How do the NASCAR championships work?

Dear Sports Fan,

I read your Cue Cards series every morning faithfully. This morning you admitted that you didn’t really understand how the NASCAR championships work. Isn’t that your job? Figure it out!

Get on it,

Dear Arturo,

You’re right, it’s unforgivable. I should know how the NASCAR championships work! So, I did some research and figured it out. It’s an interesting model. Here’s how it works:

There are 36 races in a NASCAR season. Of these, the final ten are part of the NASCAR championship series, called the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In some ways, these final ten races are just like the first 26 races in the season. Each is its own event with its own results and prize money. For example, the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, run on Sunday, October 26, 2014 had a total purse of $5,036,108 that went out to the forty-three drivers who competed in the race. During the final ten races though, there is another set of standings and results super-imposed on top of the normal race results. This extra structure is the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup begins with 16 competitors and slowly reduces the field to four before crowning a champion in one final race. The first round consists of three races and is called the Challenger Round. After those three races, four drivers are eliminated and the next round begins. The next round is called the Contender Round, also consists of three races, and has twelve competitors. Once the three races are done, another four drivers fall out and only eight remain. The eight compete in the Eliminator Round, also over the course of three races. The final cut happens and the field is reduced to four drivers for the Championship round which is a single race.

The sixteen driver field is initially chosen based on the results of the first 26 races in the season. Drivers in these “regular season” races are assigned points at the end of the race based on what place they finished the race and whether or not they led during the race. The racers with the most wins in the first 26 races will be given spots in the sixteen driver Chase field. If there are more than 16 winners (which almost never happens,) the winners with the most points will qualify. If there are fewer than 16 winners (because some drivers won a lot of the first 26 races) then the field will be filled in order of the points standings among non-winners. It’s a little convoluted, but basically the best 16 drivers from the first 26 races qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Before the Chase starts, the 16 qualifiers are assigned points based again on regular season wins. Every driver is given 2,000 points plus three points for every regular season win. This year, the standings at the beginning of the Chase looked like this with Brad Keselowski in first place with 2012 points and a three-way tie between drivers 14-16 who all qualified without having won a single race that season.

At the end of each round until the Championship round, the winners of the three races in the round (note that because each race has the normal complement of 43 drivers, there may not be three eligible winners) automatically advance to the next round and the rest of the available slots are filled in order of how many points they accumulated during the round. At the beginning of each round, the points are reset, so each driver that survives the cut has an equal shot to win the next round. There are no cumulative standings. The final Championship round takes place during a single race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16, 2014. Of the four remaining drivers, whoever places higher in that race wins the overall Chase for the Sprint Cup.

There are so many things about this format that are interesting. First of all, the idea of having a race within a race — a set of drivers within a field of 43 who care more about beating each other than winning the race is curious. How does that impact the tactics of the race itself? It’s tempting to want to see just the sixteen, twelve, eight, or four drivers still alive for the championships race alone on a track but racing with so few cars on the track probably alters the sport enough to make it unfitting for a playoffs. Still, it’s strange to think of a driver other than one in the final four winning at Homestead-Miami. Then you’ll have two separate victory celebrations happening simultaneously at the end of the race. The Chase for the Sprint Cup is an evolutionary approach by NASCAR to trying to maintain the one-day excitement of their sport while creating the week-to-week suspended drama of a playoffs.

I learned a lot — I hope you did too,
Ezra Fischer

What happens when a forest grows in a NASCAR track?

The Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, North Carolina, was one of the first race tracks in NASCAR history. A .9 mile long, oval dirt track, it was purchased and expanded by NASCAR pioneer Bill France and was ready for racing during NASCAR’s inaugural season in 1949. The first NASCAR race at the track was won by Bob Flock and drew 17,500 fans. The Occoneechee Speedway continued to be used as a NASCAR track until 1968 when, in part due to complaints from local churches that didn’t like racing on Sundays, it was closed down. There’s a little bit of dramatic irony in this choice because the first Super Bowl had just happened a year before, in 1967. Little did those church-going folk know but Sundays were just starting to be dominated by another sport and getting rid of the raceway was not going to be the most effective move ever.

After a few years, the speedway fell into disrepair and a fast growing forest sprung up in and around the track, covering what used to be wide open fields with beautiful trees. In 2002 the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A walking trail was created along the path of the track soon after and restoration of the grandstand and some of the track buildings in 2006. There is a local group devoted to the track’s restoration which you can join here and which also runs an annual racers reunion and car show.

I’m visiting friends in North Carolina this week and I had the pleasure of walking a few laps of the track yesterday. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place which makes it hard to imagine dozens of cars powering their way around the track while thousands of people watched and cheered. I took some photos:

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If you’re wondering what it looked like in the old days, check out the video clip of the track at the bottom of this New York Times article about the track by Robert Peele. The footage was taken in 1963 by the Peele’s father!

The Occoneechee Speedway is a great example of how sports weaves itself into the cultural and natural history of the world. It was fun to visit it!

When Will People Stop Playing Violent Sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

Someone died in an Indy Car race today? Why do people do this to themselves? When will they stop?

Seriously, this is crazy,


Dear Fernando,

It does seem a little crazy, doesn’t it?

Dan Wheldon who was a former Indy 500 champion died today during a race in Las Vegas  in a crash that involved 15 cars traveling at over 200 miles an hour. I don’t know what makes people do risky things. In sports there are obvious dangers — car crashes, broken bones, and torn ligaments. Taking a stick, puck, elbow, or fist to the face leaves a visible and sometimes permanent mark of the perilous life of an athlete. We now know there are less visible but still insidious dangers that lurk in the repeated collisions that take place on every play of every football game and practice. I’m not sure what attracts us to sports. Are we attracted in spite of or because of the danger?

When it comes to injuries short of death (and to an increasing extent, brain injuries, but that’s another story…) sports cultures tend to build off the courage and intolerance to pain that are a necessary part of doing anything as physically challenging as playing a sport to create an intolerance to the admission of pain. There is a cliche that there is a line between being hurt and being injured. You can play hurt. You can’t play injured. The line moves a little from sport to sport, but reasonably bizarre things are often on the line of hurt. How far you are willing to push that line for your own body generally has a lot to do with how your teammates and coaches think of you. I played soccer for about 10 years growing up and I am still proud to say that I never missed a game with a “hurt.” Sure, I dislocated each of my kneecaps twice… but those were “injuries.” At the level (low) that I was playing at, this is usually a fairly innocuous attitude to have, but at higher levels, it leads to people pushing their bodies into all sorts of situations that are likely to have long-term effects on their health. This Malcolm Gladwell article made a big splash for its revelations about concussion, but when read carefully, it suggests something else — that willingness to put ones own health at risk for the good of the team is basically selected for throughout youth sports, so that by the time you get to the highest levels of competition, basically everyone is like this.

One would think that death cannot be an extension of this attitude towards your own body. And in fact, I imagine it’s not. But risk of death might apply. There is some risk of death inherent in every sport. It’s certainly higher in sports like football, hockey, cheerleading, boxing, and racing than in sports like baseball, soccer, and basketball. I can’t speak for drivers, but I imagine that like with injury in other sports, people who do not have the quality of being willing to risk their lives in their sport are weeded out long before we ever see them on television.

I don’t know why there are people willing to risk their bodies and their lives for a particular activity, but I do know that for the most part, these are the people who are successful enough to make it to the professional ranks of each sport. It’s almost a catch-22, but the reason drivers are crazy enough to get in cars and risk their lives is because only people that crazy can drive professionally.

Let’s hope risk doesn’t turn to loss again for a long time,
Ezra Fischer

Why do Baseball Players Wear Belts?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do baseball players wear belts?

Just sayin’,


Dear Ashley,

Baseball, to a degree not seen in other sports, is grounded in traditions that have been around for over a hundred years. To us, and even to the players, some of the traditions make no sense – but because baseball is perceived, or wants to be perceived, as “America’s game,” something that’s unchanging and consistent throughout history, the traditions remain.

Which is a roundabout way of saying there’s no good explanation for why baseball players do a lot of things and you can just add this one to the list. When you think about baseball players’ attire, they’re actually more appropriately dressed up to go out to the club than they are to play a professional sport. Their shirt is actually a button-down, unlike every other major professional sport, where they wear jerseys of some sort. The players are given a sartorial choice when it comes to their socks: some pull their pants all the way down to their cleats, some have their socks meet their pants at the knee like an 18th century landowner. So there’s an element of (attempted) style to the baseball uniform that speaks to how the sport sees, or saw, itself.

This is a good opportunity to discuss the uniforms from the major (American) (male[1]) sports. Not how nice they are, but on whether the components of the uniform – jersey/pants/footwear/hatwear – would look most appropriate on a teenager, someone from the 80’s, a yuppie, or one of Dr. Evil’s evil henchmen – ignoring all of the logos, etc. To whit:

Basketball: Teenager. Easiest of the bunch. Tank top with long baggy shorts and sneakers. I just described half of the teenagers in America. Headwear: Some players wear headbands by personal choice – the only one of the major sports where headwear is optional, come to think of it.

Football: 80’s . When you come right down to it, football players are wearing cut-off tee shirts and (long) cut-off shorts – two regrettable legacies of the 80’s. Among many.

Hockey: Yuppies. Hockey players wear sweaters. ‘Nuff said.

Baseball: Yuppie. As discussed above, it’s a button-down tucked into long pants, complemented with a nice belt. Equally at home on the baseball diamond or at happy hour.

Golf: European yuppies. The collared shirts, the tight fitted pants, the visors – throw some sweaters around these guys’ shoulders and they could be on a yacht docked somewhere off the Riviera.

NASCAR: Dr. Evil’s evil henchmen. The jumpsuit is worn by everyone on the team. The driver gets a dark, tinted helmet. If Dr. Evil was sponsored by Home Depot, this is how his minions would dress.

Dean Russell Bell

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I’m barely qualified to speak on men’s fashion, so if you think I’m going to set my toe in the waters of commenting on women’s fashion, you’re out of your mind.

What makes car racing a sport?

Dear Sports Fan,

What makes racing a sport? And why do Formula One drivers get paid so much?



Dear Sarah,

The question of what constitutes a sport will be a recurring one on this website as it is in bars and around water-coolers all over the world. In a recent post I made the only partially tongue-in-cheek comment that I consider baseball to be only nominally a sport. There is some combination of physicality, objective standards of winning, and tradition that defines an activity as a sport. In this case the element that is probably making you question whether car racing is a sport is the physicality. Certainly the objective standard for winning is clear. Whoever gets over that line first wins! As far as tradition goes, there were chariot races back in ancient rome and organized running races even before that.

I have to admit that I have been somewhat dubious of how physical the sport of racing is and how physically talented the drivers need to be. Crazy, true, but world-class athletes? I never thought so until I read this article on a few days ago. It all starts, as so much does these days with a tweet. A young NFL wide receiver named Golden Tate[1] tweeted about famous race-car driver Jimmy Johnson:

“Jimmy Johnson up for best athlete????? Um nooo … Driving a car does not show athleticism.”

During the slow summer sports season, this sparked a small controversy. Embeded into the ESPN article is a clip from their show Sports Science where they did some tests on driver Carl Edwards[2] and found that he tested very well when compared to other athletes in terms of cardiovascular fitness, reaction times, and mental focus. I came away from reading and watching with a bit more appreciation for drivers, especially because even if all they have to do 99.9% of the time is turn left, they still have to do it at 200 miles per hour and the .1% when they have to do other things like avoid a crash ahead of them while talking to their crews about whether or not to get new tires is WAY beyond what a normal person could do.

As far as why Formula One drivers get paid so much… it seems like it has something to do with sponsorships. According to this long discussion on[3] even to make it into Formula 1 as a driver, you need to have some serious financial backing. There seems to be a history of “gentlemen drivers” in Formula 1 who we’re more rich guys who drove than drivers who wanted to become rich. In the last 10 to 15 years the money seems to be driven by the 500+ million people who watch Formula 1 on television and scantily clad women — a well known symbiotic relationship. It’s not all sunny though, there have been several bancruptcies of Formula 1 teams lately. Like many sports it feels like the value is largely habit and I worry about it collapsing sometime.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yes, I’m going to draft him onto my fantasy football team just for his amazingly cool name…
  2. Okay… Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards? Can we please get a funny name? Oh… Wait… there was a race driver named Dick Trickle? Point retracted.
  3. It exists!

How is Cycling a Team Sport?

Dear Sports Fan,

How is cycling a team sport? I remember bicycling alone a lot as a kid and it never seemed to hurt me…



Dear Paul,

Bicycling is definitely something that you can do alone, but cycling — particularly races like the Tour de France — are absolutely team competitions. The Tour de France is the most prestigious and most televised cycling competition. It is three weeks long and usually begins in early July. The riders will cover more than 2,200 miles in daily races called stages. It’s insane! The race usually follows a basic pattern. The first week or so stays mostly in the flatlands and is (in my mind, at least) pretty boring. Then the race hits some serious mountains and it gets much more exciting. This is normally where the overall winner of the tour will emerge. It’s also much more interesting strategically and from a soap opera stand-point.

Teams compete for a number of different things. There is a stage winner every day and winning even just one stage is quite prestigious for the rider and his team. Within each stage there are a certain number of points assigned to each mountain and each sprint (somewhat arbitrary spots on flat areas.) Riders earn points for going over the top of a mountain or across the sprint spot first, second, or third, etc. The number of points and number of riders that earn points varies based on the severity of the mountain or the importance of the sprint. The leader of the sprint competition is indicated by a green jersey and the leader of the climbing competition (called the King of the Mountains) wears a white and red polka dotted jersey. The leader of the race as a whole, defined simply as the rider who has finished all the stages in the least combined time, wears the famed yellow jersey. All of these things are prestigious and financially rewarding for the riders and teams that win them.

As far as I can tell, strategy in cycling is based on a single scientific fact: it’s much, much easier to ride when you are drafting on (riding right behind) another rider. So there you go, it all comes down to that. What teams do is organize themselves around their strongest rider. To win a stage what they try to do is exhaust all the other teams by riding at the front faster than anyone else can. The riders on the team who are NOT their strongest rider take turns at the front, riding full out until they simply cannot do it anymore. These guys are called domestiques which is French for servants and if you see the look on their faces as they work at the front of the pack for their team leader, you’ll understand why. At some point it’s up to the team leader (who is supposed to be the strongest rider after all) to take advantage of the fact that he’s been coddled by his team all day and all tour and accelerate (usually up a mountain) faster than anyone else can. The whole three week tour is often won by less than five or ten minutes, so a single good run up a mountain can often win the whole thing.

The soap opera of the race comes from the fact that unlike most other sports, the winning team is usually defined not by skill or tactics but by the capacity to endure pain.[1] The Stanley Cup playoffs are a little bit like this, when players regularly suit up for games with injuries that would leave the rest of us in a hospital, but the Tour de France is a unique spectacle of endurance, strength, speed, and just a pinch of lunacy.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yes, or by who has the best drugs… but really, except for Lance Armstrong who must have had Stephen Hawking as his pharmacist, I tend to think the drugs even themselves out.

I'm so confused about NASCAR. Help!

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you explain the popularity of NASCAR? How can people watch a four hour race?

Confused in Washington D.C.

— — —

Dear Confused in Washington D.C.,

There is no satisfactory explanation for NASCAR’s popularity which, thankfully, seems to be fading. Driving is not a sport. Driving barely qualifies as an activity. There are only two possible scenarios that should lead a normal human being to consider throwing four hours of his or her life away on a NASCAR race.

1. Drinking and driving: Adding alcohol tolerance to the other talents required to be a successful NASCAR driver – ability to turn left, having a large bladder and being slightly insane – would add an element of uncertainty that might make the race worth watching. This could work a couple different ways. One idea is to require every driver to take a shot of whiskey every time they make a pit stop.  A twist: require every member of the pit crew to take a shot every time their driver completes a pit stop.  Bonus feature for this approach: all kinds of new sponsorship opportunities. Jack, Jim Beam, Red Stag – and, if they’re smart, MADD.

2. Throw in a right hand turn every once in a while: One thing you’ll learn as you venture into the world of sports is that most sports require you to go both left and right in some way.  It keeps things interesting and demonstrates an additional level of skill that separates the pros from the rest of us. NASCAR? Not so much.

Barring any of these changes, you should not trouble yourself with NASCAR. You may have a hard enough time figuring out why people like sports that actually matter – and from our perspective, it’s worth investing the time to do that for some sports, cause enjoying them with other people can be a very rewarding and satisfying experience.

But you should not waste a moment of your life trying to relate to anyone who follows NASCAR. If someone in your life – a brother, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a boss – is a die-hard fan and continuously tries to get you into it, we suggest you practice your blank stare and your vacant smiling and nodding. Or disown/break-up with them.

Thanks for your question,
Dean Russell Bell