Thomas Bowles · Sunday June 10, 2007
I've never been a fan of flip-flopping. Frankly, it's a word that I think should be reserved for when you're getting dragged shoe shopping at the mall with a girlâ€¦and that's pretty much it. In my view, you're supposed to say what you mean and mean what you say; usually, as far as NASCAR is concerned I'd like to think I come across with strong opinions either on Frontstretch or Sports Illustrated. As a professional journalist, you as a reader shouldn't expect anything less from me.
However, I know I've got one kink in that armor, one opinion with which I've always struggled. I'll admit it; the strength of my voice simply gets all wobbly and unfocused when it comes to the widely debated topic of the Chase. With that, I flip flop more often than pancakes on a busy Sunday morning at the diner; for me, it's always been far more complex than that. As a longtime fan who fell in love with the old points system long before people paid me to write my thoughts down for all of you, I've never been able to fully accept how the Chase changes the sport, but at the same time, you can't ignore the attention and positive exposure it's provided. It's like I've got butterflies in my stomach about it all the time: I love it, hate it, respect it, despise it, admire it, and wonder about it all at once.
Well, after one rainy Sunday, one in which Gordon rubber stamped his dominance on the 2007 Nextel Cup season to date, I can only tell you this: my current read on my flip-flopping Chase-O-Meter has turned back to wishing the whole thing would just go away.
In saying that, I mean no disrespect towards the current point leader; in fact, it's Gordon who I'm looking out for in my doomsday future scenario. The Rainbow Warriors pulled a fast one on the field Sunday, with Steve LeTarte using a calculating gamble along with some pretty solid weather forecasting to leave Gordon in front at the right time to take the win. That left the rest of the field shrugging their shoulders, wondering when and if they'll ever get their chance at cracking the Hendrick juggernaut. The statistics for Gordon are simply startling when you think about it; with the sole exception of Charlotte, he hasn't had a single finish all year lower than 12th place. He's led in 11 of 14 races this year, pacing the field for 700 circuits; that's tops in both categories.
Clearly, this should be Jeff Gordon's year. No self-respecting media member, garage representative, or casual fan said anything less after the stars aligned the only way they could for Gordon to score the win. Have the rain come one turn before Newman takes the lead away? Check. Have it come at the right time with the No. 24 off sequence on pit stops? Check. Have it come before the brakes fail on the DuPont Chevy for a second straight race at Pocono? Check.
"There’s no doubt that good fortune is on our side this year," said Gordon's crew chief Steve LeTarte after the race. "It feels great to have things going our way."
"We have had years when we couldn’t do anything right and some years you can’t do anything wrong," added Gordon. "You just have to ride the highs when they come and that is what we are trying to do.”
"When it rains, it pours."
With four wins and a 242-point lead, under the old system Gordon would be well on his way to flooding the record books with a magical season. In the past, stars of the series have ridden the laurels of these types of starts all the way to the Nextel Cup trophy bank. Just look at some of the stretch runs of champions in the past decade. No wins in the final seven races of the year for Gordon in 1997? He still held on for his second career championship. In 2001, he did it again; Gordon finished no better than 6th while picking up a 25th and a 28th in the process, but even with the slump, he still cruised to a title by almost 360 points. Matt Kenseth had three finishes of 33rd or worse in the final eight races of his '03 title run, but that failed to derail a year in which 25 Top 10 finishes netted him the championship by a comfortable 90-point margin.
While those finishes aren't anything for a champion to write home about, they did no harm in the long run as the driver was rewarded for an outstanding performance over the course of a full season. Nowadays? That type of sloppy finish by the "regular season" point leader would leave them 9th, maybe 10th in the final Chase running order as someone else would scoot away with a title that would otherwise be theirs.
Now, I know what you're thinking; the theory goes that the best team should win the title regardless of any circumstances it's placed under, and we've seen that in two of the first three seasons of the Chase; both Tony Stewart in '05 and Jimmie Johnson in '06 would have won their championships under the old "no playoff" point system. But every once in awhile, you get that blip of mediocrity on the radar screen that makes you wonder whether the guy who holds the trophy was truly the one who should be holding it. In baseball, we just saw it with the St. Louis Cardinals; World Series champions, they barely won more games than they lost during the regular season, roundly criticized since their title run as one of the weakest champions in major sports history. That used to be something NASCAR would never have to argue; now, it's simply par for the course. Why, just three years ago Kurt Busch came from a near-impossible deficit to win the Chase over Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, both of whom had stronger seasons; while he wasn't mediocre by any means, it was clear that season that the driver with the best statistics wasn't sitting at the head table at the Waldorf at season's end.
Steve LeTarte claimed after Sunday's race the team put itself in position to make a fuel gamble because they're looking for as many "10-point" Chase bonuses for wins as they can possibly have. But where will that put them? Even if Gordon wins 10 times over the course of the regular season, he'll be no more than 60 ahead of his closest competitors. If his point lead is approaching 300 at the time the points are reset, that's going to be incredibly hard to stomach. In the meantime, teams that have fallen just short to Gordon this year - such as Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, perennially playing second fiddle - will have an opportunity to score the last laugh, when in the old days, they'd already be licking their wounds and thinking 2008. Is it fair to give them a chance to derail what has been a magical season by Jeff?
Maybe I'm too much of a traditionalist. Maybe I'm caught up in the fact that the regular season should mean something more than the right to go down unceremoniously in the races that suddenly matter the most.
Maybe the Chase is meant to create the type of excitement this year's title run currently lacks. Because in any other year, any other scenario, it would be Jeff Gordon's year.
Instead, it's just his chance to leave a mark on the regular season. Hardly glorious, and the more I think it overâ€¦hardly fair.
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