Chase Qualifiers Not Heading To ‘The Bench’ At Richmond

Charlotte, NC (September 4, 2012) – What if you got to Richmond International Raceway this Saturday and the drivers who have already qualified for the ‘Chase’ – Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt. Jr., Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex, Jr., Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer – decided to sit out the final ‘regular season’ NASCAR Sprint Cup race?

Would you be PO’d, demand a refund, or stop being a NASCAR fan altogether?

Some of you are likely to answer ‘yes’ to at least one of these, maybe all of the above.

So why don’t fans of the National Football League do the same?

In case you haven’t been following the NFL and it’s ‘pre-season’ games, here’s what’s been happening. The league and its teams – hoping to keep their top stars healthy and fresh for the regular season – have been staging their games with what are basically replacement players. If the top stars do play, they play for a series or two and then head to the bench.

In some games – like most of them this past weekend – they don’t even play at all.

They never left ‘the bench.’

The way the NFL facilitates this is to allow each team to carry 90 players during the preseason. Then, when the pre-season is over, teams are forced to cut down to a regular-season roster limit of 53. That means that 37 players on each of the 32 teams – the ones who mostly played all pre-season – get sent packing. In all, 1,184 players – or the equivalent of more than 22 NFL team rosters – get the axe for not being good enough to make the squad.

Here’s where this cruel goof on the fans gets even worse.

Regardless of who played in these ‘exhibition’ games, the NFL and its teams charge full price for a ticket. That’s right – they hit up their fans for same amount of money that they charge for a regular-season contest.

Who cares if there’s no Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Breese?

It’s still pro football, right?

Hardly. It must be because NFL fans don’t seem to mind. There’s some grumbling, but no real outcry.

Now flash forward to Saturday night at Richmond.

You’re stoked. You’ve waited all year to see Jimmie, The Biff, Jr., Denny, Keso and Clint along with all your other NASCAR faves do battle. But now, because they are locked in as one of the 12 finalists for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Chase, they want to recharge, not get hurt, get focused on being in top condition for the ‘important’ part of the 2012 NASCAR campaign.

That’s okay, right?

After all, it’s not that their teams still won’t race. Just like the Packers, Giants, Bears, Patriots and the rest of the 32 teams in the NFL, they’ll still show up and compete Saturday at Richmond. But instead of seeing Jimmie Johnson behind the wheel of the No. 48, NASCAR K&N West Series star and someday Cup hopeful Dylan Kwasniewski is wheeling the Lowes Chevy.

Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won’t be steering the No. 88 either giving way to NASCAR K&N East driver Eddie MacDonald.

Ditto for Matt Kenseth, who is replaced by his son, Ross, or Greg Biffle, who has turned his seat over to David Mayhew.

And the pit crews?

There’s danger there too and you want to keep these guys unhurt and in top shape for the Chase, so replacement crews from the Nationwide, Truck and K&N Pro Series are there to fill in.

Like the NFL pre-season games where the uniformed players still look like the Jets, Bills, Chiefs and Raiders, the 48, 88, 16, 17 and the rest of the cars all look the same as they go around the track.

The replacements are pretty darn good, but they’re not the people behind the wheel or on pit road that you give your racing passion to every week.

Would you pay full price for this?

Probably not.

It gets even worse.

Because of a ‘labor dispute,’ the NFL has locked out its regular referees and put replacement referees – semi-pro, college and high school officials – in charge of the games.

Using that model, Mike Helton, David Hoots and the rest of the regular NASCAR Sprint Cup Series officials should get to take the night off at Richmond. Meanwhile, NASCAR replaces them with the tech team from Slinger, Caraway, Gresham and Hickory.

After all, Richmond isn’t a Chase race and these short-track crews – again very good at what they do – should be able to pull off a Cup show, right?

Despite this major cash grab, the NFL has been completely unapologetic for putting this kind of minor-league product on the field and charging full price for it. Even more puzzling is that NFL fans have not raised holy heck about this practice, something that the NFL has been perpetrating on its minions of followers for years now.

Frankly, we don’t think NASCAR, its participants or fans would ever stand for something like this. The reality of NASCAR is that for all its faults, it can’t ever be criticized for not trying to put on the best show it can – right down to tossing a ‘debris caution’ when the show calls for it.

Meanwhile, when is the last time your remember a NASCAR driver sitting out because they could be injured? About the only time that happens is when they are already injured and could be injured more. Seriously, think of the dozens of times we’ve seen a NASCAR driver compete injured. You damn near have to fight a driver to keep them out of the car.

If NASCAR and its participants ever tried to do what the NFL is doing these days, the fans would be looking to raise some hell about it. NFL fans are certainly passionate, but there’s little fury like that of a wronged NASCAR fan.

Don’t believe it? Just ask one of them. I’ve never known one not to tell you what they think.

So, when you settle into your seat at Richmond Saturday, revel in the fact that NASCAR doesn’t have strikes, lockouts, replacement players and officials. Know that your money is going to be spent on the real deal – the final qualifying race for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

And that the top competitors in your sport won’t be playing it safe sitting out on the bench. Just the opposite is true – they’ll be racing their guts out to win and put on a good show because that’s what they do regardless of what part of the season it is.

As a former sports editor at a daily newspaper, many of my stick-and-ball media compatriots would razz me about being a gear head stating NASCAR could never measure up to other sports like pro football.

They’re right – NASCAR will never be the NFL.

But sometimes – as in this case – that’s a very, very good thing.

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