Volume IX, Issue 7, Page 23

NEWS & ANALYSIS

Watered-down Countdown?

Okay, I get it; it’s a dogfight in all four professional classes to get into that eighth and final position for NHRA’s new-for-this-year Countdown to the Championship. It’s impossible right now to watch a race broadcast without being reminded of that fact before practically every pair of cars (or bikes) takes to the track.

I’ve gotta’ admit, too, it does make for some high drama when a team perseveres or fails at just the right or wrong moment, thereby vaulting or plummeting them into or out of contention. And yes, it’s a great format for mounting a comeback from the depths of the points list, as it appears the never-underestimate-him John Force is going to pull off. But it’s come at the cost of caring about the points leaders.

I was somewhat surprised in mid-July when NHRA announced that Pro Stock leaders Greg Anderson and Jeg Coughlin Jr., along with Pro Stock Motorcycle point man Matt Smith had already clinched spots in the Elite Eight with four races to go in the “regular season” (NHRA’s words, not mine). I mean, I knew the leaders would clinch eventually, but with nearly 25 percent of the first phase of the Countdown (17 races) to go? Yeah, that surprised me a little.

Then, of course, with three regular-season events left, Rod Fuller and Ron Capps, the points leaders in Top Fuel and Funny Car, respectively, as well as Pro Stocker Dave Connolly, also were safely ensconced in the Countdown’s second phase, a “four-race Countdown playoff round” (again, their words) beginning Labor Day weekend at Indy’s U.S. Nationals.

So, while the drama and turmoil continues to build over eighth and ninth place, life at the top of the heap became relatively tranquil and secure after the Seattle event—or at least as tranquil and secure as can be with 8,000 or so horsepower at the tip of your toes. Which begs the question: are all those drivers who secure a playoff berth early going to race just as hard as ever going into Indy?

I know they’d all vehemently answer, “Absolutely! After all, we’re out here to win races and that hasn’t changed!” I wonder.

What’s to stop a top-level team from essentially going into test mode for a few events after clinching a Countdown start, to get better prepared for the “real” racing when it resumes at Indy? Some are even suggesting that to be the case for Greg Anderson and Jason Line (even before Line clinched) back in the middle of that six-in-a-row marathon this month when their performances and results fell off slightly from the lofty standards they’ve set for themselves and the rest of the class.

Personally, I don’t believe it, I think Anderson et al simply lost the handle for a little while (whether due to the grind, parts attrition or being unable to visit their North Carolina shop, I don’t know) and are honestly struggling to regain their form. But the apologists could have a case for future “test-n-tune” scenarios played out by clinched Countdown contenders.

What about a team like Fuller’s, racing most of this year with little or no major sponsorship? I don’t expect it to happen, but what if his team just decided to sit out the last race or two before Indy to save a few parts and a sizable chunk of money before the start of the playoffs? It happens all the time in the stick-and-ball sports, where coaches and managers save their greatest assets for the playoffs once a berth is secured. In baseball, football or hockey that means the star players often sit out a few “meaningless” end-of-season games. Is it really that much of a stretch to think of the car as a “star player” on a drag racing team? It could be tempting, especially if money is tight, to save it for the big game.

Or consider the possibility of Robert Hight being firmly in place for the playoff run, but teammate and team owner (and father-in-law!) Force remains just outside the top eight. Or Papa Force is in, but daughter Ashley remains on the cusp. Is it all that hard to envision the dreaded “d-word” if either of these pairs should meet in eliminations at Brainerd or Reading? It makes perfect sense from a business and sponsorship standpoint to advance as many team cars to the next playoff round as possible, that’s all I’m sayin’.

And unfortunately, the current Countdown format doesn’t even discourage such shenanigans by the locked-in teams at the top since the Elite Eight will have their season totals adjusted in 10-point increments once the playoffs begin. So, a deliberate round loss by the current points leader in order to help advance a teammate won’t significantly hurt his or her chances to win the championship. I mean, the farthest behind the leader anyone in Countdown contention can start at Indy is 70 points, so really, the risk to the higher-seeded driver is minimal while the benefit to the lower-seeded could potentially be a season title.

That said, I don’t want to sound too much like a conspiracy theorist here and want to make clear I’m not suggesting any of the teams mentioned are doing anything wrong or any of the above scenarios are currently being carried out. I’m just pointing out the possibilities for this year and beyond.

NHRA stated when it rolled out its new points format that it expected the Countdown to generate more media commentary and fan interest in its season points chases. I guess it worked, but shouldn’t I at least care who’s leading the standings going into the biggest race of the year?