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Time To Roll Out Tweaks To The Countdown?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 28 2013

Ron Capps is among NHRA drivers who would like to have more players dealt into the Countdown. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Ron Capps is locked into this year’s Countdown. He’s won two of the last three NHRA events and is second in the Funny Car point standings with one race to go until the start of the playoffs, so he’ll likely be in great shape once the six-race Countdown begins.

Yet Capps has been thinking; thinking that the NHRA needs to change its playoff system. He thinks that the Countdown needs to become more inclusive, he thinks NASCAR has hit on something positive with its wild card berth provision and he thinks that more emphasis needs to be placed on winning national Mello Yello NHRA events.

And he’s not alone in his thoughts.

As currently structured, the NHRA’s playoff system allows for 10 drivers to earn berths. Those 10 are the drivers/riders who are 10th or better in points in the the four professional classes following the final regular-season event – which, in recent years – has been the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis; the 2013 edition of which is scheduled for this weekend.

Every year since the NHRA proposed adoption of a playoff system – the idea for which admittedly was spawned by the perceived success of NASCAR’s Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship – there have been low volume calls for a tweaking of the process. And tweaks have been made.

The calls this year have gotten a bit louder. It was during a teleconference last week that Capps, unsolicited, advanced his hopes for a wild card provision.

The primary reason for his hopes, Capps said, is that some deserving teams stand to be left out of the Countdown when it begins at zMAX Dragway in North Carolina two weeks after Indy.

“I was kind of hoping NHRA would do something like NASCAR where they open up a little bit of a wild card or another incentive way to get another team in,” Capps said. the reason: deserving teams are in danger of not making the playoffs.

That was precisely the reasoning NASCAR issued when it added the wild card provision to its playoffs.

There are, however, obvious difference between the NHRA and NASCAR.

Sprint Cup, for example, fields 43 cars for every race while the NHRA can field as few as 14 in its nitro classes on some weekends. So, while NASCAR’s playoffs include just over 25 percent of its drivers, an NHRA playoff increased to 12 cars could include well over 50 percent.

Some stick and ball sports, like the NHL, have been criticized for allowing too many teams into its playoffs. The big argument there is based around the thought: Geez, why have a regular season at all if most of the teams are going to be allowed into the playoffs anyway?

Even NASCAR heard that criticism when it expanded its playoffs from 10 to 12 cars.

And let’s be honest here: The prime mover of expanding playoffs in all sports is money. Presumably, playoffs generate excitement, which generates more TV and ticket and sponsorship revenue, which puts more cash into the pockets of the leagues, players, broadcasters, concessionaires and on and on.

Make no mistake; concern for the best interests of fans comes in a weak second when decisions of this kind are made in athletics.

But it would also be absurd to say that fans don’t benefit from enlarging playoffs. They do. That is proved empirically by way of TV ratings and turnstile numbers.

Some years, Capps call might ring kind of hollow. But not this year, particularly, as the competition in all four classes seems to have toughened up.

“It seems like a broken record where you just keep saying it’s tougher and tougher,” Capps said. “Good cars keep coming in. I know a lot of the media that’s on the line right now, we’ve all talked about the beginning of the season and the off season. Talking about looking at the list and seeing who, obviously, there are too many cars that make the Countdown, too many good teams, trying to hypothetically look at the list and say who won’t be in it or who probably won’t be in it. It’s hard to say at the beginning of the year because you know there will be two or three really good cars, really big sponsor teams that there’s no room for them.”

In Capps’ Funny Car category, some pretty big names – and, yes, their sponsors – stand to get shut out of the Countdown unless they have big weekends this weekend.

On the bubble in Funny Car are former NHRA champions like Robert Hight and Del Worsham. There are very good (deserving?) drivers like Bob Tasca III and 2013 six-time semifinalist Tim Wilkerson in trouble.

The situation is similar over in Top Fuel where proven winners Steve Torrence and Bob Vandergriff Jr. are on the bubble and proven winners like Dave Grubnic and Brandon Bernstein are currently dead meat.

Top Fueler Tony Schumacher, who, like Capps, is solidly locked into the Countdown says he, too, thinks more is better in the Countdown.

“You bring in some of them that didn’t earn the spot, so to speak,” Schumacher said, “and give them a chance to go out and win it. There are 10 guys out there that have earned a right to go out and win a championship. But there are other people out there that it’s not the worst situation. I find it a little difficult that there are only 10. All the rest of the guys just have to come spend money racing. Yeah, they can win a trophy, but they don’t have a chance for it. It would be cool to have a couple of spots open to allow, whether it’s a fan vote or past champion or something.”

Some will say of leaving potentially deserving teams and drivers out of the playoffs; that’s how it should be. If they are not good enough to make playoffs, they shouldn’t make the playoffs.”

But racing has things that do not affect other sports. In drag racing, for example, weather problems can cut down qualifying by entire rounds. Untimely oil downs – which, let’s face it, are going to happen when 8,000 horses are turned loose – always cost valuable points.

Capps also echos concerns that have been voiced over on the NACAR side for years – that event victories should be better rewarded. That would help combat the age-old bane of points racing.

“There are guys who don’t go to every race expecting to win that race,” Capps said. “They may be testing something, trying this or that, or they may be on the points lead and trying to coast on through sort of. I think there are a lot of teams in different mentalities going into races from Denver on that aren’t necessarily going there to try to win that race like they would if it was in the Countdown. I think that robs a little bit to the fans.but, again, NHRA throwing in the qualifying points, that fixed a lot of Saturday testing that the teams would do and just go out and smoke the tires. So anyway we can throw an emphasis on trying to be the quickest car every run and go down the track, like NHRA has done a good job of, and race wins would definitely spice things up.”

Schumacher said, “I think if you win a race, you deserve more than 20 points for just winning a round. I think it’s always been that way. I felt like forever you go out and win a race, you earned something. You haven’t gotten some rounds, you’ve gotten past all the rounds and you deserve a little more so. That’s my opinion.”

He also said that some races should be worth more points than others. Like this weekend’s.

The U.S. Nationals are a huge deal. It is truly The Big Go. It’s the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500, Le Mans. It – admittedly just like those events – it pays the same amount of points.

Change, that Schumacher says.

“We need more emphasis on it,” the Sarge said. “We need a bigger goal. We need something like it used to be. It used to be more points. It pays a little better, but it should be a miraculous thing. It’s Indianapolis. It’s an historic race. More people show up to race. More people spend their hard earned dollars to go out and do this, and the fans show up in big numbers. Let’s make it bigger.”

In all areas of life, change can be good and it can be bad. In sports, though, even really bad change seldom hurts anybody and it often improves everybody. It’s one of the beauties of the escapist diversion of sports.

Tweak the Coundown format and points structure in the NHRA? It’s tough to see the harm in that and easy to see the potential benefits.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 28 2013
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