issues with NASCAR official statistics (and that common sense piece).

Simple question, how many wins does Bobby Allison have in his NASCAR Cup Series career? You ask NASCAR fans this, most will tell you 84. That’s what the official record books say, that’s how he’s billed in anything NASCAR related. Well the reality of the situation is he has 85 career wins, but NASCAR has omitted one for reasons that aren’t very clear.

On August 6, 1971 something unique was done that day, the larger Cup cars raced against smaller Grand American cars. The Cup cars included makes/models such as Plymouth, Ford, Mercury, and Chevrolet. The Grand American cars included Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird entries. That day Allison drove a Mustang to a three second win over Richard Petty, in a Plymouth. Because he raced a Mustang, NASCAR considered the win in the Grand American Series rather than the Cup Series. But here’s the problem, the start, the top-5, the top-10, the laps led and the laps complete ALL count in his official NASCAR statistics, just not the win. Going a step further, as Fielden points out, the victory COUNTS for Mustang in NASCAR’s list of car makes/models with victories in the Cup Series. Where’s the logic in any of this? Either nothing counts, or it all counts, there can’t be an in-between.

According to the book, there was a meeting between historians and NASCAR in 2002 to try and hash out some issues from the past. It appears some have been updated, whereas others (mainly Allison’s win total) have not been, nor seem they ever will. For example, in the official listings for the final 1956 points, for many years there was the 39th place finishing Tom Harbison. Problem is there never was anyone named Tom Habison who raced in a NASCAR event that year or any other year. Now the record simply shows “unknown” as the 39th finishing driver.

While creating my database I’ve seen a number of odd situations where I don’t know where to turn to get a straight answer from. For example, in the official NASCAR database for race 24 of the 1975 season, Frank Warren is credited for driving Dean Dalton’s #7 car to a 12th place finish. If you pull open Fielden’s book, he has Dean Dalton as getting credit for the finish. As expected, Racing Reference sides with Fielden and Driver Averages sides with NASCAR. If you look for a third opinion, you get that of UltimateRacingHistory.com, who has on their site for that race a note that states: “Dean Dalton qualified car #7 and may have started the race.” So how do you decide this? Honestly, there’s no good answer because either way you choose, you then don’t have a cross reference anymore.

This is again where I side with Fielden over NASCAR because I’ve seen other examples of things that don’t make sense in the official record, but are different with Fielden’s work and make sense. Neil Castles in the 34th race of 1967, according to NASCAR, completed 311 of 200 laps. Fielden puts him at 190 laps completed. NASCAR has Jim Bown leading five laps during the 1983 Budweiser 400 at Riverside, but Fielden has Joe Ruttman leading those laps. I side with Fielden in this case because his results have a box score showing lap leaders, whereas NASCAR is just the finishing results.

Even with all that going for him, Fielden’s credibility takes a big hit with NASCAR Encyclopedia as there are many errors. The most glaring is how about half the father/son combinations who share the same name (Sr/Jr) also share the same stats. For example, Duane Carter is credited with starts in 1950, then 35 years later he has races in 1985, 1986, 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1995. The problem is Duane Carter has a date of death of 3/7/1993, making two starts after he died. Reality is Duane Carter (Sr) ran one race in 1950, then his son Duane Carter Jr (aka Pancho) ran the rest. Another issue is, not an error but an oversight, with the date of deaths for some drivers. Despite the book being updated in 2002, Kenny Irwin (died 2000) does not have a date of death, whereas Dale Earnhardt (died 2001) does.

I’m not trying to nitpick the man’s work, but that makes you start to question how you can trust it 100%, which is what my main point is, you can’t. Even when NASCAR and Fielden agree, it might not be accurate anyways. Case in point is the magical Doug Cooper. For race 38 of the 1966 season, Cooper is credited in both sources as finishing not only 10th, but 25th as well. Thankful Racing Reference has a more accurate looking result with Bob Cooper 10th and Doug 25th. The caveat to this without any citation, how do we know that, while sounding correct, is correct? Good news is I know the person behind Racing Reference has done a great job researching things, based on our conversations, so I trust it. Sort of.

That back tracking leads me to my greatest headache of the past three years and something I cannot get anyone (NASCAR, websites, or an International Motor Sports Research Center) to respond back with a reasonable explanation of what I’m missing. There are three drivers and two years where if you add up the points attributed to them via race results, it doesn’t match their end of year totals in the official final driver standings. The affected are Ricky Rudd and Tim Richmond in 1982 and Darrell Waltrip in 1984.

Ricky Rudd’s official total via the NASCAR Media Guide (NMG), their NASCAR Historical Database (NHD) for media members, and Fielden have him at 3,537 points. NASCAR.com, the official site of NASCAR, has him at 3,467 points. I, using a calculator first and then Excel to ensure I wasn’t adding wrong, have his total as 3,542. Here’s what I found to be crux of the issue is the 22nd race at Darlington. In that race, he finished 31st and according to Fielden and NHD, he led one lap. The 31st place finish netted him 70 points, and by leading one lap, he should have received 5 bonus points. Going back to the totals above, the NMG, NHD, and Fielden omit his 5 bonus points and NASCAR.com omits the 70 points for the finish. The additional points do not change where Rudd finished overall, but annoying it doesn’t add up.

Tim Richmond has the same scenario but with the 8th race at Martinsville. For finishing 18th, he should have received 109 points, and according to Fielden and the NHD, he led 18 laps that day, thus 5 bonus points. NASCAR.com and I agree, based on that, he should have ended the year with 2,611 points. Instead NMG, NHD, and FIelden have him listed at 2,497 points, less the 114. Most notably, drivers can sometimes not be award points if their entry was late for that race. Richmond, at this point of the year, was running for J.D. Stacy, which was a full-time team and it seems odd they’d forget that entry. Nothing out there references a reason why he wouldn’t be awarded points, nor any mention of a potential penalty that year that could have voided those points. Unlike Rudd, had Richmond been credited with those points he would jump from 26th place in the final standings to 23rd.

Darrell Waltrip has the weirdest case of any of the drivers because no one can come to agreement on what is going on. In the 10th race of the year Waltrip won a controversial race at Nashville, earning him 175 for the win and 5 additional points for leading a lap (Neil Bonnett led the most). In the 30th (and final) race of the season at Riverside, Waltrip finished 34th, with 33 laps led (Bobby Allison led the most), so 61 points for the finish and 5 bonus points. I calculated him at 4,230 points in total, which Fielden agrees with, but NMG has him at 4,235 (additional 5 points at Nashville) and NASCAR.com has him at 4,169 (minus Riverside, but with the extra Nashville points, which matches the NHD that awards him extra points at Nashville and zero at Riverside). Again taking the zero points angle, Waltrip was driving for Junior Johnson, so forgetting an entry seems very bizarre. Anyway you go, Waltrip still finishes fifth in the final standings, but why do we have such discrepancies?

In the end I will be taking up FIelden’s mantra of trying to produce the best database with the available data, but with a twist of common sense. I’m surprised that taking a look back at the records has never been a priority for NASCAR, if not to correct obvious errors, but to ensure that the official statistics are actually 100% accurate.

5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Be Excited About the 2016 NASCAR Season

We’re just a few days away from the return of NASCAR racing for another season. There’s a lot to be excited about, and with good reason. There’s finally a rookie class that looks like it’ll produce a race-winning rookie driver for the first time since 2009. Picking an organization as the “best” team going into the season is problematic- while the usual suspects are almost all good choices for a preseason pick to be the Champion, picking one team that as a whole is the top dog right now is simply not easy.

While all of that is true, and on the one hand you can be excited for the 2016 NASCAR season, here are several reasons why you probably need to scale back that excitement.

Remember the new aero package to reduce downforce, the digital dashboard, and all those other improvements to the cars?

Yeah, probably not. And it’s forgivable if you’ve forgotten all of those changes to the cars, as they haven’t exactly been the talking point of the offseason (hi there, charter franchise system). But, the aero package being run in most races in 2016 was hyped up following Kentucky last year, and will hopefully bring about better racing in 2016.

However, we’ve heard that story before, and it’s rarely ever panned out. The issue isn’t that the setup isn’t conducive to better racing: it’s that the engineers employed by the teams are finding more and more ways to counter any changes that NASCAR makes in order to find that extra millisecond of speed in the cars. While there certainly is a chance that the racing will be better in 2016 (no more 10+ second leads on the intermediate tracks), if a team hits their setup and has an advantage, they’re still going to pull away from the pack.

The 2016 Olympics Impact the TV Schedule

Okay, so this probably should not be a concern, except it is. NASCAR fans have a habit of not being able to find the channel that the race is on, despite the entire schedule being posted on hundreds of websites. After so many complained about not being able to find a race on FOX, FS1, NBC, or NBCSN, with NBC covering the 2016 Olympics over the summer, the Watkins Glen Cup race as well as the Xfinity Series races at Mid-Ohio and Bristol will be moved to the USA Network, while the Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen will air on CNBC.

While USA is available in more households than NBCSN as of November 2015, no one thinks of the channel as being where NASCAR will be found. Add in that these races were some of the lowest-viewed races in 2015, it’s safe to say right now that the ratings will be absolutely dreadful in 2016.

Bottom line, prepare for NASCAR fans to be complaining incessantly during those race weekends when suddenly NBCSN isn’t showing those races and they can’t find the channel that they’re on. The Olympics are a huge event, and I completely understand the move of NASCAR events to a channel that won’t be showing something related to the Olympics. That won’t stop NASCAR fans from being outraged. Plus, having to remember a different channel for one race is just annoying.

The TV Coverage Is Still Lacking… And Probably Won’t Be Getting (Much) Better in 2016

Warning: This is the long entry in the list.

This is one of those points that you will either agree wholeheartedly with or believe that I am absolutely wrong about. However, the TV coverage last year was absolutely awful, both on Fox and NBC. Fox’s strategy of having The Three Stooges in the commentary booth for their Cup events continued in 2015, as Darrell Waltrip, Larry MacReynolds, and Mike Joy polluted the airwaves through Fox’s 16 Cup races. On the bright side, Jeff Gordon is joining the booth for 2016 as Larry MacReynolds’ replacement, which should hopefully improve the commentary from the booth. The big concern though is that instead of improving the quality of the product being produced by Fox, Gordon will act just like Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip.

Their Xfinity Series coverage was made slightly more tolerable than Cup in 2015 by bringing in current Cup Series drivers to provide guest commentary. Having the insight of Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski added at least a new dimension to the broadcasts, though admittedly of the special guest commentators, Danica Patrick was certainly the weakest of the group. Seeing this continue in 2016 is one of the few good things about Fox’s television coverage.

Truck Series coverage is still a disaster in waiting. With a booth of Vince Welch, Phil Parsons, and Michael Waltrip, it’s almost as if Fox Sports has decided to punish NASCAR fans that tune in to the Truck races. The coverage was already bad in 2015, but this trio has absolutely no redeeming qualities.

While I clearly give Fox some flak for their coverage, NBC isn’t innocent. The booth for NBC’s Cup events isn’t nearly as good as it was hyped up to be. It wasn’t necessarily bad. It was just… mediocre. Hopefully year two of NBC’s Cup coverage means that the trio has more time to mesh together and for each member to find their role.

For Xfinity, NBC’s coverage is… dismal. The rotating cast of characters often led to disappointment. Ralph Sheheen, Dale Jarrett, Leigh Diffey, Frank Stoddard, and Ray Evernham rotating in for the Cup commentators simply made things feel disjointed more often than not. Whenever NBC’s “B” team (or “C” team, as it sometimes felt) was calling a standalone Xfinity race, there just wasn’t any excitement; instead of engaging the viewer I sometimes felt like NBC was actively working to drive away viewers. In 2016, I expect this cast to rotate just as much, if not more, for the standalone races.

I’m not even going to really get into the whole “let’s move stuff to FS2 or CNBC or whatnot”. Neither network is innocent at this, and the trend of moving things off a main channel will continue as TV ratings continue their freefall. Get used to either finding these more obscure networks or simply doing without the coverage if you don’t get the channel.

NASCAR Has Now Locked Most Tracks Into 5-Year Agreements

Yep, if you’re one of those people that want to see new tracks added to the Cup schedule… good luck. All of the Cup tracks are now locked into sanctioning agreements with NASCAR through the 2020 season. So no, Iowa isn’t getting a Cup date any time soon, nor is NASCAR going to add more road courses to the Cup schedule (and I’m *definitely* looking forward to that debate cropping up during the Sonoma and Watkins Glen weekends like it always does).

Not that ISC or SMI were ever in much danger of losing a race date, but now it’s basically guaranteed until 2020 unless a track goes bankrupt that no one is losing a date. Get used to the Cup schedule you saw in 2015 because, aside from minor changes due to events like Easter, that schedule is here to stay through 2020. That means two Cup races at Pocono, two races at Texas, two races at New Hampshire, two races at Kansas, zero races at Iowa, pretty much the same Chase schedule, and Homestead holding the season finale for the next five seasons.

So even if these tracks put on absolute snorefests of races this season, they’re even less likely to get booted off the schedule than before

There Are Still Rules That NASCAR Has Not Yet Figured Out

Daytona 500 qualifying is on Sunday. NASCAR is expected to announce their qualifying format for the four “open” spots in Cup for the teams that do not have a charter on Thursday. There’s still no decision on how NASCAR will alter the green-white-checkered finish rule for plate races, how the Can-Am Duel 150 races will determine the 4 “open” spots in the 40 car field, how the four spots will be field if qualifying is canceled, whether there will be a Champion’s Provisional (the belief is that no, there won’t be), and a plethora of other rules. Heck, with the drop to 40 cars in the field now for a Cup race, there’s the expectation that NASCAR will adjust the current point system. Yep, we’re under two weeks to the season’s first race and we have no idea how the points are going to work this year.

And the best part? NASCAR’s probably going to change some stuff around just because they can in the middle of the season. There’s a reason that the joke of NASCAR’s rulebook being written in pencil is a real joke: sometimes, it feels like that is actually true.

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Commentary: FOX Bets On Wrong Horse In Broadcast Booth

News broke on Thursday that Jeff Gordon will be joining FOX to call Sprint Cup Series races in 2016. Joining him in the booth will be Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip, two originals from when FOX started with NASCAR in 2001. That means Gordon is replacing Larry McReynolds, who will be discarded to the Hollywood Hotel like an empty pizza box.

When I first read the news, I thought “wow what a great pick up of Gordon.” While rough around the edges, I think with more experience this season calling some races he can be something good in the booth. Then it sunk in that the number one reason I don’t like FOX races will remain. That being Darrell Waltrip.

Flashback to 2001 when Waltrip entered the booth for the first time with FOX (can go prior to this when he moonlighted on TNN prior to this) and Waltrip was a breath of fresh air. He was funny, he told stories, and he tried to relate to the average fan. That was great 14 years ago, now it’s just a tired shtick. FOX had the good sense in putting Digger down awhile back, I figured they had the good sense to put old DW down. I guess I was wrong.

All you have to do is just watch the start of a race a hear Waltrip say “boogity, boogity, boogity, let’s go racing!” Nothing says professional sports league like a commentator who uses gibberish words to signal the start of the race. Just watch a football game and listen for Jim Nance to say “whoooooooooo let’s go footballing!” just as the opening kickoff happens.

If you can get past the gibberish, you still have to deal with Waltrip’s obvious bias for some drivers. It’s almost like he’s paid by the number of times he mentions “Dale Earnhardt Jr” or “Danica Patrick.” Then you have the (major) conflict of interest when it comes to his brother, Michael’s team. Never is that team in the wrong for anything it does because that’s his baby brother’s team.

The worst part about this is McReynolds getting the shaft and being sent to be in the looney bin with Chris Myers and Michael Waltrip. And by looney bin, I mean Hollywood Hotel, which shouldn’t be called that since they sent Jeff Hammond off to pasture after last season. McReynolds might have butchered the English language on a daily basis, but his points was facts based and usually correct. He added the right amount of humor and seriousness to the broadcast, whereas Waltrip acts like the dopy sidekick.

Looking over the release one last time there is a slight glimmer of hope, there is no mention of Andy Peetre. This year FOX is using Peetre as a “rules expert” to chime in when there’s a question about a rule. Digger wins as the dumbest thing FOX has pushed on NASCAR fans, but this “rules expert” position is second to him. Peetre literally adds nothing to the broadcast other than to offer Mike Joy bathroom breaks during the broadcast.

Like most things in NASCAR, FOX is taking the two steps ahead, one step back approach to their broadcast booth. Thank goodness NASCAR fans have the option of MRN or PRN to listen while watching the races on mute.

Commentary: Both Sides Of The Chase Debate

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It is now official that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will have a new system in place to determine the champion. It has been hailed by NASCAR CEO Brian France as a simplified formula that will appeal to fans with its winner-take-all approach. According to their data, everyone is on board with the change. However there’s plenty of examples to the contrary.

When I started this blog, going on four years ago, there was an unintended consequence that took place. My view of the sport shifted from an extremely bias fan to someone who sees both sides of the coin, so to speak. I learned that to make it, I couldn’t come out and bash a driver or team without merit. With that said, as much as I dislike the direction NASCAR is going, I can see exactly why they’re going that way.

We’ll start right there with why they’re doing this. It’s no secret that ratings and attendance are stagnate in NASCAR. Feeling that the boom in attendance and ratings would continue forever, NASCAR didn’t think about what would happen when it stopped. The excitement that will come from each knock out round (something right out of reality television) should draw in causal fans and television networks. Add to that a simple winner-takes-all final race at Homestead and it’ll be guaranteed that will be the focus of many sports fans come November.

It is also a move against a point structure where a driver could not even win and still be champion. Putting an emphasis on winning has been a constant battle for NASCAR ever since 1985, when Bill Elliott won 11 times, but lost the title to Darrell Waltrip and his three wins. The emphasis has been placed on winning because doing so in the first 26 races gets you into the Chase. From there, if a driver wins one race during each knockout round, he or she will be guaranteed to move on to the next round. That sets up the stage for the final race where four drivers will be on equal ground. In years past, drivers would have such a point lead that simply showing up to the event made them champion. Now to guarantee they’ll win the title, they’ve got to win the race.

The biggest sticking point I am seeing about this new system is it seems to fly in the face of tradition when it comes to NASCAR history. I whole heartedly understand and believe that as well. That said, if you don’t evolve and keep moving, you’ll get left behind. As ESPN’s Marty Smith noted, this is NASCAR swinging at the fences to do something for not only the short term, but also the long term health of the sport. I applaud them for doing something proactively rather than retroactively.

The negatives of the system are a long booming list of what-if scenarios. Right off the bat, if the system was applied to 2013, your champion is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., a driver who went winless in 2013. How is that indicative of a system that rewards wins versus consistency? You can argue drivers would have raced differently with the new system in place, but it at least shows that wins don’t mean you’re going to win the title.

Something that bothers me about setting this up for a four way, winner-takes-all, royal rumble at Homestead is that NASCAR is manufacturing a “Game 7” moment. In 2011, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards dueled for the title, with Stewart winning a tiebreaker. That was real and that was special. What makes it special was you didn’t know it would happen until it happened. Now, you’re guaranteed every year it’ll be a one race shoot out. Exciting yes, but the luster is lost because you know it is coming.

If the playoff system will be like this for the next, who knows how many years, then NASCAR needs to go a step further. The final 10 race locations (or even just the finale) need to be changed on a yearly basis. If they are so insistent on comparing themselves to football, then they should look no further. Their championship game is played at a different venue every year. Sometimes it is played inside a dome, sometimes it is played outside in 80 degree weather, and this year it’s being played in frigid temperatures outside. Imagine the season finale being run at a short track or even a road course.

We saw last year at Richmond that teams will do most anything to get into the Chase. Michael Waltrip Racing tried, got caught, and were crucified. With that example, I would hope that no one tries to fudge the outcome of the Chase, but those questions will linger since Richmond and intensify this year. Is a driver racing hard to keep someone behind him to benefit a teammate? Is a driver not racing hard enough and letting someone by so they can advance? Now we’re getting back to ball and strike calls that I hate because they impact the outcome of the championship in a one race shootout.

My final thought on the matter is a simple one. I’ve stated it on Twitter and I’ll state it again here. At the end of the day for how much fans dislike this proposal (or like it) it doesn’t matter. Public opinion only factors so much into NASCAR’s decision and it’s a very simple situation all together. This is NASCAR’s sandbox. You’re welcome to play in it, but they make the rules. If you don’t like them, then you can always get out.

The approach I am going into 2014 with is “let’s see how this plays out.” If it is every bit as exciting as NASCAR hopes, then I’ll be happy to admit I was wrong in doubting them. If it ends the way fans fear, then I’ll be happy to admit I was right in doubting. Either way, we won’t know until the checkered flag falls at Homestead, and until then we just have to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Nagging Questions About The New Chase

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As the idea of NASCAR’s radical changes to their Chase structure continues to marinate with media, fans, and competitors, there are still some burning questions that surround it. I’ve thought about this elimination system over the past few days and now it’s beginning to grow on me; but there are a couple of nagging issues with this system, along with any other system put into place for racing.

If NASCAR wants a “playoff” system, then you need eliminations. Not everyone should be eligible for the championship at the end of the playoffs. That makes sense. However, this is exactly what the Chase should have been all along; not ten years into the game.

A major concern this system does not address is the fact that winning races still does not matter to win the series. Unless you awarded an obscene amount of points for a win versus any other finish, it will all even out in the end. If anything, this system will spawn a more painful example of how winning doesn’t matter than any other time in the sport’s past.

With the idea of eliminations, while highly unlikely, this could happen. Say Matt Kenseth goes out and wins 8 of the first 26 races, that being 30% of the races run to that point. He then has three straight did not finishes (DNFs) for various reasons and is out after the first round of eliminations because of those three bad races. There would still be seven races to go in the season, and if this driver won two more times, you could have a driver win 10 times, but not be crowned the champion.

The historical example of this was in 1985 when Bill Elliott won 11 times, but finished second to Darrell Waltrip, who only won three times. Waltrip was more consistent in finishes than Elliott, especially in the last three months of the season. Even Waltrip, who was the champion by 101 points and benefited most from the structure, said Elliott should have won it. Elliot had lost a 206 point lead in the last two months. NASCAR’s response at the time was to stand pat. No changes were made to how points were awarded right after the 1985 season to “save face.”

In fact nothing was changed about the point standings until the Chase debuted in 2004. Maybe that is the difference between 1985 and 2014, where everyone’s opinions can be heard by everyone. Or maybe it is the difference between a NASCAR run by Bill France, Jr. versus being run by his son, Brian France.

The biggest flaw of the Chase since its inception for 2004 is the same that hits any big idea. You can dream up an idea, but until it is put into place, you cannot account for every scenario. Nobody was expecting when Jamie McMurray won two of the most prestigious races in 2010 that he wouldn’t make the Chase. As a result, wildcards were created to help prevent that from happening again.

Then there is the Richmond incident last season where teams colluded to get a teammate into the Chase. NASCAR had to step in to kick a team out, add a team, and then for one time add an extra driver to the Chase. While they made an example of the Michael Waltrip Racing team, it begs the question of what will another team do in a one race shootout?

The Chase was a simple idea that got overly complicated when put into place. This new idea is a complicated one that will get even more complicated once it is in place. I just want to remove these complications and just go race. Let the points fall the way they would without all the gimmicks.

When To Walk Away

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Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte talk at Talladega in 2008. Neither has been to victory lane since that year and might be out of NASCAR next season.

An issue that plagues any athlete is when to call it quits. They’ve spent their entire lives doing one thing, be it play football, hockey, or drive a race car. It’s a tough call to make, deciding when to stop doing the one thing you’ve ever done.

What usually happens is the athlete holds on a little too long and they can’t walk away on their own terms. Sometimes injury forces them away or it gets to a point that no organization wants them.

NASCAR drivers are in a bit of a unique situation, in that they can continue to perform into their 50s or even 60s if they so desire. Because they’re not putting their bodies into harm’s way as a football or hockey player, their careers can go longer.

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Dale Jarrett walked away to work in television in 2008

“Fortunately for most race drivers, you still have the ability to do this at 50 years old, and perform very well, Mark Martin is a perfect example. I went until I was 51, Rusty (Wallace) was close to 50, and so you have that ability to do that, so that gets you through a lot of your life. Unlike in other sports, where football players are seldom after 35 years of age, or a lot of baseball players don’t make it to 40 and still performing at a high level. So we’re fortunate in that respect, but that is a lot of it: what do you do? Because this is what you’ve done pretty much your entire life. And I think this next generation is going to show us more of that because I don’t know that we’ll see a lot of them go till they’re 50 and so trying to make that decision as to when they get out because this is what they’ve done their entire life,” says Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Sprint Cup Series champion who walked away after the first five races in the 2008 season.

The problem with that logic though is usually a driver holds on way too long and tarnishes their legacy during their declining years. Darrell Waltrip is the textbook example of a driver who held on much too long.

Waltrip won his final race in 1992. He would race eight more years until retiring following the 2000 season. Beginning in 1998 was a steady decline, as his own team ran into sponsorship issues that forced him to sell the team hastily. He was able to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc., where he scored a top-5 and top-10 finish and showed glimmer of what he used to be.

After that brief stint, as he was subbing for an injured Steve Park, Waltrip joined ISM Racing and finished out the season. Waltrip had to rely on the past champions provisional rule to make the majority of the races after going to ISM Racing. That rule allowed a past champion who’s time was not fast enough to make the race, get into the race in the 43rd and final starting spot.

He used the rule so much that for the 1999 season, NASCAR made a rule to cap the number of times a driver can use it. That resulted in Waltrip missing 12 races over his final two seasons. He never finished better than 11th over those two seasons and his legacy was tarnished in the eyes of many fans.

NASCAR’s record books are filled with drivers who have done the same to varying degrees. Richard Petty, winner of seven Sprint Cup Series championships and 200 races, struggled his final three seasons. Dale Jarrett had a disastrous final full season, missing 12 races after going 12 years without missing a single race.

Ward Burton, winner of five Sprint Cup Series races, including the 2002 Daytona 500, disappeared after the 2004 season. No one signed him for the 2005 season and he tried a comeback in 2007 with Morgan-McClure Motorsports. He qualified for 16 races, did not qualify for 19, and had a best finish of 14th. It took that kind of season for him to walk away from NASCAR in  order to focus on his son Jeb’s racing career.

Currently, we see Bobby Labonte has been bumped by his team as a part-time driver after making 704 consecutive races. The move was done to see if it was Labonte’s driving that is holding the team back or the team itself. Considering that they’ve elected to go with AJ Allmendinger in 2014, it’s easy to connect the dots to them thinking Labonte has lost it. As of this article, there have been no rumors of what Labonte might do in 2014. All we know is Labonte has said he won’t be retiring.

Former driver Rusty Wallace now works for ESPN
Former driver Rusty Wallace now works for ESPN

Former driver and current ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace disagrees with those who think Labonte should walk away. “I don’t believe that Bobby Labonte’s time has come to hang it up. I think he’s gotten himself involved in some situations where it just hasn’t been good for him. In my opinion, Bobby needed to be super hyper-focused on the car itself, and he needed to be more vocal on what he didn’t like about the car. And we all know Bobby’s a champion, we all know he’s a good driver, but for whatever reason, he hasn’t been able to, yet, get up on top of it and command what he needs, in a boisterous way.”

Another driver left in limbo is Jeff Burton, Ward’s brother. Burton has made 685 Sprint Cup Series races and has won 21 of them, his last coming in 2008. He will walk away from his current ride with Richard Childress Racing a year early after this season.

“I still love racing.  I still have a passion for it.  You know, part of the realities are what opportunities are going to be there?  I’m just going to have to see what comes in front of me.  I don’t anticipate doing something that I don’t think will be competitive.  I don’t mind building something.  Actually, I enjoy that.  But at 46, that’s probably not something I look forward to.” Burton said when his decision to leave was announced.

Since then Burton has hinted that he has something lined up for the Sprint Cup Series for 2014, but no one is sure what that might be. Rumors also indicate that he will start doing television in 2015 when NBC re-joins NASCAR, so he has a backup plan as to what to do next.

Having that plan for the future is something that made Rusty Wallace, the 1989 series champion and winner of 55 races, walk away after the 2005 season. “It was a very, very tough situation to walk away. And if I hadn’t had a very, very nice offer from ESPN at the time, I might not have hung it up that quick,” said Wallace on his decision.

Wallace is the only driver who, I have been able to find that, walked away while not only still competitive, but on an upswing. After a disastrous 2003 season that saw him finish 14th in points, the first time in 10 years he was not in the top-10, and 2004 where he won a race, but finished 16th in points, it didn’t look good for his final run. While he did win in 2005, he captured eight top-5 finishes (more than 2003 and 2004 combined), 17 top-10 finishes (best since 2002), and finished eighth in points.

“I had my crew chief Larry Carter telling me daily, ‘what are you doing? What is wrong with you? We’re running great, we’ve done all this and now you want to quit?’ And I told him, ‘Larry, I don’t like watching people that go on too long that just don’t look good on the racetrack, and I do want to go out on my terms, to go out on top,’ but the nice thing I had, I had my dealerships, my offer from ESPN, and my son started racing so I wanted to watch him too, I did plan for my departure but one thing I was never going to let myself do was let my performance go to hell and ruin the image I had created,” continued Wallace.

If a driver lingers too long, it can become painfully obvious they might be the issue. As Jarrett explains that was part of his decision process. “It’s different for everybody and that’s the hard thing. It’s one of the, if not the hardest decisions you make in a professional life is when is that time. You don’t ever really want to stay too long, but on the other side of that, that competitive desire and spirit that you have in you, you want to make sure that you get all of that out of you. And I think that’s the determining factor, it was for me, anyway, that I just didn’t have that desire to go every single week and try to perform. I still loved to race and loved to compete but not everything that it takes to be a Cup driver on a weekly basis. It just takes so much of your time and you start losing that desire. Once you start losing that, then it’s time to go. You need to get out and be away and let someone else take that spot in the race.”

As the 2013 season winds down, we might be at a point where we are witnessing the final runs for some drivers. Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, and Jeff Burton have no plans announced for next season. Burton is close to something for next season, but if these drivers walk into the sunset then the sport will really begin yet another shift in culture.

It could end up being Jeff Gordon, who began his career in 1993 as “The Kid,” who would become the most seniored member of the garage, should those drivers not return. He will be the next driver who will have to make that tough call of when to walk away.

Making that call is very difficult, but can be made easier if you have something else lined up to do. For those who don’t and still need that paycheck, it becomes very sad for fans to have to watch their heroes ruin their legacy in front of their eyes.