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What’s the point?

 

BSB riders give chase - new points systems are all the rage (pic MSV)

In the past you needed to be Watson the supercomputer to work out who scored what in a Nascar race, now the Sprint Cup has adopted a new points formula that should be easier to comprehend for those like myself whose brains freeze when faced with any more than a couple of digits. So it’s 43 points for the win, a solitary point for last and you can guess the rest. Throw in a point for leading a lap (always a great incentive for action) and another point for leading the most laps (always a well earned point) and there you have the new system. Simples.

So things are easier to follow, but the Sprint Cup is only claimed after the season’s ending series of 10 races known as The Chase. Played out on dull ‘cookie cutter’ tracks, the top 12 drivers have their points almost equalised and only these chosen few can race for the title. Not so simples.

Jimmie Johnson has claimed the last five straight Sprint Cups, timing his push to the top 12 perfectly every time while other stock car superstars are left fighting over the scraps. So can Jimmie still win under this new system? Of course he can, he’s the complete driver with a shrewd crew chief and the best team in the business, but at least we may see some more representative results for strong drivers who have missed the Chase in the past such as win-a-holic Kyle Busch or King of Concrete Carl Edwards.

Last year British Superbikes adopted their own Chase-style system, branded as The Showdown, that saw Riuchi Kionari taking the crown at a thrilling final round at Oulton Park. Nobody doubts the quality of the Japanese rider, so it’s certainly worked for the BSB and looks set to stay. It’s also a hell of a lot better than Bernie’s silly medals idea he keeps going on about ever since he took his little trip to Beijing with the Blairs back in 2008.

For what it’s worth I’m not a fan of a Chase format that freezes out riders and drivers. It’s nice to see a championship develop over the course of a season. But what do I know, I’m still stuck with the opinion that the only proper points in F1 are the top six.

The Chase seems fairly popular on the Nascar scene, so the current talking point is the weird scenario that the top three series are all being led by drivers who didn’t win during Speedweeks as it was part-time interlopers Waltrip, Stewart and Bayne who struck gold. Only giving points to regulars was a response to Sprint Cup drivers scooping the honours in feeder series, such as Brad Keselowski’s title success in Nationwide last year.

I think it’s a truly wonderful thing that Nascar has drivers guesting across its various formulas – it gave us a truly feel-good story with Trevor Bayne’s big win last Sunday. It provides feats to marvel at such as Kyle Busch winning more races in one year than you could count on your fingers and toes. Some of the greatest races on two wheels have been ridden by wildcards, I only wish that F1 would lighten up and allow a Rossi or a Loeb to join the grid once in a while.

Today Indycar announced a massive prize-fund for their Las Vegas season finale to encourage some series-swapping, a move in the right direction for the new management of the series. A cheque for $5 million will be given to any guest driver who claims the win; what price Mario dusting off his overalls? “Oh boy,” tweeted Marco Andretti, “if my grandfather finds this out we will be a 5 car team!”

The Nascar debate about guys who finished second and third leading the way is a moot point – it’s great that they have guest drivers competing in the first place. And the fact we can even have this discussion without picking up a calculator is a success for the simplified points system.

After Nascar hits the desert in Phoenix and Vegas over the next couple of weeks the charts will doubtless look a little cleaner and those sensitive souls who are troubled by the scoring anomalies thrown up by the thrilling events of Speedweeks will have forgotten the current odd look of the tables. However the memorable feats of Waltrip, Stewart and Bayne will be imprinted on the minds of the fans forever.

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“I came here to celebrate his life, I didn’t come to celebrate a win.”

February the 18th 2011. It’s 10 years to the day since Dale Earnhardt lost his life chasing the Daytona 500. The winner that fateful day was Michael Waltrip, his first 500 victory overshadowed by the death of his car owner. Waltrip has taken a win in the 500 since, but he truly exercised the ghosts of 2001 by claiming victory in the Camping World Truck series at Daytona on the tenth anniversary of what must rank as the most bitter-sweet day of his career and indeed his life. Earnhardt Jnr always has the eyes of the fans on him, but Mikey Waltrip has shouldered some of the burden of Dale Snr’s loss too, “Someone said, ‘I can’t believe it’s been 10 years.’ I said, ‘Well, I can. I live it every day.'”

 

During the pre-race show Michael was reliving the events that changed Nascar forever, musing with his brother Darrell Waltrip about their roller coaster relationship with Earnhardt that went from feuding to friendship. Darrell spoke of Dale, by this point a seven time champion, putting his arms round him and offering his former nemesis help with a career in terminal decline. The younger Waltrip poignantly added with reference to the win his boss never saw, “I kept waiting for that hug.”

 

Dale Earnhardt may not have lived to see his driver win his first race after 463 attempts, but the fans have lived with the memory of February 18th 2001. Ten years on and Michael Waltrip gave them a beautiful moment at the end of a brutal race. Having never taken victory in a Truck race before, Waltrip’s steed for this race was black in tribute to The Intimidator and it proudly carried the number 15 on its flanks, the digits he took to Victory Lane for Earnhardt Inc. at the Great American Race.

 

The stars were aligned, but Waltrip had to survive not one, but two ‘Big Ones’ that left only five cars without damage. Elliot Sadler led the race on the final restart but Waltrip held his nerve, calmly slotted in behind him and then hustled his way past on the final dash to the flag to claim as emotional a win as we’ve seen at the Speedway. And they’re all emotional wins there.

 

Waltrip may have been aided in this dramatic last-second charge by his rear wing partially collapsing on the final lap to allow him slightly more top speed, but he was always at the sharp end and it would be churlish to suggest he couldn’t have done it otherwise.  Maybe it’s one of those new-fangled movable wings from F1! Expect a fine and a slapped wrist, but don’t expect Nascar to write him out of the results.

 

Meanwhile Dale’s grandson Jeffrey claimed seventh, the best of his short career, the cherry on the cake. As the familiar Waltrip and Earnhardt names rode high and turned back the clock, there was a reminder of just how much Nascar has changed this past decade as Jennifer Jo Cobb finished 6th, a landmark result for a lady racer. Danica Patrick lines up fourth for today’s Nationwide race at the Speedway, so we could see that new record for female stock car drivers broken within 24 hours.

 

The commentators in the booth included big brother Darrell who spoke on the radio to his little brother within seconds of the flag. “I’m just thankful,” Michael said tearfully before modestly adding in Victory Lane, “I came here to celebrate his life, I didn’t come to celebrate a win.”

 

It was less a fairytale, more a Shakespearian tragedy, although the universe did what it could to tidy up the mess left behind when Nascar’s shining star lost his light on the biggest stage of the sport. Daytona is a story in itself written over 60 years, a page turner that never fails to enthrall. The next two chapters will be written tonight and on Sunday, make sure you catch it. If you didn’t see it live make sure you watch the magic that unfolded on February 18th 2011 in the video above.

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Memories of a black day

2011 marks a decade since Nascar lost Dale Earnhardt on the final corner of the final lap of the Great American Race. It also marks 10 years since my family and I boldly made the trip to the Sunshine State to go and see Nascar for ourselves. Obviously the death of a bonafide hero cast a shadow over our holiday of a lifetime, but for those who truly identified with the Man in Black it will have a cast a far longer shadow over their lifetimes.

As Dale’s life ebbed away his eponymous team took a one-two with Michael Waltrip leading home Dale Earnhardt Jnr; Senior would have followed them home in third place for the perfect family finish had fate not so cruelly intervened.

However tragic the event was in itself, what really humbled me was the atmosphere the following day. We were staying well over an hour away from the track and even out there the grief was palpable. The usual chorus of “missing you already” was gone, the ever-chirpy Florida service industry had wiped the smile from their faces. Perhaps we were so close to the epicentre of it all or maybe Americans wear their heart on their sleeve a little more than the reserved Brits, but to us it felt like a more tangible tragedy than Princess Diana’s death had been back home.

A decade has passed since then and the subject still makes this Limey well-up. Some small consolation came as Earnhardt’s replacement Kevin Harvick took the victory three races later at Atlanta. Then Dale Jnr won the July race at the track that claimed his Dad’s life. To achieve that while going through such a horrible time and thrust under the spotlight placed on him by the good-natured fans that were the younger Earnhardt’s real inheritance, that was real character. Even Jnr’s win in Wrangler colours, carrying the now fabled number 3 at Daytona last year was something special, it never gets old. I guess it’s because these successes are never enough to heal the old wounds, but they do provide some welcome relief.

But what really hit the heart hard was the number 3 salute given by the fans on lap three of every race in 2001. It has to be the most touching gesture from fans of any sport – 150,000 people holding aloft three fingers on the third lap of the race as the commentators hush. This lovely sight returned at Daytona last year as the 3 car took the lead, what a cruel but beautiful sport racing can be. Watch this magic moment here.

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