NASCAR: Does 'champion' mean 'the best'?

Saturday, November 27th 2004, 10:17 am
By: News On 6

I got an e-mail from a race fan that said NASCAR got everything it hoped for out of the first 10-race Chase, except a "true champion."

He and other traditionalists believe that what Matt Kenseth did last year - win the title with consistency during 36 races - makes him a real champion while Kurt Busch's feat was the result of NASCAR's entertainment gimmick.

But isn't the ability to perform the best, when the pressure is the greatest, and the most is on the line, what makes a champion a champion?

"Whoever wins this championship this year should be very honored and proud of what they've accomplished, because this is one of the toughest championships I've ever been a part of," Jeff Gordon said two weeks before the finale.

Gordon should know, with his four championships won the old-fashioned way. Only one went down to the wire.

It's one thing to be the best. It's another to be a champion.

The Florida Marlins certainly weren't the best team in 2003. The New York Yankees were. But the Marlins were the World Series champions, and deservedly so.

How interesting would baseball be if the champion was the team that had the best record after 162 games?

Where would the NFL be without its Super Bowl?

No March Madness in college basketball? No Villanova.

Isn't that why fans love sports, to be able to root for the underdogs?

TV ratings were up 47 percent for this year's NASCAR finale, when five drivers had a chance to win, from last year when Kenseth clinched the title before Homestead.

Another e-mail said Busch was the recipient of "welfare," because under the new format, the drivers who make the Chase have their points adjusted in five-point increments which separate the leader and 10th-place driver by 45 points.

At the 26-race cutoff point to make the Chase, Busch was in seventh place and 326 points behind then-leader Gordon. When the Chase started in New Hampshire his deficit was only 30 points.

But in other sports, everyone's record is readjusted to 0-0. Home-field advantage is the only advantage for having the better record.

And just as hockey gets more intense in the NHL playoffs, so did the racing.

"When you have more competitors involved in the Chase, it adds intensity," Gordon said.

"Now, with this new points system, there's not a race out there that you can cruise. You've got to get everything you can every race."

Under pressure

Whether you like Busch, and you probably don't if the amount of boos he received at every track were any indication, it's hard to deny that he didn't drive like a champion.

Under the most intense pressure he has ever felt in a race car, he rallied from 28th place after his wheel came off to finish fifth - just enough to win the title.

And he did it with Gordon, the greatest NASCAR driver of this era, and Jimmie Johnson, winner of four of the previous five races, trying to catch him.

Busch had the 18-point lead going into the finale by putting together a string of gusty races, in which he drove from the back of the field to the top 10 after having to overcome running out of fuel, getting caught in other's wrecks and other mishaps not of his doing.

In the final 10 races, the only time Busch didn't make the top 10 was when his engine failed. Nine top 10 finishes are more than most drivers have in an entire season.

Good guy?

Busch hopes people will like him more now that he is the champion, saying he hopes people "realize I'm not such a bad guy."

Richard Petty said he doesn't think a championship will change people's minds overnight.

"It's just like the election," The King said. "Just because Bush won the presidency, all them Kerry people or Democrats didn't go over and say, 'Boy, he's great.' It don't work that way."

But fans should at least appreciate Busch's feat. Gordon did.

"I want to say congratulations to Kurt Busch and Roush Racing," said Gordon, who theoretically would have won his fifth championship if it were held under the old format.

"They did a great job all year, and they deserve it."