What Does It Mean To Be The Best: NASCAR Makes A Case In The Chase

Posted: November 24, 2011 in ALL II
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Under the watchful eyes of the first lady and countless other Americans, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) crowned its champion at Homestead-Miami in perhaps the best race and Chase in the past decade.  Tony Stewart entered the race three points behind Carl Edwards needing nothing less than a win to earn the title.  The two clashed the entire race just as they did throughout the previous Chase races exchanging the lead, avoiding wrecks, and giving NASCAR fans all the drama they could handle.  Though Edwards led the most laps, Stewart crossed the start/finish line 1.306 seconds ahead of Edwards to win.  After 36 races: Stewart: 2403 points.  Edwards: 2403 points.  Tiebreak is wins.  Stewart: 5. Edwards: 1.

There is something endearing to watch wins determine the winner of a championship over the duration of a season especially given the characters involved.  Characters, in this sense, is not meant as demeaning but merely the only way to describe two incredibly different people.  Edwards is cut from America’s pure cloth, reeking of Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson’s politically correct stature.  Fantastic fitness, thinks before he speaks, wholly likable, and just a gem.  Give him some apple pie and he would be America (and the sport’s) representation of NASCAR as a sport.

Stewart, by contrast, is older and does not take anyone’s mess.  At 40 years old, the two time champion is heftier, unshaven, curses like a sailor on a good day, outspoken, and has no issues with speaking his mind regardless of who is watching.  He is the part of America that rejects and genuinely dislikes goody two shoe types like Carl Edwards.  Carl Edwards negotiates and diffuses.  Tony Stewart flips you off and fights.  The contrast between the two brings the best out of the sport.  Like Dallas Mavericks (good) vs. Miami Heat (bad), good and bad always makes a sport work.

While NASCAR is unique in many aspects, what is truly interesting to me and probably you –the non-racing fan- is what constitutes the best.  How do we – sports fans- understand the best after a given year?  It comes down to two positions: most victories or most consistent.

I am a proponent of the consistency argument.  Carl Edwards finished with 19 top fives and posted the best average finish in the Chase in chase history.  Stewart finished with only 9 top fives (although five were wins) making him 7th in top fives in NASCAR.  Although he led in wins this season, Stewart’s victories carried more value as the points were reset for the final ten races; without the reset his victories would have left him barely as a top five points finisher.  The converse is Edwards’ one win.  Eight people won more races in 2011 than Cousin Carl so a champion needs to do better than that right?  It is hard to say.  NASCAR had a system that awarded a championship to the best driver after 36 races – the winner of the war versus the battles.  The Chase resets points after ten races and places greater emphasis on wins – the winner of battles wins the war.

It’s an endless argument but it brings up questions of the best in other sports.  Were the 18-1 Patriots better than the Giants in 2007?  One loss cost them the championship but they did end up as 1-1 against the Giants and won more games.  My Seattle Mariners won 116 games in 2001 but lost in the league championship.  Were the WORLD CHAMPION Diamondbacks the best team in baseball that year?  It depends on where you fall on that scale.

The totality of an individual or team’s work matters and pointing to hardware is not a sufficient condition for estimating the best for a season.  The winners in a contest so close are the fans.  In other sports the general public also wins but NASCAR is NASCAR which means it does not have a general public.  What is clear is that 1.3 seconds separates great season from historically significant.  It’s the difference between one and two when nine months of racing is not enough.

So how do you determine the “best”: consistency or hot streaks at the right time?

  1. Winner says:

    Wins when it counts matters. Alabama and LSU will play for the national title and if Alabama wins it would have done it on a larger stage with greater meaning. they are the best team especially when the game will be played in Louisiana.

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