Allmendinger Berth: Good Or Bad For Chase?
AJ Allmendinger and his relatively tiny JTG/Daugherty Racing team won Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International and immediately became a virtual lock to earn one of 16 berths in the series’ playoffs.
Is that a positive asset of the new Chase system, or one of its flaws?
By most measures, Allmendinger’s run to victory at The Glen was entertaining. His ability to hang with drivers and cars from mega teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske was terrific viewing.
And Allmendinger’s final-laps, hammer-and-tong fight with fellow road-course pro Marcos Ambrose was some of the most gripping racing the Cup series has offered in years.
Events afterward featured more wonderful drama as Allmendinger celebrated with his team in front of a trophy that incorporated a giant cheese cracker. There, they let fly with what appeared to be the kind of sincere emotion that has become all but extinct in big time sports.
Late on Sunday afternoon, it was tough not to like what went on at The Glen. Not even two thrill-killing long red flags could overcome the story of an ankle-biters taking down the big boys. Yep, getting Allmendinger and his team into the Chase was, sans doubt, a feel-good thing on Sunday.
But you just know that in some locations in Charlotte and Daytona Beach this week, the issue of fairness is being discussed with zero regard to how The Glen played out among those in the grandstands and living rooms.
Questions are being asked. Questions like:
– Should a team and driver who clearly are not among the top 16 in Sprint Cup be able to fluke their way into a playoff populated by others who have consistently proven their worthiness?
– Does the specializing nature of road races – there are just two of them and they absolutely require different skill sets for teams and drivers – open up the door to unwanted specialized strategies?
– Does the system reward one-offs at the expense of consistency?
– Does NASCAR owe it to the teams which attract and spend more sponsorship money to keep the playoffs the exclusive playground of the well-to-do?
But the big question should be: Was Sunday’s result conform to the spirit of what automobile racing is supposed to be about?
Big answer: Absolutely.
If NASCAR wants to emerge from this with the populist image it so carefully guards in tact, it had better make sure it doesn’t succumb to pressures to tweak the rules in the opposite direciton.
See, what JTG Daugherty did was something for which many old-schoolers bemoan the loss in contemporary racing of all forms – innovation.
The team identified an obstacle, devised a strategy to overcome it by targeting the road race and testing the track, and it successfully executed that strategy. It took advantage of an opportunity.
The new rules made relevant something that has become irrelevant in the Chase era – winning races and rewarding those wins.
Yes, somebody – perhaps on payroll of Jamie McMurray’s or Brian Vickers’ or Kasey Kahne’s teams – is going to have to walk into a corporate board room somewhere and explain why Allmendinger is in and their driver is not. Oh well.
For many fans, Sunday’s race at the Glen is what they wait for: Racing where cubic dollars play less of a role than do talent, energy, strategy and innovation.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org