A Major Issue
July 21, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
And as NASCAR continues to grind through a hangover summer in which one race after another seems to involve dealing with tragedy and the loss of it's greatest hero, the PGA Tour skips across the pond for the British Open to see if golf's erstwhile Man in Black can regain his seat on the sport's throne.
What's wrong with this picture?
Certainly the loss of Dale Earnhardt has added a darker touch than usual to the beginning of NASCAR's dog days, but picture instead a season with a different scenario.
Imagine a schedule in which the bitterness of Earnhardt's death is alleviated a bit by the fact that the man whose victory he protected, Michael Waltrip, earned double the normal points award for winning the first of NASCAR's four "major" races - the Daytona 500.
The icing on the cake would have been the extra benefit reaped by Little E, who could have taken the double points award for finishing second and used it to get even higher in the points standings than his current ninth-place status.
Imagine the drama of Earnhardt Jr. using the momentum from that race to push into the Top 5, then running for a championship after the loss of his legendary father.
Fast-forward four months to NASCAR's second theoretical major, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Coming hard on the heels of Jeff Gordon's dramatic victory at The Winston, Jeff Burton's victory still would have stood as the feel-good story of the spring. The double points award probably wouldn't have helped Burton escape from the personal hell of a season in the doldrums, but the real drama would have occurred right behind him, where Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart could have used their rewards from finishing second and third, respectively, to make their own push toward the Top 5.
Just behind them, Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte might have been able to take the extra points from placing fourth and fifth, respectively, to salvage lost years. Labonte especially might have become a more dangerous player in the Top 10, possibly even threatening a top-five bid of his own.
Bring the scenario forward into the present, and you' have Harvick, Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart higher in the standings, creating an even bigger logjam than the current three-man pack of Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd.
Tomorrow's Loudon race would still be overshadowed by the legacy of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, but suddenly NASCAR's third major would be just over the horizon at the Brickyard 400, with Gordon, Jarrett, Rudd, Stewart, Harvick, Earnhardt Jr. and Labonte in hot pursuit of a double-points win at the Brickyard 400.
Think that might bring the race out from under the shadow of the Indy 500 a bit?
The final major would take place at one of NASCAR's two most legendary tracks, alternating each year between the night race at Bristol and the second Talladega race. With the double-points award, the drama of Bristol in August would jump-start the final stretch run, while the Talladega race would take place right in the middle of the final championship push, adding the potential for a late sprint by a driver who looked to be out of the running.
The idea of NASCAR having "majors" isn't new, of course. The Winston Million was conceived back in 1985 to give a driver a million bucks for taking three of four "crown jewel" events (Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Winston 500, and Southern 500), and it was a big deal when Bill Elliott copped the cash in the inaugural year.
The series was resurrected a few years ago and augmented with a fan bonus of a million dollars per event that made the concept more interesting, but for new NASCAR fans used to following championship runs in other sports, the concept smacked somewhat of consumer hucksterism.
The Leader Bonus that was part of the package became Gordon's personal bonus checking accounts as Gordon won almost a half million dollars during his championship runs in the 1990s.
News flash to NASCAR: it really isn't about the money now that you're a so-called major sport, at least not on the award side. It's about tension and drama.
The story line created by Tiger Woods' run during golf's majors for the last year, along with the debate about his so-called "tainted" Grand Slam, should provide a clue as to how to instantly spice up the schedule periodically throughout the year.
It's time for NASCAR to get the concept right, with a series of majors in which the points reward is doubled over the normal total in a regular individual race.
A series with stakes that high would add to the lore and legend of the sport by producing more nail-biting high drama at some of the sport's greatest venues.