NASCAR’S SEASON OF CONTRADICTIONS

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about Mark Martin. Normally I don’t make a habit of pondering the fortunes of 50-year-old men – not while we have the likes of Megan Fox to enjoy – but Martin’s success is worth thinking about. How is a guy who entered 2009 as the afterthought at Hendrick Motorsports now a contender for the title?

Martin told us the answer. He is not trying to win a championship. And it is by NOT trying to win a championship that Martin has put himself in position to win a championship. This is a contradiction. The more I look around the Sprint Cup Series, the more I realize Martin’s improbable run is just one of many contradictions hiding in plain sight.

Where to start?

The Cup’s most popular driver has won three races since Nov. 8, 2004.

NASCAR, which penalizes teams for breaking the tiniest rules, often makes up the rules up as it goes along. For this, it is not held accountable.

The Chase format, which was supposed to generate excitement, has diluted it.

And the big one…

The Car of Tomorrow and the SAFER barrier, which were designed to improve safety, have increased recklessness. Guys are taking more risks. At Phoenix and Richmond drivers went three wide. There is more contact. While the sport has become safer inside the car, Talladega proved racing is still very dangerous for those of us watching from outside of it.

How did safety improvements lead to increased recklessness?

Check out a study I found.

In 2006, researchers revealed that motorists are more likely to hit bicyclists who wear a helmet than they are to hit bareheaded cyclists. The study found that motorists were almost twice as likely to drive closer to a bike when the cyclist wore a helmet. Drivers gave cyclists without a helmet wider berth. You can see this psychology play out on the track. Every driver is a motorist and he views every other driver as a cyclist in a bike helmet.

Too much safety leads to poor decision-making because, when there is too much safety, actions no longer have consequences. This is true on the road, where motorists see a bike helmet and think they’re absolved from having to drive responsibly. This is true in Detroit, where General Motors and Chrysler – and their unions – run those companies into the ground with full knowledge that they will be bailed out. And it’s true on the track, where a feeling of invincibility has increased aggressiveness.

This is a season of contradictions. Of course the only guy not trying to win a championship is in position to contend for a championship.