MONTE DUTTON: DAMNING WITH FAINT PRAISE
Brace yourself. This week I came to praise NASCAR, not to bury it.
I take back nothing. In NASCAR as with most sports, I am a traditionalist. If I could ban the designated hitter from the ballparks, I would. If I could banish teams with losing records from post-season play, I’d do it.
That train left the NASCAR station in 2004. Now the season boils down to 10 races in the fall, and from the way some people talk, you’d think the Chase, now oh, so originally known as “playoffs” in which no one plays, had caused interest in stock car racing to explode into worldwide acclaim.
As the late, great Yogi Berra might have said if asked, “Those tracks are so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.”
But, at long last, after hiking the field of contestants from 10 to 12 to 16, and making the path to get there more circuitous than Lewis and Clark’s race to the Pacific, it’s a little better.
I hate it a little less, not that anyone in NASCAR cares about my feelings.
Until this year, all that mattered in the first 26 races was being one of the 10 or 12 or 16 left when the Boondoggle Previously Known as The Chase began. The Chase created a caste system of contenders who gradually diminished and two dozen or so other hapless drivers representing hapless teams, required by the Lords of Daytona to wander around aimlessly and for no good reason.
Oh, yeah. I wrote that I was going to be nice. It was my intention. Really. It was. As bad as the Chase was – and it has coincided with the decline of an entire sport – the playoffs, even with all the confusing bonus points, some of which are for the current points, and some for the future points, and some that last and some that don’t, are a step in the right direction. NASCAR’s brainiacs marched the troops into the pits of hell and, finally, amid the gnashing of television executives’ teeth, screamed “about face!” and pulled back from the conflagration.
Johnny isn’t marching home again. He’s got a limp and what my father used to call a walking stick.
But … Martin Truex Jr. has been the class of the season, and he is the favorite for the championship because protective measures have been taken to get him to the finals. His performance has meant something more than sweeping NFL exhibition games.
It’s not necessarily good. It’s better, though.
The championship will still come down to four drivers, dead equal, but the almost unavoidable likelihood is that the four will have some justification for being there. Many of the tickets being punched for the playoffs – God, I wish they were race-offs – won’t be worth the paper on which they are figuratively printed.
In the spiraling-wildly-out-of-control world of NASCAR, it’s an improvement.