NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? 2 Juniors Speak Out, We’re Chasing the Old System & Max Papis?

Did You Notice? That under the old points system, the championship battle would be far from over? With three races left, Jimmie Johnson would lead Carl Edwards by just 98, with Kyle Busch hanging on by a thread at 203 points out. Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle would round out the top five, but neither would have a shot at the title.

Should the 1-2 finish for Johnson and Edwards hold, it would be the second time in the last three years the old system would have “been better.” In 2006, Johnson won his first title over Matt Kenseth by 56 points in the Chase; but in the regular season, that margin would have been just four – the closest championship battle in NASCAR history.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no coincidence here. Johnson doesn’t look at the season as a 36-race schedule; he looks at it as a 26-race regular season followed by a 10-race playoff, and both sections are approached in completely different ways. Since Johnson isn’t looking for consistency over 36 races – just 10 – it makes sense he wouldn’t win a title under the “classic” points system. He could care less if he’s the point leader after 26 races; what he cares about is simply proving he can run well in the final 10.

While you can’t argue with the strategy, it’ll feed the fire of a lot of frustrated fans if more people pick up on Johnson’s “test in March, win in September” motto.

Did You Notice? That in another championship battle, Kevin Harvick’s teams played it the right way? I was pleasantly surprised to see the No. 2 truck driven by Ryan Newman successfully run down and pass his teammate, the No. 33 of Ron Hornaday Jr. in the closing laps at Atlanta. Hornaday is in the thick of the Truck Series title race versus Johnny Benson, and Benson had a horrible day; eventually finishing seventh, he saw his lead cut in half to just 31.

LUNKENHEIMER: TRACKING THE TRUCKS AFTER ATLANTA

Of course, Hornaday could have made a much bigger dent if he was “allowed” to take the win. But Newman never backed off, and was backed up by team owner Harvick after the event for giving it 110%. Now, that is what you call a healthy series on the racetrack. Not surprisingly, it’s shown in the ratings, with the trucks posting ratings increases in over two-thirds of their races this season.

Did You Notice? That while Kenny Wallace’s underdog story was a great one for the Nationwide Series, no such scenario could ever happen in Cup. Why? Because those teams don’t even exist anymore. At this point, it costs so much to even get to the racetrack in NASCAR’s No. 1 division that a team like Wallace’s wouldn’t even have the cash to get through five races of a 36-race schedule.

That’s got to change.

Did You Notice? Former car owner Junior (not Jimmie) Johnson’s endorsement of Barack Obama in this year’s presidential election? In a sport that’s looked at as a Republican stronghold, Johnson’s endorsement was both unexpected and surprising in how it was made public. In a letter tied to Obama’s campaign, Johnson went into great detail about his support for the Democrat, going full bore with quotes like, “I’ve been in a lot of races in my life. But this may be the most important one of all. So let’s all get in gear and win it together.”

Many are saying Johnson’s endorsement could be a game changer in the state of North Carolina, where the election is a virtual tossup between McCain and Obama supporters. Most people tell you that celebrity endorsements aren’t supposed to matter, but deep down we know there are voters out there who care enough for that to make a difference. More importantly, though, with one full swoop Johnson helped alter the sport’s image a bit to total outsiders – especially after nine of the 10 drivers in the Chase publicly endorsed Republican George W. Bush four years ago.

With the rest of the four major sports not going out of their way to be either Republican or Democrat, my feeling all along that if NASCAR wants to enter the political arena, it should be balanced out so you don’t have any fans feeling unwelcome. A public Democratic endorsement by such a beloved figure is the first step in that direction – although I’m sure Johnson was thinking about none of that when he decided to make his voting decision known.

Did You Notice? With all the free agents out there on the NASCAR market these days, GEICO decided to go Cup racing with… Max Papis? Really? And when they already had a solid string of marketing commercials featuring Mike and Loren Wallace?

Nothing against Papis, but have you seen the success rate of open-wheel converts these days? Makes you wonder what else the Italian brought to the table in order to get the gig. By all accounts though, Papis is one of the most feel-good nice people you’ll ever meet, so I’m hoping to be proven wrong on this one.

Did You Notice? The number of sponsorships still yet to be announced for next season? Right now, I count around eight to nine full-time Cup cars without sufficient funding for 2009. With a car count that’s at 44 for next year, I don’t think I’d consider that a good thing.

There have been rumors that we’ll see a ton of layoffs later in November as soon as the season ends. Deemed “Black Monday,” people seem to think as many as 750 employees of various Cup teams will be wiped out as soon as the checkered flag falls at Homestead. I don’t think it’ll be that bad, but at this point you have to think at least a few pink slips will be handed out. Even though 2009 is still three months away, there’s so much that needs to be done in terms of offseason testing and simply making cars competitive for the following year that teams need funding immediately to keep going. And once Homestead falls, checks from companies like the U.S. Army, Caterpillar, etc. start heading to other teams than the ones they’re currently with.

The clock is ticking… so let’s hope these guys all come up with something at the 11th hour.

Did You Notice? Jeff Burton’s championship hopes were dashed when he “bulldozed” the very car (Dave Blaney’s No. 22) that’s funded by his primary sponsor for 2009? Just a small touch of irony.

Did You Notice? Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been speaking out lately? At Martinsville, he all but accused NASCAR of deliberately throwing debris cautions late in races there to keep the final few laps competitive. Then he goes to Atlanta and complains about the late starting time of races, blaming it on the networks but clearly agitated that NASCAR keeps capitulating enough to allow these early evening finishes.

After a year of adjusting to Hendrick, I’m encouraged and happy to see Junior speaking his mind. With more power than most to have a real influence over some of the problems ailing NASCAR today, his words will always carry a bit of added weight. And for the record, I think he’s right on both counts.

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