Effective around 11:30 p.m. on a balmy Saturday night at Richmond, the 2007 Chase for the Nextel Cup officially got underway. As soon as the final two participants – Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch – clinched their spots by crossing the finish line, talk turned from who’s going to get into the elusive 12-car field to who’s going to win it. No doubt, the Chase formed an important storyline Saturday night – Jimmie Johnson‘s sixth victory clinched his spot on top of the playoffs by 20 points over the rest of the field. Behind him in Victory Lane, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood sweating by his hauler, exhausted in his own right but forced to answer countless questions from every media outlet under the sun about how a season filled with promise never pulled a playoff punch.
Just like 29 other drivers everyone forgot about.
While Johnson, Junior and the 11 other drivers who made this year’s rendition of the title Chase were busy answering questions long into the night, everyone else in the starting field was left in the precarious position of playing second fiddle. Of course, some of that comes by not putting together a successful enough season to get the attention spurned on by this type of postseason competition – in the NFL, no one talks about a team come playoff time if they went 2-14. But unlike any other sport, when the playoffs go on in NASCAR those 2-14 teams are still showing up each week. All drivers and teams still get the chance to race, and because of that, there are other stories out there that deserve adequate coverage.
In Ragan’s case, the rookie literally came out of nowhere in the final 100 laps of the race to score his best career Nextel Cup finish. Qualifying eighth, the rookie stayed out of trouble on a night where it seemed to be around every corner, with 12 cautions claiming over a dozen cars in a series of hard knock wrecks. But Ragan deftly avoided such nonsense, showcasing the growth he’s achieved since a Martinsville debut last year in which he wrecked his competition multiple times, drawing the ire of veteran Ken Schrader and half the starting field. In fact, Tony Stewart called Ragan a “dart with no feathers” last year – forming a reputation the youngster’s spent all season trying to put behind him. Ironically, it was Stewart’s No. 20 car that Ragan was battling in the closing laps for second place, a battle in which he fell just short but still left him on the “podium” for the first time in his Nextel Cup career.
“It was just a good, solid night,” Ragan said in his post-race press conference to a room full of people writing hard about Junior’s race to the Chase gone sour. “It takes a lot more than just a fast racecar to finish well in the Nextel Cup races. We got shuffled back to like 20th, and we were able to drive our way back up to the front. Just a lot of fun, and I certainly enjoyed it.”
Behind Ragan, it was Sauter attempting to take the spotlight, driving to a career-high fifth-place finish in the No. 70 Haas CNC Chevrolet. Basically a rookie himself, Sauter had yet to complete a full season in the Cup Series when he signed with this team last offseason. All he’s done since then is bring a new car into the Top 35 in Nextel Cup points, keeping its head above the fray of better-funded multi-car operations like Michael Waltrip Racing and Gillett Evernham Motorsports. That spot had actually become endangered on the heels of seven consecutive finishes outside the top 20; but at Richmond, Sauter righted the ship, finishing fifth to give direction to a team whose “owner,” Gene Haas, has been busy with other things, you know, like being in jeopardy of going to jail for tax fraud.
“We qualified terrible, but I knew it was just a matter of time before I could make my way to the front,” said Sauter. “The car was that good. I made it up to the top 10, then we made a mistake that got us back to 31st or 32nd.”
Indeed, they did; problems on pit road left Sauter languishing at the back of the pack. But for a team who could have thrown in the towel, they did anything but, fighting their way back up the ladder with Sauter taking a strong car surging up into the top five.
“The potential is there,” he continued. “We just have to build on this momentum and keep having these good runs.”
It’s a philosophy all 30 teams not Chase-bound will continue to implement each week, leaving them just as capable of running with their playoff peers. Of course, while these men focus on momentum, the world was focused – overly so – on Earnhardt Jr.’s misery of falling short of the playoffs. Junior’s No. 8 Chevrolet expired in a plume of smoke at Richmond with less than 10 laps to go, but by then, it hardly mattered – by lap 250 it was evident that Junior was not going to win the race or lead the most laps, meaning Harvick and Busch had already clinched their spots in the Chase (if Junior had finished second, his competition merely needed to run 41st or better to stay ahead of him, and by the halfway point, it was clear three cars wouldn’t be completing more than around 250 laps).
To me, that made the Junior situation a non-story – he was already referring to the Chase in the past tense for most of the weekend, answering questions in a Friday conference with a “we didn’t” rather than “we couldn’t” mentality. Still, it seems that this thing has gotten played out more than the Michael Vick dogfighting incident, with everybody with everything to do about racing busy spending Friday and Saturday coming up with wild scenarios in which Junior would somehow turn back the hands of time, bend the rules, and slip his way into the playoff field.
It’s that type of mentality from my media colleagues I fear will dominate the Chase. Blinded by the thoughts of 12 drivers fighting for the season-ending trophy, the headlines will again shift unfairly away from drivers who are doing just as much to keep up with the pack. The magical runs of Ragan and Sauter went along with a surprising turnaround for Kasey Kahne, scoring his third top-10 finish in many races. Bobby Labonte is running off top-10 finishes like it’s his job, dispelling rumors he’s leaving Petty Enterprises while rebuilding his program for 2008. David Reutimann also snagged his career-best finish at Richmond – 13th – outshining fellow rookie AJ Allmendinger‘s solid 18th-place run from the week before at California.
Certainly, there’s going to be a lot more to talk about than just the way the Chase is going to play out. Stewart proved just as much last year – spoiling the Chase party by winning three of the championship races, forcing the media to pay attention to a group of drivers who were otherwise being forgotten. But each year, short-term memory loss seems to creep up on everyone, and these types of successes seem to fall behind the overwhelming rush of attempting to crown a champion after each race on the schedule. Even the drivers understand where all the attention will be focused.
“We don’t want to be the bad guys and jeopardize someone else’s year,” said Ragan when asked how he races cars who are now part of the playoff push. “Certainly when you’re around guys like the No. 2 and the No. 24, you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their run. So, yeah, you do pay a little more attention to that, and certainly the last 10 races of the year I’m sure we’ll keep that in the back of our minds.”
As disturbing as those comments could be in how the other 31 drivers may feel awkward around playoff drivers during the Chase – a whole other topic altogether – Ragan at least pulled a common courtesy Saturday night that wasn’t necessarily reciprocated by the audience assembled before him.
He acknowledged his own existence.