The White Zone: NASCAR has an identity crisis

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Kevin Harvick summed up the problem with the NASCAR playoffs.

“That’s the system that we work in and it’s obviously skewed more towards entertainment than the whole year,” he said.

NASCAR stared into the abyss for years. Now, it’s staring back at us.

NASCAR is at an identity crossroad.

What we witnessed, Sunday, at Martinsville Speedway was a culmination of years of NASCAR sacrificing the integrity and legitimacy of its championship for the sake of entertainment. Gone are the days when the championship went to the driver who performed the best over an entire season. Now, the system rewards you for getting hot at the right time and punishes you for one or two bad races in a three-race round.

Making the Championship 4 now is less weighted on performance and more weighted on random luck.

It was at its worst in 2014, 2015 2016, when the four best drivers didn’t make the Championship 4. Jeff Gordon missed the cut, because of one bad race at Texas Motor Speedway, and that was at the actions of Brad KeselowskiJoey Logano missed the cut in 2015, because Matt Kenseth kamikaze’d him into the wall at Martinsville. Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. missed the cut a round early, because of reliability issues at Talladega Superspeedway.

Sure, the championship went to one of the four best drivers in 2014 (Harvick) and 2015 (Kyle Busch). But in 2016, it went to Jimmie Johnson, who was in the midst of a career-worst season, performance-wise.

The current iteration of the playoffs were supposed to be different. Season-long performance was supposed to carry more importance.

And it did, for 2017, when Truex won the championship.

2018, however, Logano won the title, not any of the “Big 3” (Busch, Harvick and Truex).

Last season, Busch found the performance he lacked in the latter half of the season and won the championship.

And now, we come to Sunday.

Harvick entered Martinsville with nine wins under his belt for 2020 and an average finish of 7.3. A level of dominance we’ve not seen in the Cup Series in over a decade.

Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Harvick choked when it counted the most. His performance in this round was the NASCAR equivalent of the Atlanta Braves blowing a three games to one series lead in the National League Championship Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Harvick, himself, said as much, noting the championship isn’t “won the same way that (Dale) Earnhardt and (Richard) Petty did. You have to put together a few weeks and we didn’t put together these last few weeks like we needed to and just came up short.”

With that said, however, the playoffs are still a terrible method of deciding a champion in the sport of auto racing.

The last two paragraphs aren’t mutually exclusive. Both can be correct, simultaneously.

Before you bring up examples of the best teams not winning in other sports, let me head you off at the pass. Those aren’t comparable, because the stick and ball sports don’t have every team on the same field, simultaneously, like auto racing does.

The 2007 New England Patriots played only the New York Giants in Super Bowl 42. They didn’t also play the 1-15 Miami Dolphins and 3-13 St. Louis Rams at the same time.

The 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers, with the third-best record in the NBA that season, played only the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. They didn’t also play the Philadelphia 76ers, who were in the midst of “The Process,” at the same time.

None of these teams had their car damaged on a restart at Texas that shouldn’t have taken place, because of weather, like Harvick did. None of these sports leagues had their title fight watered down, because of external forces, like NASCAR does. And none of these championship games are a total crapshoot, like NASCAR’s is.

It makes a strong case for why NASCAR’s TV ratings and attendance have tanked for the last 14 years. And it makes a strong case for why NASCAR grows more and more irrelevant in the motorsports world.

Scott Dixon kisses the Astor Cup, after winning the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series championship in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, on Oct. 25, 2020, in St. Petersburg, Florida. Photo: James Black/IndyCar Photography

Meanwhile, it’s biggest motorsports competitor in the United States, IndyCar, continues to grow and thrive, with a season-long points format. Moreover, a driver hasn’t clinched the Astor Cup before the final race of the season in over 14 years.

Yes, some seasons will have Lewis Hamilton-esque domination. Yes, some drivers will win the title before the final race. However, sometimes, Davey Allison doesn’t win the title, even when he came into that race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992 as the points leader. That holds up better than any title fight in the last six years, because it played out organically. The situation created itself, naturally. It didn’t need NASCAR to manufacture the Game 7 moment into the system.

So what does NASCAR want to be? Does it want to be a league that’s taken seriously by the sports world, be it state-side or the motorsports world? Does it want to just be a source of entertainment, like WWE?

If it’s the former, then the gimmicks need to go (playoffs, stages, etc.). Let them join their creator, Brian France, as a relic of a bygone era. If it’s the latter, however, then NASCAR’s proven all of the sports pundits and stick and ball sports fans who’ve ever said what it does isn’t real sport right.

If NASCAR doesn’t see itself as a real sports league and what it does as an actual sport, then why should anyone else?

That’s my view, for what it’s worth.

TOP IMAGE: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images