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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: From 207 Points Up To 74 Points Down; What’s Wrong With This Picture?

20 laps into the 27th race this season, an enigmatic driver, who had been wiping up the floor with most of the competition for 26 races, had his season more or less destroyed. Eight wins in 26 races meant only that he’s eligible for the title – one faulty sway bar bolt in one race has effectively negated even that. It would have been rough enough to take the slam of a 34th place finish because of a 50-cent part, but combined with the Big Points Giveaway, that part resulted in a shift of 281 points and seven positions in the standings in one week.

OK, I’ve read all about how Jimmie Johnson finished 39th in the first Chase race in 2006, and how 74 points can be made up in one race. Of course it’s not technically over for Kyle Busch. But even as great as he is and has been all season, would you bet on him now?

Johnson overcame Loudon to win the 2006 Chase with an incredible run of five races where he finished first or second. Kyle’s best five-race stretch this year was from Talladega to Dover, with three wins, a second and a third. But that was before Johnson, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle all found speed. Kyle may be as capable as anyone of such a run, but the odds are strongly against it happening.

Johnson also benefited in 2006 from everyone else using up a “mulligan” (a word that the Chase introduced into the NASCAR lexicon, at the same time that the Talladega race was pronounced to be the “wild card”). Matt Kenseth, who finished second in 2006, didn’t DNF in the Chase, but he also only had two top fives. Denny Hamlin, finishing third, had three finishes of 18th or worse. Busch already has one.

Johnson had no such advantage against Jeff Gordon in 2007… and no one with a DNF in the Chase was close to competing with either of them. One wreck or blown engine and Johnson would have lost it to his almost as blistering teammate. Not only does Kyle need a phenomenal run from this point forward, but he needs everyone else – particularly Johnson and Carl Edwards – to falter.

74 points can be made up in one race… but that’s just how far Kyle is behind Edwards and Johnson. Busch also has six other very good drivers and teams – a pack that includes Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and a resurgent Stewart – that he now has to leap-frog to regain the points lead. One DNF in the last nine… and at Talladega and Martinsville everyone is vulnerable… and anyone who consistently puts up top 10s without a hitch is likely to finish the season ahead of Busch. A perfect illustration of why the Big Points Giveaway extinguishes brilliance, as I so often rail in this forum.

Suppose Kyle has another DNF and is effectively taken out of the championship hunt. How exciting will it be then?

Consider the buzz surrounding Kyle Busch this season. In an age when NASCAR is addressing… or more correctly dismissing… steadily falling ratings, attendance that has dropped off a cliff and a generally and persistently low opinion of the current car design from both insiders and outsiders, along comes a young, cocky driver who in his fourth season has suddenly caught fire and dusted the rest of the pack, all the while bowing brazenly and boldly without regard for fans’ opinion.

Boos came loudly at the beginning of the season, especially after he had an incident with the sport’s golden boy. And after a while came cheers too. And the racing press was suddenly filled with stories by writers fumbling to reach those who both loved or hated Busch. The reaction to Kyle is something NASCAR desperately needed: noise.

And now his season may be relegated to becoming that team that almost won it all. You know, the one everyone more or less forgets.

If Johnson wins a third title under this format, no one here is going to take anything away from him, just remember what that did to the ratings. Some people dislike Johnson, but he’ll never generate emotion like Kyle does. And when he wins, he doesn’t generate ratings either. Nothing wrong with that by the way, it works for them.

But imagine if Kyle had a full season to rev up some old-school fans of hard racin’. Or if he had a full season to aggravate fans of humble, clean racing drivers. Busch has been doing this year what the Big Points Giveaway and the Winged Snowplow have undoubtedly not been doing… generating interest in the sport.

Is NASCAR happy about the diminished title prospects of the driver who has become one of their most well-known figures, even if he isn’t the most popular? After race fans have been talking about him all year long, in just 20 laps a faulty part has extinguished all of that, save for comments about his bad day and how he handled it. And with his title hopes now severely deflated, the wind has gone out of the sails of the Kyle Busch juggernaut. Busch fans probably don’t like his chances now. Let’s see if the Colts have better luck. Busch haters can breathe a little easier, knowing that he is much less likely to win it now. Whew, that was close! Are the Red Sox on?

If Busch won this year’s championship, he would have plenty more new fans and NASCAR would have a new face that they need… a champion many fans love to hate. Johnson, for all of his remarkable ability, just can’t make people despise him with that kind of passion. And Stewart won’t be igniting the ire of fans as much when he is running 20th every week next year.

There are plenty of people out there rejoicing over Kyle having lost a sizable points lead just 20 laps into race 27. I’ve already heard several people calling it karma for the way he has been racing others all year. What a long way we’ve come indeed from our admiration of the Intimidator for the way he raced so hard to win. One wonders what the reaction would be if Dale Earnhardt lost eight wins to the Chase.

Others say this is what makes the Chase work… that now instead of being on cruise control the rest of the year (as if Kenseth snored his way through all of those top-10 finishes in 2003), Kyle and the No. 18 team will have to work for it. Excuse me, but I thought they had been doing that all year. Haven’t they at least worked hard enough not to have a sway bar bolt possibly end their season?

Besides that, without a Chase, Loudon would have put Carl and Jimmie back in the hunt. And no one would be questioning it. Nothing against Biffle, but how did he suddenly become third in points? What the hell just happened?

Seriously, is this how fans want their own driver to win? My favorite driver is in the top 12; I’m not even rooting for him to win the title this way. Truthfully, the Big Points Giveaway so distorts the standings that it’s hard to care who wins. Since 2004, a resetting of the points that doesn’t entertain anyone, that has nothing to do with events on the track, that we can’t even tangibly see, has played a bigger part in deciding who will be the champion than overall performance through 36 races.

Can it be said that fans don’t watch NASCAR because they admire the genius of Brian France?

This in the name of “growing” the sport, in the words of those who have run out of logical arguments defending the Big Points Giveaway (which often doesn’t take long). If you’re not a fan of the Chase, get over it you rigid old fart and start changing with the times because the sport is “growing.” You need to move on. Duh, the 36-race points system is so 10 minutes ago.

How the sport has grown since the Chase. To find out what happened in the grand kickoff of NASCAR’s 2008 playoffs in the Philly area, you had to turn to page 11 of the sports section of the Philadelphia Inquirer for a 100-word blurb. Biffle wins, Busch falters, and now on to high school basketball. It’s always been that way and I’m not a fan of the Inquirer, but that’s the point… the outsiders were the people NASCAR was trying to reach.

Maybe having a polarizing driver who wins frequently and becomes a champion by kicking tail all season might bring some casual fans around and “grow” the sport. I’m pretty confident that’s what happened with Darrell Waltrip, Earnhardt and Gordon. Any of those three certainly brought in more new fans than the Big Points Giveaway has.

Busch has eight wins this season and he is now just barely ahead of Clint Bowyer, who has half as many top fives. All because Nextel didn’t think the sport they were dropping $700 million into was exciting enough. Now that Kyle’s brilliant season has been reduced to his being part of the pack, does that help?

My gut says that Kyle Busch has lost the points lead for good in 2008. It’s not over, but they are in a hole now that they shouldn’t be in. Partly because of a sway bar bolt failing at the worst possible time, but mostly because of some good old-fashioned wealth redistribution.

I don’t care if you hate Kyle Busch. You can’t tell me that’s right.

Kurt’s Shorts at the Monster Mile

  • One bright spot in NASCAR these days is Dover International Speedway. The racing there is almost always captivating, new car or not. Living in New Jersey doesn’t offer a lot of opportunities for NASCAR fans to see races, but we do have Dover and Pocono, so it’s worth the trade-off.
  • Our own Tom Bowles pointed out that Biffle has won almost as many Chase races as anybody, so maybe it was premature to call him a darkhorse. Well, I’ll call him one now. He just hasn’t been very consistent this year, or any year except for 2005, for that matter. I will say this though… if he’s still in it at Miami, look out.
  • Speaking of Dover, why not put lights in this joint? Night racing would rock here.
  • You know, this column being titled Happy Hour wasn’t originally intended to be ironic… but I guess it is now. Oh well. How many things go right in this crazy world?

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