Proposed changes to points system could raise drivers' suspicions about others' motivations on the track.
By BRANT JAMES
Published January 16, 2004
DAYTONA BEACH - The on-board data processor, the one inside every driver's head, sees all and never forgets. Every courtesy, every overaggressive move, every slight that may or may not have been driven by deeper motives, is logged for future reference.
Though drivers have been attuned to their competitors since cars began circling tracks, NASCAR's proposed changes to the system used to determine the points champion could give drivers more to consider. Rightly or not.
Consider the hypothetical: What if in one of the 10 "playoff" races, any driver, say, Kevin Harvick, is eligible for the title and battling a noncontender, perhaps Greg Biffle, for the lead in the race. Biffle makes enough contact with Harvick in a turn to send the No. 29 Chevrolet into the wall and allow one of his Roush Racing teammates, who happens to be championship eligible, to pass and pick up valuable points toward a title.
It was a complete accident, a "racin' deal." But in Harvick's mind, it might seem to be collusion, something ordered from atop the pit box. Those thoughts occur now anyway, but they could happen even more, with 10 or more drivers legitimately vying for the title and all the money and prestige that follow.
"I'm out there racing hard with the guy leading in points with eight races to go and something happens and he gets wrecked," Biffle said. "Am I blocking for my teammates? Am I doing something wrong? It could be construed that way. The same kind of thing happens with the way the system is now, but there could be more emphasis on it."
The stock car racing code that everyone races hard all the time against everyone - when it really matters - might be key in maintaining civility. There is unlikely to be a four-car Roush flying wedge escorting Matt Kenseth to a repeat championship.
"(Stock car racers) treat teammates a lot different," four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "We share a lot of information, but when you're out there, we're out there to win. There's no team orders or anything.
"How are my competitors going to treat me and respect me down the road? As important as teammates are, your competitors are as well because you have to race with them week in and week out."
The quirks of the schedule will test patience if, as widely speculated, the Nextel Cup "regular season" ends Sept. 11 at Richmond, a .750-mile track. The date at Richmond International Raceway would not just be the 26th date in a 36-race schedule, but a point of no return for some teams. The Aug. 28 Bristol night race would be one of the final pushes in the playoff chase, and every fender rub, risky pass and nasty hand gesture would add to the anxiety. Martinsville on Oct. 24 will be an actual playoff race.
There's something about the late-season trip to NASCAR's old short tracks that jangles up the blood of drivers anyway. Emotions, often frustration and anger, mix quickly in the blenders of Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond, all shorter than a mile.
Richmond hardly needs any more drama. Ricky Rudd sent Harvick into the wall in the final laps last fall, ruining Harvick's attempt for a fourth straight top-five finish and greatly damaging his bid to catch Kenseth in the standings. An ugly postrace incident ensued on pit road where members of Harvick's crew stomped on Rudd's hood, prompting an altercation that resulted in fines and suspensions for both teams.
Though only a small group of drivers will compete for a title, NASCAR's unique all-inclusive playoffs mean everyone helps decide it. Some drivers have said the system will prompt them to drive more aggressively, some more cautiously, but the most important style could be "respectfully.'
"When you get that set 10 or however many going for the championship, that's when you start pulling those memories out of the memory bank," rookie Scott Riggs said. "Which one of those guys gave me respect throughout the year? And, I'm going to give him maybe a little extra room today vs. those who didn't."