NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: The Championship Battle of Who Could Care Less

As the sun set around the country Sunday, people sat glued to their television sets – sports were on their mind, and boy, were they ingesting a heavyweight prizefight for the ages. As the leaders of two great teams exchanged punch after punch, the crowd galvanized towards a frenzied climax, with the matchup hurtling toward a conclusion that clearly lived up to the hype. In the end, there was only one winner; but fans of both sides – no matter the outcome – had truly won. Left wanting more, they filed out of the stadium with a sense of anticipation, already smiling when looking ahead to the next time the two would do battle once again.

No, it wasn’t Jeff Gordon vs. Jimmie Johnson I’m talking about; it was New England vs. Indianapolis that galvanized many of the NASCAR faithful, turned off long ago by the championship battle between two teammates that has stirred up about as much excitement for them as the checkout line at the local library.

But that’s where the experts begin to scratch their heads; based on pure competition alone, the description outlined at the top could have easily applied to the racing, not the football, on this autumn day where stock cars fought hard to take center stage. And the million-dollar question for the failure to do so – as in, the millions of dollars NASCAR is losing to empty seats and sagging TV ratings – is why is this battle not worth watching?

Someone needs to find the answer.

Truth be told, the last few laps at Texas symbolized everything that you pine for as a fan of the sport of auto racing. A scintillating battle for the win between two of the sport’s greatest drivers – Matt Kenseth and Johnson – had the crowd on their feet literally every turn. I’ve been a writer for seven years and a fan for 18, and at 26 years old I was about ready to blow out the windows I was shouting so hard over those final 10 laps. When done right, the joy of watching stock cars run side-by-side can truly be a thing of beauty.

“We were able to battle for the win and put on a hell of a show for the fans,” Johnson said afterwards, showing the title was never on his mind as much taking the checkered flag first. “Just great hard racing.”

Finally clearing Kenseth for good with two laps left, Johnson’s Lowe’s Chevrolet trudged on to Victory Lane for the third straight week, giving him a series-leading ninth victory and, most importantly, a leg up as he looks to repeat as series champion. Behind him, his part-car owner, part-rival Gordon sputtered home seventh, exhausted after a day full of battling through a series of strategies and serious adjustments that never seemed to get his car headed in the right direction.

For a time, though, it was Gordon who seemed to have the cards stacked out right. Early in the race, Steve Letarte put the No. 24 out front with a two-tire stop that got him off sequence with the rest of the pack; while the DuPont Chevrolet inevitably slipped back through the field, a series of yellow flags thrown the right way could have given Gordon a leg up on the rest of the competition.

But it didn’t happen that way.

“Yeah, it’s still close, but they’re spanking us (the No. 48),” Gordon said. “They’re putting it to us.”

“We’re very competitive and we’re just getting beat. We’ve got to go to work. We’ve got to get it back.”

MCLAUGHLIN: THINKIN’ OUT LOUD AFTER TEXAS

Strong words from a man facing a tougher reality; it appears Johnson has now gained an upper hand in a bid for a repeat not often accomplished, as I outlined in an article just two weeks ago. It’s the latest twist in what’s been a back and forth battle that’s shaped up throughout the course of the playoffs; but this three-race win streak comes just after Gordon strung together two straight wins of his own, taking the checkers at Talladega and Lowe’s – a track Johnson has dominated these past five years – to reestablish himself atop a points lead he controlled for virtually the entire regular season. No doubt, the outcome is still up for grabs in a Chase dominated by just these two, drivers at the peak of their performance level while trading trophies back and forth on the quest for the biggest one.

Which is why those glum faces and the “I don’t care” responses fans have when asked about the title need to be addressed. Looking at stats and stats alone, there’s no denying that both Gordon and Johnson are two of the best drivers to put on a uniform in Cup in the last five years. Johnson’s 32 wins are easily tops amongst all drivers since 2002; Gordon’s total of 23 checkered flags ranks second best, putting him ahead of even two-time champ Tony Stewart. No matter what the points system is, you’d be pressed to put an argument together that would put anyone else in the same stratosphere that both Johnson and Gordon have been driving in throughout all of 2007. So, what’s the beef?

The differences between the Chase points system and the “old way of doing things” might lead us to an answer. If this season were played out with the pre-Chase version in place, it would be Gordon celebrating outside Victory Lane on Sunday – not Johnson. A 400-point lead would have allowed the Rainbow Warrior to complete his Drive For Five; but that’s no longer the rules under which this Chase game is played. Instead, he’ll have to punch his teammate back if he wants to reclaim rights to a trophy that’s vacated his household since 2001. It’s a different, more contrived title; but then again, it’s one with which the current pursuer has no issues.

“There is really no other way to put it other than they’ve been performing excellent,” said Gordon of his teammate’s recent run of good luck. “And we haven’t stepped up where we need to. If this thing comes down to performance, they’ve out-performed us.”

“You’ve got to take your hat off to Jimmie [Johnson] and those guys. They did an excellent job.”

Perhaps it’s those quotes that are the problem, too. These two men like each other; and why shouldn’t they? If it wasn’t for Gordon’s prodding, there’s no telling if Johnson would even be at Hendrick Motorsports, his career given the enviable good luck charm of getting pulled from the Busch Series and plucked into one of the prime rides racing had to offer. Around the same age, the two have similar interests, and were frequently known to hang out away from the racetrack; during a tumultuous personal struggle for Gordon with ex-wife Brooke in 2002, it was the newfound friendship of Johnson that helped to offer words of support in troubled times. Five years later, Gordon’s subsequent remarriage and birth of his daughter have made going out on the town a much less frequent occurrence, but the mutual respect the two have for one another has never wavered.

Therein lies the problem; rivalries work best when both sides spew venom, or at least wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room at a party. Yankees – Red Sox, Patriots – Colts, or, in racing terms, Petty – Pearson enveloped those qualities; more recently, Gordon – Earnhardt was a fan-made rivalry of two men who were labeled too different by the fans to have mutual respect for one another, even though they did. But in this case, there’s no hiding similarities that run deep; same team, same mold, same structure. And it’s that sameness that has led to indifference. Which, considering the way Hendrick has dominated the sport, may lead to a very big warning sign; NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver is heading over to this outfit next year, and guess what? He likes Gordon and Johnson too. There’s no evil to be found here, only good.

Which likely has good people turning off the TV set, booing in unison at the track, and wondering just when a new rivalry will light their passion once again.

Will you never rest
Fighting the battle
Of who could care less
Unearned happiness, 

No question about it, these men have earned their keep on the track; but unfortunately, they haven’t earned the fans’ attention off it. And that’s a shame; for what should be one of the most dramatic finishes in recent history is being turned into the most blasé.

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