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Sometimes you just have to admit you were wrong

by Dave Grayson
Saturday, December 10, 2011

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In late January of this year NASCAR officials announced a new championship points procedure based on a 43 to 1 concept. In other words the winner of a Sprint Cup race received 43 points with a one point descending deficit from second, 42 points, all the way to one point for the driver who finished 43rd.

There were two basic ideas behind this new plan. The first was to place greater emphasis on winning races, along with consistent finishes, towards winning the Sprint Cup championship. The second idea was to simplify the system and create a clearer understanding for the fans regarding tracking the points of their favorite drivers. This was especially relevant for the newer fans of NASCAR racing.

Obviously it worked well as evidenced by the conclusion of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase For The Championship. The drama of Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards racing for that title in the final laps of the final race only to be tied in points at the checkered flag had to be an unexpected dream come true for NASCAR officials.

Having said that, there was an aspect of the new points structure that made me cringe. It was the words "WILD CARD". The new points reconfiguration called for expanding the Chase line up to 12 drivers that included two wild card berths primarily based on the two drivers who had the most wins during the regular, 26 race, season as long as they were within the top 20 in the points standings.

As I sat in my office last January reading this announcement I vividly recalled yelling "W-T-F". Although wild card playoff berths have been a factor in the other major American sports for many years now, I have never really cared for them. Yes, I understand that the presence of wild card teams expands the playoff period which translates into more television time and money from the broadcast networks. Yes, I understand that this expanded playoff period creates more drama for the fans and, in turn, raises television ratings which also leads to future increases in advertising revenue. I've spent enough time in radio and television over the years to develop an awareness of how this concept can work.

An example of how a wild card berth can work in major American sports can easily be found in the National Football League. The league has a roster of 32 teams. At least 12 of them are going to make the post season playoffs. Consider this hypothetical situation: a team in the National Football League finishes the regular season with an 8-9 won/loss record. Despite those disappointing numbers, this team can still qualify for a wild card berth.

Now let's say that this team goes into round one of the playoffs facing an opponent with far superior regular season stats. It's possible that the favored to win team could arrive at this game thinking they have a lock on a round one win. That mental aspect could actually lead to a major upset on the scoreboard. It's also very possible that the 8-9 team could get extraordinary lucky and actually find themselves in the Super Bowl.

Despite the all American never give up, Cinderella story, aspect, I've always found his wild card concept to be unacceptable. I truly believe that the only thing a NFL team, with an 8-9 record, should receive is a plane ticket home at the conclusion of the regular season.

So, you can well imagine my initial thoughts when I learned that NASCAR had implemented a wild card system in their play off procedures. In the days that followed last January's announcement, some of the NASCAR conspiracy theorists ran amuck and referred to the new wild card concept as "the Dale Earnhardt Jr Rule." In other words, it was viewed as a ways and means to make sure that NASCAR's most popular driver made the Chase line up.

In total honesty, I must admit that there were a short period of time where I actually considered signing off on that theory. My apologies to Earnhardt and the "Junior Nation."

For that matter it's time to admit that I was wrong and forward an apology to NASCAR for jumping to conclusions, regarding the new wild card policy, instead of taking a more appropriate wait and see approach to determine how this program could actually work.

That's because it worked extremely well. As the summer of 2011 turned into the fall, it was apparent that the wild card scenario was going to become a major NASCAR story line. Tony Stewart was a perfect example of that. At the conclusion of the second event at Daytona, held in early July, Stewart's team was mired down with performance issues. They were still seeking their first win and were 12th in the points.
   
  Meanwhile young David Ragan finally flexed his racing muscles and      won his first ever Sprint Cup race at Daytona. The win elevated him to 17th in the points and in a prime position to possibly claim one of the wild card berths. The Ragan victory created the possibility that Stewart, the driver who ultimately won the championship, might not make the Chase line up at all.

The one wild card scenario that really electrified the fans involved Brad Keselowski and his Roger Penske Racing/Miller Lite blue deuce team. In January, NASCAR observers were in complete agreement that this team was going to experience a break out season in 2011. However, following the Memorial Day weekend running of the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte, it appeared the break out wasn't coming. Keselowski was still seeking his first win of the season and was mired down at 25th in the points.

That all changed a week later when Keselowski scored his first win at Kansas. The victory elevated him to 21st in the standing, and only seven points away from the all important top twenty wild card requirement. But it was the month of August where the driver really caught fire. He began that month by scoring his second win at Pocono and virtually locked up a wild card berth in the Chase. He finished the month of August by winning his third race at Bristol. Keselowski had now accomplished the one thing we thought impossible: he had driven his way into the 12 man Chase line up.

The team began the Chase as the 11th seed. They finished the Chase in fifth based on three wins, ten top five finishes and 14 top tens. Now those were the stats we were expecting from this team last January.

It was also absolute proof that NASCAR's new wild card system was a very viable part of its new championship format.

That's also why it's time for your truly to admit I was wrong.

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