A Triple Crown

NASCAR’s grueling season deserves three accolades to award drivers’ accomplishments

NASCAR’s 2009 season is well under way, not that it matters all that much. Nowadays everything comes down to the last 10 races. I am not, to put it mildly, a fan of the Chase for the Cup, but, having finally learned a lesson from my husband, I’m not going to nag (this time) about the need to get rid of it.

Instead, I’m going to argue (that’s better than nagging, right?) that since the Chase represents less than a third of the overall season, NASCAR needs to hand out some more hardware to reward achievements from the rest of the races. Specifically, let’s augment the Sprint Cup with two more titanic trophies to give NASCAR its own true Triple Crown.

NASCAR and its sponsors already give out a bunch of smallish awards. The most well-known is the Coors Light Pole Award, where the weekly pole winners collect $5,500 for their efforts and qualify for the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona each February.

There’s also the Goodyear Gatorback Fastest Lap Award for the driver who turns the fastest lap while leading each race, not to mention the Wix Filters Lap Leader Award, which goes to the driver who leads the most laps each week. The USG Improving the Finish Award is given to the driver who moves up the most positions from his starting spot to his finishing position, while the Dow Automotive Strategic Call of the Race Award goes to the team that makes the best, well, strategic call during the race.

There’s more, but you get the picture. I say if the sponsors are happy, I’m happy. These drivers and their teams deserve all the recognition they can get for their excellence in all these oft-unheralded but crucial aspects of big-time racing. But enough already with these piddly awards. It’s time for NASCAR to invest some serious cash and promotion in a true Triple Crown that’d give us three gorgeous, prestigious trophies – and some serious cash prizes to go with them.

We’re stuck with the Chase, so the Sprint Cup (or whatever it’ll eventually morph into in this sponsor-challenged economy) can stay. But what about the guy who rules the regular season? I’m no fan of Kyle Busch, but it’s a shame the kid didn’t get squat for dominating so much of 2008 and being the big points leader when the Chase rolled around. Besides, regular-season excellence determined the NASCAR champion for decades, and even now teams need regular-season excellence to qualify for the Chase.

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So the second jewel of this new Triple Crown would be the Byron Bowl, presented to the driver atop the point standings going into the Chase. This trophy would be named after Robert “Red” Byron, who won the first officially sanctioned NASCAR race in February 1948 and claimed the inaugural NASCAR championship that same year.

Since 2004, when the Chase concept was initiated, our Byron Bowl winners would have been: Jeff Gordon in 2004, Tony Stewart in 2005, Matt Kenseth in 2006, Jimmie Johnson in 2007 and, of course, Busch in 2008. Not a bad bunch.

My other big issue with NASCAR is that it just doesn’t value victories enough. I mean, isn’t that what racing is all about? Consistency is a wonderful thing, but the object of racing, be it slot cars or sailboats, is to cross the finish line first. So let’s really reward victories by creating the King Cup for the driver who amasses the most wins each season.

Richard Petty, of course, leads the all-time NASCAR victory list with an even 200, but he also set the single-season record with an awe-inspiring 27 victories in 48 starts back in 1967, including 10 in a row near the end of that year. You won’t be surprised to learn that Petty was anointed as “the King” during this regal season.

The driver with the most wins fails to claim the championship more often than you might imagine. In fact, it’s happened 31 times since NASCAR waved its first checkered flag in 1948 and seven times in the last nine seasons alone.

Some seasons, the difference is shockingly great. Lee Petty won the 1954 championship with seven victories, but Herb Thomas had 12 wins. Ned Jarrett captured the 1961 title with a single victory, while Joe Weatherly racked up nine wins. Joe Weatherly copped the 1963 crown with three firsts, while Richard Petty rang up 14 wins. More recently, Terry Labonte won the 1996 championship with two wins, while Jeff Gordon had 10. Matt Kenseth captured the 2003 title with a lone victory, while Ryan Newman had eight wins. And Kurt Busch won the 2004 championship with three wins, while Jimmie Johnson had eight.

This three-trophy concept rights a lot of wrongs. The bottom line, though, is that it honors drivers and teams that excel in crucial aspects of Sprint Cup racing that go underappreciated in the current Chase setup.

To really give the Triple Crown the heft it deserves, cut the Chase champion’s payout to $5 million (it was $7.2 million last year), and give $2.5 million each to the winners of the King Cup and the Byron Bowl. That’d make it real interesting to see who could capture each big award. And think how much fun it’d be in those years when one driver has a chance to capture the whole $10 million. -By Kay Bell

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she writes about financial topics and blogs about taxes at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.

Views from the Grandstands | Driver Diversions
Loose Lugnuts:

·I got a chuckle over the fact that Tony Stewart served as grand marshal of the Fiesta Bowl Parade in Phoenix back in January. Not that Stewart didn’t deserve the honor, but I could only imagine how hard it was for Smoke to putt along at 10 miles an hour down the parade route. At least he had a better holiday in Phoenix than Indy star Danica Patrick, who had to ante up a $196 fine after getting busted for going 54 in a 35 mph zone.

·As I write this, Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises are said to be finalizing a merger that ends an era that began at NASCAR’s founding six decades ago. Sounds like it’s a merger in name only, as the iconic No. 43 moves to GEM’s garage while most of the rest of the Petty organization just goes away. Sad, sad, sad.

·GEM, by the way, marks its 10th anniversary this season. But instead of celebrating the milestone, all I can think about is what a shame that Ray Evernham surrendered his majority ownership a few years ago when George Gillett bought in. I’m sure Evernham didn’t plan on things working out this way. I certainly understand his desire to run his own show, but I firmly believe Evernham and Jeff Gordon were the best crew chief/driver combination of all time. Imagine how much better things might have been for both men if Evernham had stuck around Hendrick Motorsports.

·The American LeMans Series kicks off its 2009 campaign March 21 at Sebring, while Formula 1 fires its engines March 29 in Australia and the IRL runs its first event April 5 in Tampa-St. Pete. I can’t wait!