Matt McLaughlin · Thursday September 23, 2010
As we discussed last week by the Rising Tide, there’s not much to talk about in NASCAR right now. We could really use a crew chief masterminding a botched bankjob or a driver missing a race because he was on a booze-fueled lost weekend with Lindsay Lohan. Hell, we could use a story on who is going to sponsor the No. 24 team. I’d settle for anything with a hint of validity worth discussing right now.
Which leaves us with the Chase. But I’m not allowed to discuss the Chase. So instead, I will discuss others discussing the Chase.
As most of you know the NASCAR media has lost a lot of experienced writers with more talent than I as of late. Even Southern papers don’t have beat writers anymore, by and large. These guys and gals were seasoned professionals who knew better than to follow the whim of the moment, trumpeting their stories with headlines like “Stewart Surges to Favorite Status in Chase.”
Yeah, it was pretty amazing. Tony Stewart won at Atlanta and all of a sudden he was the favorite for the Chase after a lackluster season to date with that one race win at Atlanta and six other top 5 finishes in the 25-race run to that point. After all, Tony Stewart has amassed more points than anyone else over the last sixteen races! That’s in, call in the dogs, put out the fire and put Stewart’s name on the trophy. It’s over. It’s not like that sixteen week stretch didn’t include some of Stewart’s best tracks, including the two road courses. There are no road courses in the Chase. Maybe Stewart accumulated the most points in those races because he had to. He left the first Richmond race fifteenth in the points. Stewart had to scramble to make the Chase while other drivers with their Chase hopes almost solidified played it conservative to maintain their status in the pecking order? Maybe their teams were playing with new packages, testing for the final ten-race run that really mattered? It sure did look like a whole lot of drivers were playing with their packages for those sixteen weeks.
So when Stewart became the favorite for the title, where did that leave Denny Hamlin? Poor Hamlin left Atlanta dead last with a blown mill. The same media pundits, great and small, anointing Stewart the favorite were writing off Hamlin. The team was already cracking under the pressure of a potential title fight. They’d never build an engine that lasted the distance again! Denny was angry and petulant after the DNF. He didn’t have the backbone to win a title, whiny little bastard that he was. Recall at that point in the season Hamlin, had one less race win than Stewart had top 5s.
But it didn’t take long for that tune to change. Hamlin won at Richmond and the headlines were screaming “Hamlin Favorite Going into Chase!” After all, he had six wins, more than anyone else. You short-timers might not recall Bill Elliott dominating on the big tracks in 1985 with his fleet Ford. After his Million Dollar winning Southern 500 win that September, Elliott left Darlington with a 208-point lead over short track ace Darrell Waltrip — and I prefer to think of the three-time champion and hugely talented legendary driver as “Darrell Waltrip,” not the hugely annoying, inane broadcaster he became as “DW.” There were only eight races left to run, not ten for the title. There was no resetting the points. Under that terrible old Latford point system, it was going to be a boring stretch of eight races before Elliott took the crown – except after the penultimate race of the season, Atlanta, Darrell Waltrip took a twenty-point lead over Elliott into the season finale at Riverside.
Waltrip was a very good road racer. But Elliott had scored his first career Cup win at Riverside. Now, folks, that’s entertainment. Elliott versus Waltrip. Ford versus Chevy. Coors versus Bud. Vocal fans on both sides worked up into a rabid frenzy. In the end, it was a bit of a letdown in that Elliott’s shifter linkage failed (parts made in Waltrip’s hometown of Franklin, TN by chance) and Elliott lost the title by 101 points despite having 11 wins to Waltrip’s 3… so winning the most races isn’t and never has been the litmus test of a champion. As a diehard Elliott fan in that era, I was crushed and started thinking for the first time race wins ought to be worth more points. Of course, I was discussing the idea while drinking a Coors Light leaning on the fender of my Mustang. My brother-in-law Kenny drinking a Bud on the hood of his 67 ‘Chevelle, that never lost a street race while we ran it felt a bit differently.
Sunday at New Hampshire, Clint Bowyer won the race. And the headlines trumpeted suddenly Bowyer was a darkhorse contender for the title. Well Hell, there’s a lot of darkhorse contenders for the title, but Bowyer had won in an unprecedented upset win! Mr. Peabody, cue up the Wayback Machine to 2007. Bowyer arrived at New Hampshire winless to date and having just eked his way into the Chase at Richmond. He went on to win that race at NHMS. Despite two more second-place finishes in the Chase, Bowyer finished third in the standings, a full 346 points behind champion Jimmie Johnson.
So let’s talk about Johnson. The ESPN analysts still say that the road to the championship goes through Johnson. And they’ve got to be right, Marvin, after all they’re up there on the TV screen. They must be the smartest fellows in the whole wide world. But there were some long faces on the TV after Johnson finished 25th Sunday. Mr. Peabody, if you would, dial in the Wayback Machine for 2006. Johnson blows up and finishes 39th. Everybody, including ironically at that moment Johnson himself, says final rites over his title hopes. Nope; that year yielded the first of Johnson’s record breaking four consecutive titles.
The slide rule in the pocket protector element of the media has suddenly focused on Carl Edwards as a big-time title contender. He has, after all, scored more points in the last ten races than any other driver. Gosh and golly, I am so gul-durn happy I could not take a swing at Matt Kenseth right now. If those ten races were the Chase races, he’d have been champion. Wait a second, are we talking the same driver who hasn’t won a race since Homestead at the conclusion of the 2008 season? Are we looking at a season where Ford pilots have won just one race? Could Carl Edwards take off on a blue flame streak like Bubba saw when he held the welding torch too close to the rear of his Levis after drinking a six pack of Bud 40s? Anything can happen. Am I betting the rent money on a Carl Edwards title? I think not.
So, OK, some say, this is all too confusing. Tony Stewart was the favorite a few weeks ago and Denny Hamlin was the favorite two weeks ago. What if neither of them win the Chase? Who will? Let us wrap ourselves up in the warm and fuzzy blanket of statistics. Here’s two stats that are being bandied around like pickup lines at a truckers’ bar at closing time. Only one person has ever won the Chase who started outside the top three going into those final ten races. Only one driver, (as noted, Johnson in 2006) went on to win the title after finishing outside the top 6 at New Hampshire to kick off the Chase. So, let’s see, going into the Chase we had four drivers in the top 3 (yes, it sounds like an oxymoron, but Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick were tied for third). Of those four, only Hamlin and Harvick managed top 6 finishes.
Hooray! We’re down to a two-man battle, right?
Recall what Disraeli said about statistics; “There are three types of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics.” Statistically speaking, a pedestrian gets run over every five minutes in New York. That is one unlucky son of a bitch. You’d think he’d move.
Then we have the “season to date” stats that clearly state Kevin Harvick will be champion, because over the course of 27 races he’s scored more actual (not “Chase”) points than any other driver. Far and away, as a matter of fact. I can’t discount Harvick as a title contender, but as those investment ads always read in the fine print, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Quite frankly, if I had to wager a week’s pay on this year’s champion, I’d go with Harvick, but I’m not ready to put that fact in blaring headlines followed by breathless prose. That’s just my gut, a gut soured by way too many cups of crappy track coffee and snout-dogs over the years.
Come a little closer, friends. Pull down the blinds. Make sure there’s nobody here without their secret MPM decoder rings. I’m going to tell you, gentle readers, who I know will be 2010 Cup champion. You can take this to the bank. I am absolutely, positively, and spit on my mother’s grave if I’m wrong know this to be a fact, who will win the title. And ya’ll are the first to hear it. The driver who wins this year’s championship will be the fellow who has amassed the most points after the Homestead race. I’d stake my life, my Trans Am, and my Harley on it. And I hold the latter two more dear than the former.
But some commentators are going to be bleating they were right all along because they chose a new favorite every weekend based on the outcome of the race. Best I can recall, deceased Charlotte Observer beat writer and perhaps the greatest motorsports writer ever Joe Whitlock never wrote a column predicting a champion. Back then, it was just too much fun watching each race, and who cared about the title anyway? Were that it was still the same…
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