The Chase for the Nextel Cup is now three weeks old, and there is yet to emerge a dominant or favored contender to win the 2007 championship in NASCAR’s elite division. Mainly because everyone keeps wrecking. One would think that might be a talking point as we move 1/3 of the way through the title chase. However, the biggest story coming out of Kansas this week was Greg Biffle winning the Lifelock 400.
As NASCAR arbitrarily shortened the race a couple of times following the second rain delay of the event, Biffle held a lead a little over one second ahead of second-place finisher and home-state hero Bowyer. After Juan Pablo Montoya‘s tire ripped apart everything in the right-front wheel of his Havoline Dodge Charger, the caution came out, the field was frozen, and the race was completed under caution.
As the cars came out of turn 4, Biffle swung the No. 16 Aflac Ford Fusion to the apron of the track as the Ford Shelby GT500 Mustang pace car pulled away. Biffle was apparently out of fuel, but coasted across the finish line and parked it in the infield grass. Meanwhile, Johnson and Bowyer jockeyed for position under yellow, passing each other (which is not allowed) and Biffle. Following the race, both contended that they should be the winner since Biffle didn’t maintain pace-car speed, even though NASCAR’s stated policy is that competitors need to maintain “reasonable speed.” The discussion carried on into the evening and the next day on several popular call-in shows, television and in print.
Do you honestly believe that NASCAR is going to rip a win from someone because they fell a couple of mph below pace-car speed? The car was still in motion from what was its own power. Many fans may not remember (because they weren’t here yet), but in 1991 during the spring event at Talladega, Harry Gant was out of fuel, but was pushed to victory on the last lap by teammate Rick Mast. The win was allowed to stand; after a race that was completed on a Monday due to rain and featured an ensuing wreck that sent Kyle Petty to the hospital with a shattered left leg, everyone was simply happy to see it end.
After six hours of racing, raining and wrecking, they should have this past Sunday as well.
The controversy fire was fuled earlier when Dale Earnhardt Jr. inadvertently got into the back of Kyle Busch and the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet – the team he will be driving for in a few short months. Many speculated with bated breath, what effect this might have on Junior’s association and relationship with his new car owner. After all, a non-Chaser just wrecked a championship contender. Surely there must be some fall-out!
Do you honestly believe that Earnhardt Jr. did that on purpose? That was a prime example of a “racing incident.” This wasn’t ramming into the back of someone in the middle of a turn, he wasn’t trying to “rattle his cage,” nor was he under orders from Rick Hendrick to ruin Kyle’s chances and send him packing early. Earnhardt Jr. does not have a habit of running into people or wrecking them intentionally, least of all his soon-to-be race team. Just because Dale Junior has yet to win a race this year, doesn’t mean he’s going to resort to Mad Max driving techniques and lay waste to the field with his bumper.
Some have speculated that the only reason why the race was restarted so late on Sunday was to give someone other than Tony Stewart a chance to win the race. Stewart had ascended to the lead by staying out longer than most everyone else on fuel. Had the strategy worked, Stewart would have captured a win, and been sitting pretty in the Chase.
Instead, a wrinkled front fender from an ensuing restart would lead to a blown left-front tire and a wreck, eliminating him from the race and Kurt Busch, who was caught in the resulting crash, from contending for the win. Surely had Johnson or Jeff Gordon been leading, the race would have been called as it was in Pocono this past July. Gordon was flagged the winner, even though the rains had stopped and there were well over four hours of useable Eastern Standard Daylight Savings Time at their disposal.
NASCAR made an honest attempt at giving the fans their money’s worth, to see more than 133 laps of racing. They are in the middle of a championship chase, while the NFL is just picking up steam and getting their regular season underway. Major League Baseball is now in the throes of post-season dramatics, as evidenced by the 13-inning contest on Monday night between the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres. Would either of these sanctioning bodies call a game due to inclement weather in the third quarter or seventh inning just to get it over with and move on to the next stop?
What was ironic – the No. 2 and No. 20 coming together on more than one occasion this year – went largely unnoticed by the broadcast media. Stewart bobbled and collected Busch while leading the Daytona 500, wrecked Busch at Dover, prompting Kurt to fly down pit road and stop next to him, screeching to a halt inches from a crew member. No one seemed to pick up on the fact that this was the third time these two had been involved with eliminating one another from competition. Many seemed more preoccupied with the salty language used by a cranky Stewart the morning before, telling a cameraman that he had invaded his private personal bubble.
Many seemed oblivious to the fact that Biffle was so tight on gas in the first place. Had the caution not been thrown, under the green flag conditions they were racing under, Biffle likely would have been coasting onto pit road the next time by. This was completely ignored during the race broadcast, and no mention was made to a fuel issue as everyone marveled at Bowyer stalking Biffle. It should not come as much surprise however. During the early stages of the race, there was a three-wide battle for the lead as Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Gordon were swapping positions from corner to corner.
No need to cover that though. Let’s cue those dopey Valvoline-In-The-Future-Commercials instead.
Right about now, someone will undoubtedly bust out with the ever-popular cliche, “no one seems to want to win this championship!” While you’re at it, give me that “hot potato” analogy as well. As if someone really doesn’t want to take the bull by the horns and wrap up a championship that is by no means decided or even has a clear-cut favorite at this point. Trying to make a story where there isn’t one, creating controversy where none is needed, does little to foster interest in the Chase, and leads to shoddy reporting of the races themselves as well.
Soap operas air on weekday afternoons, not on Sundays. As if heading off to the biggest, most steeply banked variable in all of motorsports wasn’t enough to generate interest, with a new car, new rules, and the unknown of 43 cars running inches apart on an old Native American burial ground. As much as NASCAR is chastised for style over substance, perhaps some members of the media covering it should be as well.