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The Yellow Stripe: 10+1 Reasons to Still Cheer – Why the Rest of 2008 is Still Must-See NASCAR

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a seminal British TV comedy sketch show that debuted in 1969. Created by the collective creative and comedic genius of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman and Terry Jones, the groundbreaking series and subsequent movies were way ahead of their time. The team had complete creative control of the work. and as a result were able to break a number of what were considered TV taboos. Some critics have even compared the group’s impact on comedy as similar to the impression The Beatles left on popular music.

And it is music that ties this all together, I promise dear reader, as at the conclusion of Monty Python’s classic The Life of Brian is a song entitled “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” With that sentiment very much in my mind – as you may have guessed from the title of this column – this week’s edition of “The Yellow Stripe” will attempt to look on the bright side of NASCAR.

At times this season, some of the coverage of our fine sport has bordered on the hysterical – and I’m not naïve and dewy-eyed enough of a rookie columnist to suggest that some of it hasn’t been spot on. The CoT has been little short of a disaster, the traditionalists have been turned off by Toyota’s domination of both the Sprint Cup and the Nationwide Series, and on occasion long spells of frankly sleep-inducing racing have plagued the sport. The culmination, perhaps, came at the caution-fest debacle at Indianapolis while the rain-delayed Pocono 4,000,000 – sorry, 500 – didn’t help much, either. And when the most dramatic moment at Watkins Glen is a scary crash between a dozen backmarkers, well, let’s just say it’s not been a great three-race spell.

But despite all the doom and gloom and dire talk of a sponsorship crisis on the Cup circuit next season, there is still much to be cheerful about. So without further ado, here is why the rest of the Sprint Cup season remains absolute must-see NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. could win his first Cup championship

There are only two father-son title-winning combinations in NASCAR to date: Lee & Richard Petty and Ned & Dale Jarrett. So, what a story it would be if Junior could win his first Cup title and add his name alongside his father’s to the august list.

Following a deeply disappointing 22nd-place finish at the Glen, there are sure to be calls for Tony Eury Jr.’s head after a questionable decision not to pit at the right time. But Junior’s one win, seven top fives and four additional top-10 finishes speak of the sort of consistency that wins championships. The man now has everything he needs at his disposal… and if he peaks at the right time, this year might just be the year.

Four races until the Chase begins

Regardless of what you think of the mechanics of NASCAR’s “postseason” tournament, there is an undeniable excitement watching those drivers on the Chase bubble try to race their way in.

With just four races left before the top 12 are locked in, eight drivers – from Jeff Gordon in seventh through David Ragan in 14th – are separated by just 205 points. With a maximum possible points haul of 780 and a minimum worst-case scenario of 136 points, this spread is a small one. The drivers involved likely won’t have to be perfect, but they’ll need to run consistently well on the bullring at Bristol, at the sister tracks of Fontana and Michigan, and finally, under pressure on the 3/4-mile gem that is Richmond International Raceway. It will be fascinating to watch as the level of desperation ratchets up each week – for this is one Chase field which won’t be decided until Richmond’s final laps.

No Diggers or Race Buddies!

John Daly – NASCAR’s blogging TV critic – is fulsome in his praise of ESPN’s coverage of the Cup Series the last three weeks. Even our own Doug Turnbull has occasionally noted in his TV review column that ESPN is doing it right this season. Televising live sporting events can be a crapshoot even in the best of times, and sometimes, the casual fan underestimates to how hard it is to cover everything at – in some cases – such monolithic tracks.

For my money, ESPN has done a tremendous job in extremely trying circumstances so far. It corrected the faults from its first year, and Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett are a pleasure to listen to in the booth. Plus, there isn’t a Digger or a Race Buddy in sight. Pure bliss!

Kyle Busch might just be having a season for the ages

The KB Factor has been a little short of awesome this season. More importantly, his caustic, “call it like he sees it” on- and off-track persona is exactly what NASCAR needs. It’s one thing to be brash, but another altogether when you’re decimating fields at every level in which you’re racing. With 16 wins in 53 starts in 2008 – an astonishing 30% victory lane success rate – Busch is on the verge of breaking some major NASCAR records. Of course, you still have the right to call the man whatever you like; but the one thing you can never say is that he’s boring.

Chances are someone will win their first NASCAR race

We’ve not seen a first-time winner yet this season, but chances are we will. In the past 10 seasons, we’ve had a first-time winner (often with multiple drivers) in every season save for 2004.

OK, technically you can argue that this is a pipe dream and not a reason to consider NASCAR “must see” TV, but it’s something that is always, always good when it does happen. Just watch the raucous celebrations of a first-time winner and his crew in victory lane and you’ll understand that, despite the cash, fame and fortune, this sport’s still all about winning races and gaining the respect of your peers.

Jimmie Johnson could three-peat

“I hate flying below the radar,” Johnson said recently after winning the Sprint Cup the past two years. “I miss being booed. I miss people throwing stuff at me. I want to start winning again and go through all that stuff.”

And there you have it; that’s all you need to know about how much coverage Jimmie J.’s quest to three-peat is getting. Johnson’s won 11 races in the history of the Chase, the most of any driver and, as he’s shown in the last couple of years, knows how to get it done when a title is on the line. Only the great Cale Yarborough has won back-to-back-to-back NASCAR titles; despite their multiple championships, that feat eluded even seven-time title winners Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty – and thus far, Gordon.

“Don’t know where, don’t know when”

Since I’ve taken a musical theme this week, I’ll poach another line, this time from “We’ll Meet Again,” the old World War II song by Vera Lynn. In this case, I’m referring to the rookies.

To be brutally honest, the new kids have not exactly excelled this season. In fact, it shows just how impressive the rookie years of Tony Stewart, Johnson, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya were in hindsight. But I’ve got this feeling that before the season is over, we’ll see one of the newbies step up and give a phenomenal performance – and likely follow it up with Rookie of the Year honors they deserve.

We can’t get another race as bad as Indy (surely) and we don’t have to go back to Pocono, either

Fingers crossed on the first point, and sincere apologies to fellow Frontstretch columnist and the “No. 1 Tricky Triangle fan,” Kurt Smith, on the second.

In the Chase, every lap counts

While luck plays a role – a role Tom Bowles made clear on this site a few weeks back – the Chase is still 10 races long with a lot of laps where a lot can happen. But the simple fact is, you just can’t be lucky in every race. It’s just not possible.

Johnson’s effort last season said as much about talent and determination to win as it did fortuitous events on the track. But once the green flag drops at Loudon, all bets are off. One bad finish can quite literally end your championship chances, so each Chase-contending team must be on its game every lap – hoping fortune smiles upon it.

Bristol. Talladega. Martinsville. Miami.

Four personal reasons here, as these are the four races that I just can’t wait to watch. I hear what those who know about Bristol say and its “new” racing, but as a relatively new convert to the sport, I find every race there utterly compelling. Likewise with Martinsville, and I’ve already made my love of plate racing clear in this very column earlier this year.

As for the final selection, well, it’s simple: that’s where the champion is crowned and it’s more than likely we’ll go into the final race with two or three drivers still with a shot of winning it all when the boys hit south Florida.

NASCAR’s still the best and most unique sport out there

It isn’t often that I turn to that great sage Busch for help, but his post-race comments at the Glen were interesting. After his eighth win of the season he commented, “…Got to thank the fans. They’re the ones that make us race. So, everybody out there appreciate your sport.”

He’s right. You’re seeing some of the very best drivers anywhere in the world race for basically 10 straight months at an intense level. Yes, it’s far from perfect and yes, there are problems, but what would you rather do – spend a Sunday watching croquet or knitting a nice scarf? I thought not.

Sometimes in life, you have to stop and count your blessings. No, NASCAR isn’t perfect – but it’s still an awful lot better than what many of the naysayers would have you believe.

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