So the buzz out of NASCAR right now is that Joey Logano - and really, what better sign is there that NASCAR's gone national than a guy whose name make him sound like he should be a roadie for Bon Jovi - did some cheatery to lock up his place in the "Chase".
(The Chase, for those of you unfamiliar with is, is NASCAR's version of the playoffs, wherein the top drivers basically wipe the slate and compete all over again for the last few races of the year. But since those races still include full fields, it's like letting the Yankees and Red Sox slug it out in the ALCS while the Royals and Mariners play catch in the outfield, and the White Sox show up, take batting practice, and then leave right after the first pitch.)
(Also, anyone who simultaneously defends NASCAR's ridiculously convoluted point system and claims that advanced baseball statistics are too hard needs to be fed to zombie cannibal ocelots, toot sweet.)
Apparently Logano's people called in some favors to allow Joey to sneak up enough places to secure the last spot in the Chase. If drivers deliberately let him pass - and the intercepted radio chatter suggests that it was the will of the almighty Roger Penske that they do so - then it casts a distinct stain on the notion of the Chase. Your usual NASCAR scandal involves one of two things: drivers punching holy hell out of each other after the race because of something that happened on the track, or crew members getting suspended because they violated NASCAR's arcane car specification rules about how many whangdoodles the frammistat could be open above the fahrvegnugen.
Both of these are about trying to win, either reacting to what someone did to keep a driver from winning (say, cutting him off and forcing him to drive into an unforgiving wall of concrete at 198 MPH) or trying to get an unfair advantage to win.
This, if true, is different. This is about someone deliberately not competing as hard as they could to do someone else a favor. And before you say "Well, it was just one guy" or "it wasn't affecting the other guy's Chase status", think about the implications. Or, more accurately, think about the money. Think about the benefit to Ford from having another Ford-powered car in the Chase - that's worth something, right? Think about the guy who got screwed out of that last spot, and about his crew. And think about the gambling money, and the sort of leverage that might exert the next time someone asks for a "favor" during a race.
Now, by all accounts Logano is a very good driver who had a good year, and he certainly earned his place to compete for a spot in the Chase. But there;s always a deserving guy who gets left off the All-Star team, there's always a team with a winning record that misses the playoffs, there's always a guy who was good but not good enough. It's the way it goes, and that's fine. That's the point of competition, which makes it the point of, you know. Sports.
But if favors did get called in and strings got pulled, if drivers got out of Logano's way or got cute in the pits or caused a restart to let Joey move up, then NASCAR just took three giant steps toward becoming professional wrestling. Because there's too much money involved for that genie to ever go back in the bottle. The system will become corrupted, leaving only the most blinkered partisans to believe in its purity and honesty, while the rest of us merely sit and wait for the next scandal to hit.
Which reminds me. Part 4 of SI's Oklahoma State report comes out today. Can't wait to read it.