NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Really?!

Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

Or at least it seems that way lately. Maybe it’s just me, but several tidbits lately have me doing a double take. I know it’s called silly season for a reason, but this year has gone beyond silly and right on into downright ridiculous.

The latest piece of news is that Yates Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports will merge in 2010. That one came straight out of left field. The first thing that comes to mind is yet another person trying to get by on the Petty name. The second is that I feel kind of sorry for Reed Sorenson, even if he’s not the world’s greatest driver, because he’s at least as good as Paul Menard, who will get the No. 43 (I’m guessing on the number; one of them will keep it for sure) ride for no reason other than his family’s money. I also feel for Jamie McMurray, whose No. 26 team would likely have moved on over to Yates Racing when his Roush Fenway team is forced to close to meet the 2010 four-team limit. Unless Roush Fenway continues with Hall of Fame Racing, who is also dropped like a hot potato in this deal, and could perhaps foist McMurray’s team on them-not that they’re ready for a second team, but they would likely take any deal RFR offered just to stay afloat.

But wait! There’s more. RPM will field Fords next season for Menard, Elliott Sadler, AJ Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne. Yeah, that Kasey Kahne-the same one Ford sued for breach of contract when Kahne accepted his Sprint Cup ride with what was then Evernham Motorsports, because the driver had a development deal with the manufacturer, and Evernham ran Dodges. Even more ironic is that Ford had Kahne paired with then-Robert Yates Racing. But I guess it’s all good now? Strange bedfellows…

As if all that wasn’t crazy enough, there’s still the looming Chase, whose dozen participants will be determined by Sunday morning. Only four drivers are assured a spot, and fifth place is just 105 points ahead of 13th. Both Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch are just waiting to capitalize on anybody’s misfortune – and at Richmond, anyone can run into a problem. Matt Kenseth is currently 12th, just 17 points ahead of Vickers, and should he miss out, it will be the first time that he isn’t in Cup contention since the Chase began – and it will also leave Jimmie Johnson as the only driver to make the Chase every year since its inception.

Speaking of crazy and the Chase, how about the fact that unless Tony Stewart or Johnson wins Saturday night, Mark Martin, who is currently in just 10th place, will show up in Loudon as the points leader? I know winning is important, but on what planet is Martin having a better season than Stewart? Handing a driver who barely squeaks into the playoffs at all the lead is just silly.

Almost as silly as having a playoff system in which you don’t have to win a single race to get in. Ironically it was Kenseth’s 2003 season, in which he won the championship with just one win, that brought the Chase about. NASCAR’s reasoning for the whole Chase abomination was that it would put more emphasis on winning versus simply being consistently in the top five or 10 each week. But this year, four drivers without a single win to date will likely make it in, while three drivers sitting just outside all have at least one points win.

So, NASCAR, is winning the point, or isn’t it? If it’s not, then stop trying to be the NFL and lose the Chase, which is possibly the second worst idea ever, behind the Top-35 rule. If it is, then make the Chase about the top 12 full-time drivers who have won races, not just stroked the points to get in. This year, that would mean just 11 drivers in, unless one of the oh-fers wins in Richmond. I do not and never will like the Chase system, but if it’s supposed to be about winning, put the winners in.

On the bright side, NASCAR hit a home run last weekend by moving the Labor Day weekend show to Atlanta. I hate that the sanctioning body panders to “markets” instead of setting the schedule based on racing, but at least this time they seem to have pandered to a market that really cares. Atlanta was packed, and you have to wonder if many of those fans are the same ones who went faithfully to Darlington to ring out the summer every year. It’s still not right, but at least there wasn’t the gaping hole that there has been since the race moved to California. The race should be at Darlington, but at least NASCAR got the market right – and the attendance proves it.

It’s silly season in NASCAR, and this year’s is a doozy. But don’t stop the ride just yet – I’m not ready to get off.

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