NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Halfway Home – A 2008 Chase Review

Five short weeks ago, NASCAR’s latest rendition of the ill-considered Chase kicked off with all the fanfare the powers that be could muster, despite general apathy by the mainstream press who still seem to think this NFL and World Series thing might fly even against the juggernaut of the shamelessly self-proclaimed “fastest growing sport in America.”

Five weeks ago, many pundits – this humble scribe included – boldly predicted the Chase was a two-man battle between Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. I am hopeful that at the time I picked Jimmie Johnson as a potential spoiler – at least that would make me look less like a moron than I currently feel. But like those disclaimers on mutual funds proclaim in small print, “past performance does not guarantee future results.”

So, here at the halfway point let’s take a look at the 12 Chasers and how they’re faring, with the above disclaimer still in play:

Johnson (Vegas odds: 5-9) While I doubt he’ll ever go down in the history books as the sport’s best racer, Johnson might just be the sport’s best Chaser. Every team and driver knows going into the season what challenges the new championship format poses. First, they merely have to be in the top 12 in points after the second Richmond race; it’s the final 10 events which determine the actual title. Knowing that’s the case, and having already won two of these Chase things, Johnson and the No. 48 bunch seemed to deemphasize the regular season. Johnson might be playing head games with other drivers, but he now claims the team used a lot of races at the 1.5-mile tracks this season to experiment with new setups that are now paying off – despite having endured several less than stellar runs on similar tracks.

With the preponderance of the mile-and-a-halves left in the next five races, that might have been wise. Whatever the case here, Johnson is playing his cards close to his chest. He did win at Kansas, but only after lifting to ensure Edwards’s banzai last-lap move didn’t collect the No. 48. When things got a little nuts at Talladega and his main Chase rivals were crippled, Johnson admitted he was going to play it conservative rather than go for the win. At Charlotte, Johnson surrendered several positions in the final laps rather than launching an all out drive to take the lead. You can certainly argue those tactics; but you sure can’t argue with the results. Johnson leads the points by 69 and is now the prohibitive favorite to win this year’s title. Last year, with chief rival Jeff Gordon on a roll, strategy dictated Johnson had to go all out for a win every Chase race. That was a lot more exciting to watch than this year’s more reasoned approach for the No. 48 bunch.

PUGLIESE: JOHNSON, BURTON SQUARE OFF FOR CUP SERIES TITLE

Jeff Burton (Vegas odds: 5-2) To paraphrase Benny Parsons: “Where did he come from!” Easily the oldest driver in the Chase at 41, Burton endured a midseason slump that saw him go from the first Michigan race to the second Loudon event without a top-five finish. Since the Chase began, Burton has managed top 10s in every race, peaking with a brilliant victory on worn tires at Charlotte last weekend. Quietly running just beneath the radar, Burton has amassed almost $5 million in winnings this season and is suddenly seen as the best, and last, chance to derail Johnson’s three-peat. Nobody who follows the sport doubts Burton’s heart and desire, but his consistency is still troublesome, and his two RCR teammates seem stuck in third gear right now. A Burton championship would be one of those feel-good events where even fans of the drivers who lost or failed to make the Chase would feel he was a very deserving champion after all these years of trying. But as Alan Jackson might say, “But here in the real world…”

Greg Biffle (Vegas odds: 3-1) Well, nobody could start the Chase much better than winning the first two races, huh? A third-place finish at Kansas kept Biffle in the points lead and his early playoff momentum rolling. Then along came Talladega, and as it stands written in the Book of Bruce, “Well they came so far, and waited so long, just to reach the part of the dream where everything goes wrong…” I mean getting taken out by a no-account like Robby Gordon is one thing; but to get wrecked by your own teammate who is also contending for a title, that’s got to… what’s the right phrase here? Well, that’s got to lick the sweat off a dead wombat’s scrotum. The hot start to the playoff was surprising in that Biffle hadn’t won a race all season and, prior to the Chase, he led more than 10 laps in just four races. Biffle’s still not out of it yet, but his fate is likely no longer in his own hands. To get back in the game, he’s got to hope odds catch up with Johnson and he has a real bad run, too.

Edwards (Vegas odds: 7-2) The story of this year’s Chase has been Edwards. Period. Print it in 72-font boldface, and pass it along to Perry White screaming “Stop the Presses!” After two third-place finishes to open the postseason, at Kansas Edwards made a no-guts, no-glory, banzai attempt to steal the race win from Johnson. It didn’t work as Edwards ended up in the wall, but it was about the coolest move I’d seen in the sport in the post-Dale Earnhardt era. Unfortunately, Edwards next banzai move didn’t work out as well. An ill-considered bump draft on teammate Biffle in the middle of a Talladega corner set off the Big One, which claimed Edwards and his teammates Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Then, there was that whole hissy-fit deal with Kevin Harvick at Charlotte last week. But the ignition failure at Charlotte was probably the end of Edwards’s legitimate title hopes. That’s not the sort of thing a championship team allows to happen, and it hasn’t happened yet at the No. 48.

So, Johnson is winning the war, but Edwards is sure dominating the headlines. My guess is that Edwards will still go as wide open through this Chase as he did on that last lap at Kansas – until his efforts will once again put him in the wall. It will be a cool thing to watch.

Clint Bowyer (Vegas odds: 28-1) Bowyer, Bowyer, wherefore art thou, Bowyer? Bowyer has finished 12th in Chase races three times, and he’s led exactly two laps in this unseemly ordeal (bonus points do count!) After starting off last year’s Chase with his breakthrough victory at New Hampshire, Bowyer has become an asterisk this season. He’s had no really good runs, but he also hasn’t had any bad ones to put him squarely in mid-pack for this playoff. Already 185 points out the lead, Bowyer’s season isn’t going to be one for the highlight reels unless he really lights things up at Martinsville and his title rivals falter badly.

Harvick (Vegas odds: 22-1) Harvick is still looking for his first top-five finish in the Chase, so maybe that’s why he’s so cranky and handled things with Edwards so badly at Charlotte. After 10 consecutive top-10 finishes late in the season, Harvick has missed the top 10 the last two times out. Just when a team is supposed to be turning up the wick, this team is apparently content to let things simmer, simply happy to be headed to New York for an early appearance in the banquet.

Tony Stewart (Vegas odds: 22-1) Stewart got a gift at Talladega when he was awarded the win for crossing the line second. That might have come a little too late after Tony’s off-road excursion at Kansas, though – the resultant broken splitter saw him limp home in 40th. Already 228 points out of the lead, Stewart might as well concentrate on his team for next year. Although I doubt he’s been waiting for my permission on that – it seems that he’s been working on it since the midpoint of 2008.

Jeff Gordon (Vegas odds: 45-1) Who is this guy driving the No. 24 car this year and what have they done with Jeff Gordon? Gordon’s stock this year has sunk like the DJIA did last week and, at times, he is clearly befuddled by what’s going on. New Hampshire was a body blow and Talladega was a stake through the heart for the No. 24 team, yet to end a winless streak that dates back to late last season. At his most upbeat, Gordon says sometimes that he sees better days ahead, and things are finally looking up. Maybe he ought to run for President rather than NASCAR champion. Ladies and gentlemen, the next President of the United States: George W. Gordon. Clearly, Gordon won’t say things are better for him now than they were eight years ago…

Busch (Vegas odds: 22-1) After being the presumptive favorite going into the Chase, Busch’s late-season meltdown has made Chernobyl look like a fart in a broom closet. A sway bar linkage failure, and the subsequent wreck, left him 34th at NHIS. A blown engine left him dead last at Dover. Another mechanical meltdown at Kansas left him 28th. Buh-bye, Kyle, thanks for playing, but we do have some lovely parting gifts for you, including the take home edition of You Suck.

To be fair, nobody can diminish Busch’s accomplishments this season. Going into 2008, everybody felt it would take several years for the Joe Gibbs organization to get the Toyota program up to speed. Similarly, everyone felt that it would take a year for Busch and his new team to get on the same page. But eight wins in a Cup season is nothing to sneeze at. The fact Busch is so far out of the title hunt with those eight wins underlines the unfairness of the current Cup points system. Under the traditional points standings, Busch would still be second, just 64 points behind Johnson, and the game would still be afoot. You might not want to admit it, but the arrogant little SOB could still rip off three straight wins – though it would all be for naught now.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Vegas odds: 100-1) NASCAR wants it to happen. The Junior Nation wants it to happen. ESPN wants it to happen. Sorry folks, it’s just not going to happen. The second coming of Earnhardt’s NASCAR championship is going to have to wait at least another year after three finishes outside the top 20 in these first five Chase races. Earnhardt has had some good runs this season in what is arguably the best equipment he’s ever driven – cars owned by the same team owner whose boys have been stringing together titles and race wins for over a decade. The problem is he typically runs better at the beginning of the races than at the end, the absolute mirror image of a Cup championship contender. Some say Junior parties too hard and is out of shape. Others say Tony Eury Jr. could take a winning Powerball lottery ticket and turn it into a worthless piece of confetti in 16 seconds on pit road. They go on to add that it might be the only thing he’s good for. Certainly, the radio chatter with the No. 88 bunch during the race sounds a lot more like a really bad script for Married With Children than a race-winning team plotting to improve their car. Yet some of his diehard fans say that Junior still has a shot at this year’s title. I’ll tell you what. If Junior wins this year’s title, I’ll ride my motorcycle naked to Kannapolis to congratulate him. If he doesn’t, ya’ll chip in and buy me a black Challenger SRT. Neither is going to happen, but I really want a Challenger – what Junior’s fans would dearly love Dale to be one day.

Kenseth (Vegas odds: 100-1) There are many crafty strategies to winning this year’s title, but crashing out of three of the first five Chase races isn’t one of them. Prior to this recent string of futility, Kenseth’s last DNF was at Charlotte in the fall of ’07. But the five Chase races haven’t really been the end of his title aspirations. More than most drivers, Kenseth has failed to get his arms around what’s required by this new Car of Sorrow. Somewhere around the midpoint of this season, he seemed to be raising the white flag of surrender for the year. Finishing in the basement of the Chase doesn’t earn a driver a lot of glory, but it still pays pretty good. Right now, Kenseth seems to be just collecting a check.

Denny Hamlin (Vegas odds: 175-1) 175 to 1? A pack mule entered in the Kentucky derby ridden by a blind albino midget would get better odds than that! The Chase has been a disaster for Hamlin, but, to be truthful, the FedEx team has failed to deliver most of the season – with the exception being a brief shining moment in the sun at Martinsville this spring. In 2006, his rookie season, Hamlin finished third in the standings, just 68 points behind Johnson. Compare that with 2009, in which Hamlin is struggling to be anything but an afterthought at JGR behind proven race winner Busch and the “Next Big Thing” Joey Logano. Maybe, in retrospect, slamming the team after Michigan wasn’t such a great idea after all, Mr. Hamlin?

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