I don’t know about you, but whenever I watch The Godfather, Part II – one of my favorite movies – you always watch certain things and hope for the ending to be different. Fredo can be a very likable character at times, and you can slip and find yourself thinking that maybe he won’t make the same mistakes this time around. No matter what, though, any hope you have that things will change always falls by the wayside. There will be no movie remake – and you already know what the ending will be, no matter how much you try and convince yourself otherwise.
That’s where we are in NASCAR’s 2007 Race to the Chase. We all know the answers – but there’s too much hope for a different ending to allow ourselves to admit the truth.
It’s not that an attempt at increasing the drama hasn’t been made; in fact, there’s been more than enough opportunities to make things interesting the last few weeks. In the midst of Kurt Busch‘s hot streak to 12th in the standings, Kevin Harvick has fallen by the wayside, losing momentum on the racetrack courtesy of a Jerry Springer-esque shouting match with Juan Pablo Montoya. Behind him, 11th-place Martin Truex Jr. has left himself vulnerable with just two top-10 finishes to his credit over the last seven races. Another month, another six weeks, and there might be enough time for one of their seasons to unravel.
But NASCAR doesn’t have that kind of time remaining – and the one who is suffering most just happens to be their crown jewel. With only two races left, all drivers mentioned above are at least 158 points ahead of 13th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., and an average finish of just 15th is all that’s needed to make their Chase slot all but secure – officially tapping the playoff keg of the Budweiser Chevy for one final time.
This leaves NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in the unenviable position of fighting to the bitter end, with a team that’s soon to be a former employer. For so many weeks, that hasn’t mattered; the driver of the No. 8 has put up the good fight, but the good fight just hasn’t been enough. Engine failure at Indy after leading 33 laps. Ditto Watkins Glen after running in the top 10. Then, missing the pit stall at Michigan, the laundry list of what’s gone wrong has grown into a deadly virus for a team in limbo, more than enough to withstand the forced injection of drama from a Chase that badly wants a driver it just can’t have.
“Well, [all] I can do is run as good as I can run,” said Junior after finishing fifth Saturday, only to see Busch finish one spot behind him.
Of course, that’s not enough. And now, Junior must deal with all the manufactured drama that comes with being on the mathematical side of the bubble. Sure, the chances are still there in theory for both Junior and Ryan Newman, the 14th-place driver in the Chase. But statistics point to a road of too little, too late. Junior’s four finishes of 32nd or worse at California since mid-2004 jive all too well with Newman’s four straight finishes outside the top 10 at the track. That’s not the type of history you want to remember heading to a weekend where you need to gain chunks of points, and in a hurry.
Just ask the other drivers in the Chase field, and they’ll tell you the road isn’t easy.
“You have to race well for 26 races,” said Jeff Gordon about Junior’s up-and-down season. “They have had a rough year. They have had some motor issues, some not good finishes. Now they are having good finishes, and the No. 2 is right there. You don’t want to wish bad luck on anybody, but right now, the way the No. 2 is running, you don’t think (Junior) is going to be able to get in, even if he is winning races.”
Even Junior himself understands the going will be tough.
“I’ll be more ticked off if I don’t win a race this year,” he said when asked about his racing future. “I’ve run good all year. We’ve had so many opportunities, you know?”
“Y’all make it pretty miserable (missing the Chase) because that’s all y’all talk about. When we don’t make it, everybody makes a big deal out of it. They talk about it pre-race, they talk about it post-race for a couple weeks and it is a bummer. It’s a bummer when you see that and have to watch that and read it and what not. You kind of want to go under the radar when you can’t get it done.”
Ironically, Junior’s rant on what could lie ahead for his future is tormenting the sport in the present. As the drama is lacking, NASCAR is smacking of overexpansion for a playoff system that now includes a higher percentage of teams than Major League Baseball. We’re now left with an unhealthy dozen, over 25% of the 47 full-time teams, left to qualify for the title, with no uncertainty as to who those 12 teams will be.
Such a dilemma makes you wonder. In the old Chase system, the race for 10th would be a battle for the ages, with Busch, Truex, and Harvick separated by just nine points for the final spot; ahead of them, Clint Bowyer and even Kyle Busch would stand vulnerable with two races to go. But instead, we’re left to procure and predict and hope against hope that somewhere, sometime at California a tire goes down for one of the frontrunners, opening the door ever so slightly for Junior or even Newman to have but a ghost of a chance come Richmond. In this case, watering down the field simply weeded out any type of suspense, although one can always still believe.
“If I were 158 points ahead of 13th in 12th position, I’d still be having trouble sleeping at night,” claimed race winner Carl Edwards, who clinched a spot in the Chase himself on Saturday. “It’s not done and until it’s done, it’s not done. I think the last spot is still up for grabs.
“Anything can happen and the two racetracks we’re going to – California is hard on engines and Richmond is just plain hard, so you never know.”
Carl’s right; you don’t. But chances are, the Chase field has already figured itself out, long before the final lap of the final regular season race at Richmond. Coming into focus, I see Fredo about to betray Michael, robbing us of the drama everyone’s lived for the last three seasons at this track.
What a shame.