Monday, September 13, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Waiver Re-Think

Álex Palou is back on top the IndyCar championship after a baffling Portland victory. George Russell will join Mercedes in 2022. Valtteri Bottas will move to Alfa Romeo. We may need to cool it on the sprint qualifying race. The World Rally Championship will not visit Japan and the season will with Rally Monza for the second consecutive season. The Supercars calendar continues to be flipped upside down. Gold Coast has been cancelled and Bathurst may be pushed to December. There were seven attempted overtakes for the lead in the final three laps of the MotoGP race from Aragón. A man won with a broken hand. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum could become important to NASCAR fans. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Waiver Re-Think
The NASCAR season is in the final stretch and for the eighth season the Cup Series is using its four-round elimination playoff format.

Since 2014, and since 2016 in the lower two divisions, NASCAR has lowered the standard for a championship eligible driver in its playoff system to win one regular season race and you are in. There are a few other criteria. In the Cup Series, a driver has to remain in the top 30 in points. In the other two series it is the top 20. All drivers must start every regular season race to be eligible for the playoffs. However, waivers are available if a driver misses a race, or if a driver changes championship eligibility midseason. Waivers have been issued frequently.

This year alone one was issued in the Cup Series when Corey LaJoie missed the Michigan Cup race due to COVID-19 protocol. Michael Annett suffered a leg injury midseason in NASCAR's second division and has a waiver should he win a race. 

Prior to this season, the most famous waiver example was Kyle Busch, who missed the first 11 Cup races in 2015 after breaking his ankle in the Daytona opener in the Grand National Series. Busch received a waiver, won multiple regular season races, was inside the top 30, qualified for the playoffs and went on to win the championship. Other waivers include Austin Dillon, who missed a race in 2020 due to COVID-19 protocols, Ross Chastain received one when he switched his points midseason to contend for the Truck championship in 2019. Suspended drivers have even received waivers, Kurt Busch after off-track legal issues and Johnny Sauter after on-track misbehavior in the Truck Series. 

There is a flaw in the waiver program, and we are seeing it this year in NASCAR's second division. While Annett has one ready if he is to win the Bristol regular season finale this weekend, two drivers who have combined four victories and 13 top five finishes do not have waivers at the ready. 

Ty Gibbs and Josh Berry have each won races this season. Gibbs won on debut on the Daytona road course and since added two more victories. Berry won at Martinsville. Neither driver committed to full-time competition. Berry started the season in JR Motorsports' #8 Chevrolet until Sam Meyer became old enough to compete in the series. Berry has run some additional races in the #31 Chevrolet for Jordan Anderson Racing. 

Both Gibbs and Berry are still in the top 20 of the championship. Gibbs is in 15th and Berry is in 17th. They are both arguably two of the ten best drivers in NASCAR's second division this season, but neither will be fighting for the championship when the playoffs start at Las Vegas. 

It is a flaw in the system when injured drivers and suspended drivers are granted waivers but part-timers due to budget issues are not. Frankly, it is a shame because Gibbs and Berry have both done enough to meet NASCAR's first two performance criteria. In 2021, full-time participation has less to do about a driver's performance and more to do with the business of the series. 

One-hundred percent participation does not make a driver better than a driver who is not full-time. It is about what you do in the races ran. Gibbs has only started 13 races, but he has more points than 14 drivers who have started 20 races or more. Berry has made five more starts, but is also ahead of 13 drivers with at least 20 starts. 

On points per start, Gibbs averages 38 points per start. Extrapolate that over a full season, and he would have 950 points, or good enough for third in the championship, only 43 points off championship leader A.J. Allmeninger and 78 points clear of Justin Allgaier, who is currently third. Do the same for Berry, who averages 24.888 points per start, and Berry would have about 622 points, good enough for ninth. 

No offense to Jeremy Clements, Brendon Jones, Riley Herbst and Michael Annett, who battle for the final playoff spots, but Gibbs and Berry have both done more with less and are much more deserving of playoff spots than those four drivers, especially Clements, Herbst and Annett. Those three drivers combine for three top five finishes. Gibbs and Berry have been more efficient drivers. They might not be full-time, but they have put up the numbers to show they are championship-caliber. 

If NASCAR wants to set a criteria for playoff qualification, then set it and remove the necessity for waivers. If NASCAR wants to make it win a race and be in the top 20 of the championship, then let any driver be eligible even if he or she fulfills those two requirements, even if that driver only runs 14 of 26 races or 20 of 26 races. Though these drivers might not have run a full regular season, they would be able to sell themselves as championship contenders and put together a seven-race program for the end of the season. I don't think we have to worry about a playoff eligible driver flaking out in the middle of a round or not competing at all. They will have something to shoot for.  

At large, NASCAR's waiver policy is questionable and NASCAR has yet to draw a clear line in the sand of what is worthy of a waiver and what isn't. If suspended drivers are getting waivers, then why have them at all? 

Also, not every injury is created equal. Drivers who have been hurt in races have gotten them and that makes sense, but what if a driver is hurt doing something stupid? 

Does anyone remember when Jimmie Johnson broke his wrist when he fell off a golf cart while "horsing around?" Johnson's injury occurred in the offseason, but if a driver were to repeat that during the season, does "horsing around" qualify a driver for a waiver? And therein lies the trouble with waivers. When does NASCAR say no and potentially blow up a driver's season, leaving him or her with no shot of making the playoffs with possibly ten or 12 races left in the regular season? If NASCAR is never going to pull that trigger and is always going to issue waivers, just get rid of waivers! 

Over the previous 25 years, NASCAR didn't have to worry about part-time teams and funding drying up for top programs. It is much different in 2021, and NASCAR should take that into consideration. It has already tweaked its championship format so many times in the name of creating drama one more tweak for the sake of competition and to ensure the best drivers are competing for the championship should be made. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Álex Palou, but did you know...

Daniel Riccarido won the Italian Grand Prix, his first victory since the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix with Red Bull. It was McLaren's first victory since the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix and, with Lando Norris in second, it was McLaren's first 1-2 finish since the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix. 

Théo Pourchaire, Jehan Daruvala and Oscar Piastri split the Formula Two races from Monza.

Francesco Bagnaia won MotoGP's Aragón Grand Prix, his first career MotoGP victory. Raúl Fernández won the Moto2 race, his fifth victory of the season. Dennis Foggia won the Moto3 race, his third victory of the season.

David Malukas and Kyle Kirkwood split the Indy Lights races from Portland.

The #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura of Filipe Albuquerque and Ricky Taylor won the IMSA race from Laguna Seca. The #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca-Gibson of Mikkel Jensen and Ben Keating won in LMP2. The #4 Corvette of Tommy Milner and Nick Tandy won in GTLM. The #9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche of Laurens Vanthoor and Zach Robichon won in GTD.

Martin Truex, Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race from Richmond, his fourth victory of the season. Noah Gragson won the Grand National Series race, his second consecutive victory.

The #12 Team Impul Nissan of Nobuharu Matsushita and Kazuki Hiramine won the Super GT race from Sportsland SUGO, the first career victory for both drivers. The #61 R&D Sport Subaru of Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi won in GT300. 

Kalle Rovanperä won Acropolis Rally Greece, his second victory in the last three rounds. 

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar's penultimate round from Laguna Seca. 
MotoGP will be at Misano, but more importantly the MotoE championship will be decided over a doubleheader. 
NASCAR ends round one of the playoffs at Bristol, while the second division finishes its regular season.
The European Le Mans Series hopes for blue skies at Spa-Francorchamps. 
World Superbike has a pivotal round in Barcelona.
DTM heads up to Assen. 
GT World Challenge America ends summer at Watkins Glen.