NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: 2008 Chase for the Championship Raises Interesting Questions at the Mystery Mile

The 2008 Championship Chase began in earnest this past Sunday with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Greg Biffle’s lights out performance (pun obviously intended) in passing race leader Jimmie Johnson with 11 laps to go served notice that there are more title contenders in this fight than just The Three Amigos of Johnson, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.

Biffle did not seem as if he was going to be able to mount much of a charge after the previous three restarts had the No. 48 riding off into the sunset, but the darkhorse that Biffle was cracking the whip on got to steppin’ on lap 289, when it powered by Johnson rather unexpectedly at the exit of turn 2.

But that was just the latest and greatest of what turned out to be a string of surprises Sunday afternoon. Bob Bahre’s 1-mile oval outside of Concord, N.H., has long been deemed “The Magic Mile.” I had always called it, “The Mystery Mile” – as in, “It is a complete mystery to me why we hold two races here.” That got me to thinking that there were more than a few peculiar events taking place this weekend. Peculiar… or maybe just plain mysterious.

It was rather fitting that Biffle’s sponsor this week was Turbo HD from Dish Network with the way he dusted Johnson. I was reminded of The Dukes of Hazzard episode when Bo and Luke have to retrieve Cale Yarborough’s stolen turbo with special pop-it valve (to date, nobody is sure what this means) that was stolen by the Jethro Brothers. Apparently, the Jethros must be in cahoots with Roush Fenway Racing, as it appears to have found its way onto Biffle’s No. 16 Ford Fusion. Just look at the impromptu power move he put on the No. 48 car! But while things were looking up for the one they call, “the Biff,” some of the other Chase contenders were looking only at the immense virtual load of manure they were about to have dumped on them – not unlike Biff in Back To The Future.

BOWLES: NO SURPRISE THE CHASE CINDERELLA IS GREG BIFFLE

Busch had been running towards the front early in the race, but was not presenting much of a challenge to some of the faster cars early in the race. Then he really started having handling problems, once the heim joint on the front sway bar mount broke. All of a sudden, the body roll exhibited by the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota resembled that of a ’79 Ford Granada that was not equipped with the towing package. He almost lost it in front of his brother Kurt Busch, who early on seemed to forget he was having a garbage season, and made a charge to the front that was reminiscent of his past performances here in his No. 97 Roush Fords. When Kyle finally did lose control on lap 84, he was predictably collected by Jamie McMurray – who at the time was about an eighth of a mile away from the spinning, bright yellow Camry.

NASCAR may want to inspect McMurray’s hydration system to see if indeed he hasn’t spiced things up a bit with his sponsor’s product. Nearly the length of a straightaway behind Busch, McMurray managed to first pile into teammate and innocent bystander David Ragan, then collect Busch who had spun back up to the apron but was still well out of the racing line. There may be trouble afoot here – perhaps Ragan’s sponsor AAA (who is leaving at the end of the season) might want to investigate whether or not there is some insurance scam being perpetuated, what with two different teammates taking him out on consecutive weekends. I mean, come on – once is a coincidence, twice is a pattern.

Something else struck me as odd, and perhaps I missed it; there was no mention made of why the No. 45 Petty Enterprises Dodge was clad in black paint this weekend, and why Kyle Petty was not at the track. As many know, New Hampshire was the site of a practice wreck that took the life of Kyle’s son Adam Petty in May of 2000. Each race since then, Kyle has entered the No. 45 car (which was Adam’s number) in black to honor his memory. When Chad McCumbee was involved in his accident on lap 230, there was ample opportunity to make note of this… but none was made. It’s hard to believe it has been eight years since that happened, as well as the knee-jerk restrictor-plate race that followed in response to his and Kenny Irwin Jr.‘s passing at this same track. One can only imagine what Kyle must have felt seeing that car in trouble in between turns 3 and 4.

It pains me to think about it.

Also odd, but not necessarily out of the ordinary this year, were the empty seats peppering the frontstretch and throughout turns 3 and 4. Perhaps inclement weather was a deterrent, but with this being a marquee event, the glaring attendance deficit is cause for discussion. While New Hampshire if often criticized for having two dates, those who are staunch defenders of the track claim that those in the Northeast don’t have as many opportunities to attend races as fans located in the Southeast. Well, regardless of where anyone lives, not as many people are attending races in 2008 due to economic reasons, Chase or no Chase.

Quite fitting then was the fact a presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, was on hand to serve as Grand Marshal for the event.

And toward the end of the event, I thought we were going to be treated to an episode of Robby Gordon déjà vu. Gordon was in the middle of the action (as always) and was inches away from single handedly altering the 2008 championship outcome with one small mistake. Indeed, Robby has had some of his most memorable moments at this track, serving as both anti-hero and one-man wrecking crew simultaneously. His bump and run on Jeff Gordon in 2001 earned him his first victory in the Sprint Cup Series, but a similar retaliatory strike to Greg Biffle in 2005 pretty much derailed his chances to win the title that year. All of this pales in comparison, of course to his walking out into traffic and singling out Michael Waltrip following a wreck in 2006. Gordon drew down on Waltrip like Dirty Harry did to Scorpio when he was running across that football field in Dirty Harry, but instead of Inspector Callahan’s ubiquitous Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum, he fired his helmet.

Also, instead of taking somewhat higher ground and referring to Waltrip as a punk, he called him, “a piece of $&#!” on TNT.

Another puzzling bit of in-race audio was ESPN and their music selection before going to break. Early on it was Flo-Rida with “Low” followed by Blue Oyster Cult’s “I’m Burnin’ For You.” Hmmm… hip-hop and classic rock. I guess they really are trying to pander to each demographic on every level, aren’t they? Why not something more appropriate, like when Kyle Busch spun and was hit by McMurray, ESPN could have played “The Boy With A Thorn In His Side” by The Smiths. As Johnson wins races and leads laps while the camera shows Steve Letarte shrugging his shoulders while Jeff Gordon muddles through yet another mediocre 12th-place run, cue up The Cure and “Why Can’t I Be You?”

All in all, this past Sunday amounted to anything but a mystery. NASCAR worked diligently to get the track dried off after rain showers pelted the area overnight and during the morning hours. The result was what will prove to be a defining race of the 2008 Chase. If history is any indication, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth have used up their one mulligan and, as predicted, Johnson and Edwards are the ones who are going to be consistently up front – as both are now odds-on favorites to take home the title. Jeff Burton was my sleeper pick to win the title this year, and in typical Burton fashion he showed up with a hard-earned, if quiet (other than a couple laps of dicing with Dale Earnhardt Jr.) top-five run.

If there is a question mark in any of this, it is Biffle. Finally regaining the form he showed in 2005 when he racked up six victories while playing second fiddle to Tony Stewart in the final standings, Biffle erased nearly a year-long winless drought. Has the No. 16 team been playing a game of chicken themselves, much like the No. 48 team has the last couple of seasons in saving all of their bullets for the season’s final 10 races? Might they have simply recaptured the spark that ignited those brief flashes of greatness earlier in the year? Or was this a stroke of luck or a harbinger of things to come from the driver who has brought home more than his share of hardware for car owner Jack Roush?

Unlike that missing turbocharger of Yarborough’s, this one won’t be solved in an hour – and this year’s Chase won’t likely be settled until the final race at Homestead in November.

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