by Ryan Isley
Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. NASCAR agrees with that idea. Well, sort of, as long as you meet other certain criteria.
Starting with the 2004 season, NASCAR created the Chase for the Sprint Cup for its premier series and has constantly tweaked it to make wins more important in the overall scheme of crowning a season champion. This came in part because 2003 champion Matt Kenseth was able to win the title with just a single win, beating out Ryan Newman, who led the series with eight wins on the season.
When NASCAR made the latest adjustments to the format prior to last season, wins became a determining factor for almost everything. It was decided that the 16 drivers with the most wins would make up the field for the Chase (of course this was dependent on there being 16 or more winners in the first 26 races). Then a win in any of the first three segments of the Chase would grant the driver an automatic spot in the next segment, with the final race of the season a winner-take-all between the four drivers who advanced.
Winning seemed to be the name of the game.
But there were other criteria that had to be met as well for a driver to be eligible for the Chase. While a win would all but lock a driver into the field, it only did so if the driver was in the top-30 in the points standings and had at least attempted to qualify for all 26 races leading up to the Chase. We learned quickly, however, that NASCAR had the right to grant a waiver to any driver who failed to meet those two requirements.
Enter Kyle Busch.
When Busch was injured in the first weekend of the 2015 NASCAR season in a wreck during the Xfinity Series race, it looked like the then 29-year-old driver from Las Vegas could possibly miss the entire season. After undergoing surgery on both legs, Busch was somehow able to make his return after missing just 11 races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
Before Busch returned to the track, NASCAR did indeed grant him a waiver on the requirement of attempting to qualify for each race. However, NASCAR did not grant a waiver for the top-30 rule. NASCAR said Busch could make himself eligible for the Chase if he was able to win at least one race and climb into the top-30 in points once the Chase field was set.
At that point, it seemed like a monumental challenge. It seemed even more difficult after Busch limped home in 36th at Dover in his second race back. Add in a last-place finish at Michigan in his fourth race back and it looked like Busch would be just working on things to learn for next season.
Busch earned his first win of the season in the next race at Sonoma in just his fifth race of the season to check the victory part of making the Chase off his list. He then followed it up with a solid 17th-place finish at Daytona in his first race at the track since his injury.
But since then, Busch has caught fire. He has taken his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota to victory lane in three straight races and is now tied with Jimmie Johnson for the most wins on the season. Not only has he won three straight races, but he has done it with three different rules packages after NASCAR decided to make changes for the race at Kentucky Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But if the Chase started right now, Kyle Busch wouldn’t be participating. All because he sits 23 points out of 30th-place in the standings.
That’s a problem that is easily rectified. Waive the rule this time.
This rule wasn’t put in place to keep a driver from participating in the Chase if he had the most wins in the series and missed races due to a legitimate injury like Busch had. Busch wasn’t injured playing basketball or surfing or doing something away from the racetrack. He wasn’t even injured in a race at a local racetrack on a Thursday night. He was injured in a NASCAR sanctioned event in one of the top three series of the sport. And he was injured in part because there wasn’t the proper safety precautions taken at the track (which have since been added).
Instead, the rule was put in place to protect the integrity of the sport. The reason for the two requirements was to keep drivers from skipping races once they had secured their win and spot in the Chase. NASCAR wouldn’t want drivers to decide to take a few weeks off to rest up for the Chase and therefore cheat the fans out of seeing those drivers in the races.
And while most will disagree with the argument that NASCAR should waive the top-30 rule for Busch, I would argue that it is in the best interest of NASCAR to do so. While I am not a fan of NASCAR allowing (and probably encouraging) the regulars from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to participate in Xfinity Series races, they do allow it. And that’s how Kyle Busch was injured.
I would think that the probability would be pretty high that Busch makes the Chase now based on the rules and restrictions that are in place. But what happens if he has a bad week or two and doesn’t find his way into the top-30? Does NASCAR really want to have to justify keeping a guy out of the Chase who is tied for the most wins on the season (or even if he finishes top-3 in wins)?
If NASCAR wants to keep the premium on winning, the only answer is to make Kyle Busch Chase eligible immediately. Then again, he just might go ahead and take care of it himself on the track.