NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Overlooking the Obvious – Media Largely Ignoring Compelling Chase Stories, Handing Johnson Title Prematurely

Is there be a more fickle sport than NASCAR?

One moment you are an up and coming driver, brimming with a burgeoning career, celebrated by fans both young and old. Then either as a victim of your own success or by making contact with someone more popular, you draw the ire of the grandstands, receiving the type of greeting one expects will await Roman Polanski upon his impending return stateside.

While the inverse of that can also be true (witness Darrell Waltrip and to some extent, Dale Earnhardt Sr.), the flavor of the month syndrome seems to have hit home hardest during the 2009 Chase for the Championship. The 10-race playoff format, whose detractors are rivaled only in their number and intense sincerity by those who oppose government-dictated healthcare, have already turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to the hoopla of hype circulating throughout NASCAR the past few weeks.

Considering how the Chase has been portrayed by many in the media the last few days, it would be for good reason, too.

A few weeks ago in Richmond we were inundated with how close the battle was for 12th, how many drivers stood to fall out of the running even late in the going, and after the race was decided, how this was perhaps the greatest Chase field every assembled. While that caused me to raise one of my eyebrows Ace Ventura-style, the past few weeks have been even more confounding.

Before I get ahead of myself here, let’s take a quick look at how the Chase is shaping up thus far. Two races in and the talk has already eliminated drivers from legitimate title consideration – chief among them Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and Brian Vickers.

Kahne fell victim to his IED – Improvised Exploding Dodge – at New Hampshire, when the crankshaft in his new R6 Dodge Engine (a known question mark) broke, sending his Charger up in a plume of smoke. He rebounded to finish eighth at Dover. With big banked tracks like Kansas, Charlotte and Fontana coming up on the schedule and a win in Atlanta less than a month back, couldn’t he be primed to make a push forward, teething problems with his Dodge engines not withstanding?

As the Chase began, we were told how the Roush cars could go on a tear at any moment, and that they remained serious threats once the championship round actually got underway. Even Jack Roush has said himself that the first 26 races were his teams’ test session of finding out what hasn’t worked. After witnessing Matt Kenseth’s fall from grace following his back-to-back wins at Daytona and California, it’s hard to argue against that logic. Can either of these two turn things around and ignite the Roush resurgence that the Cat in the Hat alluded to recently? Kenseth in the midst of his woes managed a third-place run at Dover – so all is not completely lost for the Blue Oval brigade.

Vickers’s Red Bull Racing team made an inspired surge towards becoming a weekly threat to win, and clearly was carrying the momentum needed to do something special come Chase time. Now that we’re here, the No. 83 car seems to be a one-trick pony; decent on the big cookie-cutter tracks, but fumbling around at unique locales like Loudon and Dover with finishes of 11th and 18th.

In the meat of the championship sandwich are a few teams that have hung on through the first two races, and keeping them within striking distance of the front, should either of the front few stumble.

Greg Biffle started off the 2008 Chase with a pair of wins. As Roush rolls, so goes Biffle – not slow, but steady with finishes of ninth and 13th. That may have been good enough the first year of the Chase, but as we have seen in recent years, contending for wins and top fives isn’t a bonus, it’s a necessity.

Jeff Gordon’s Drive for Five may be picking up steam, finishing sixth after a lackluster 15th at New Hampshire, while Ryan Newman’s best move may just be staying out of trouble and hanging around in the top 10, posting seventh- and 10th-place results in roughly the first quarter of competition.

Denny Hamlin said after Richmond that his FedEx team assigned a team of engineers to prepare for the first two tracks of the Chase in an effort to get off to a solid start so they didn’t have to play catch up as in years past. It may have been an effort best exercised elsewhere, as Hamlin is usually a threat to win on any flat track (and was so again at Loudon), and Dover resulted in a 22nd-place finish – which might as well be his mulligan.

Tony Stewart scored three wins during the regular season and has had an eventful first couple of Chase races. An axle cap that worked its way loose had him looking down the barrel of disaster at New Hampshire, only to charge his way back to 14th, while the Burger Buddies helped salvage a ninth-place effort at Dover after he and Bobby Labonte inadvertently triggered Joey Logano’s tumble fest, a bizarre crash that was a Twilight Zone-esque reunion of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers past and present.

Kurt Busch, the inaugural Chase champion in 2004, is in an odd place, driving a car he intends to pilot indefinitely, while his crew chief Pat Tryson is given only cursory access to Penske Racing in the midst of a title they stand a legitimate shot at winning. A sixth and a fifth along with 132 laps lead in two races is proof-positive that this team is for real, yet internal Penske politics stand to potentially divide the team. The first time something goes awry, it won’t be hard to pinpoint from where the problem arose.

That being said, Penske horsepower is never found to be wanting on the big tracks, and when they have campaigned the new Dodge engine, the Mopar monster has held together and performed quite well. This is perhaps one of the most compelling stories in the Chase, yet it has gone virtually unnoticed, mentioned only in passing.

Which brings us to the three leading the standings: Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya have been the main focus during the Chase and well they should.

As soon as the Chase (actually the season, as most of the prognosticators picked Johnson as the odds-on favorite to win the 2009 Sprint Cup for a record setting fourth consecutive time – and why wouldn’t they?) Johnson was fingered as the man to beat. The team that can do no wrong, has Chase racing down to a science, and if not for a mechanical malady or a wreck not of their doing, who could possibly stop them? While Johnson and the No. 48 team winning at Dover is not exactly surprising, what is is the “oh it’s over…” attitude that has been expressed by many in the media – though not by Johnson or the Lowe’s team.

Martin was chosen by many who are die-hard loyalists or were covering the sport back when he was driving for an upstart organization who built cars in North Carolina but engines in Michigan (and were sponsored by perhaps the most God-awful swill ever to be brewed in Detroit). At least the can and car were a lovely shade of dark blue. While the “sentimental favorite” tag is bit patronizing, Martin has made mincemeat of the field at times this year, and has proven the No. 5 team headed by Alan Gustafson is every bit the equal as the No. 48 of Chad Knaus.

Montoya had been a curious story all year. The No. 42 never showed much speed except at Indianapolis and Pocono, yet ran smooth and steady all season, not getting into accidents or experiencing a Montoya Meltdown as in previous campaigns. Some may have thought those were fluke races at tracks with similar qualities, but it turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. Martin’s cryptic comments following Richmond should have served as fair warning: the reports of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s demise were greatly exaggerated, and Montoya is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Which brings me to this. With as many great stories and angles as there are to cover for a much maligned format that has such a sizeable cross-section of critics and non-believers, what has nearly every story or headline announced since Monday? This: “Jimmie Johnson will inevitably win his fourth title because he led a bunch of laps and won on Sunday.”

How silly is that?

Silly enough that many drivers were giving more than a tip of the cap to the tire test that Johnson participated in a month earlier. While there is some debate as to how much that test helped (Johnson had four wins at Dover previously), it certainly did not hurt. The only one who even caught a glimpse of his bumper cover was his teammate Martin – who has four wins at Dover – as well as six second-place finishes. Lost on many was the fact that Martin is still the points leader, and is currently averaging a 1.5-place finish thus far in the Chase.

What was supposed to be the greatest Chase field ever assembled has been whittled down to one – or two at the most, if you were to believe some accounts. While fielding a question in the press room at New Hampshire, Martin seemed a bit peeved at one reporter who’s question was essentially insinuating that it was obvious that Johnson is the odds-on favorite to win his fourth consecutive title based on his performance at Dover. His closing comment seemed to sum things up rather succinctly:

“You just don’t have any concept, I guess, of how much racing eight races is.”

So while you could advertise the next eight races as “Batesville vs. Bogotá,” “Baja Desert Rat Battles Ozark Mountain Man,” or “SoCal & South America,” the 2009 Chase has a lot to talk about. Each driver has a great story and is still mathematically eligible for the Cup title, all showing signs of life in recent weeks. With Talladega not rearing its head until the end of the Chase in November, the big wildcard will preclude even more drivers from being eliminated from championship consideration early on, as they would have in prior seasons. The 20-car pileup will have to wait another day in ’09.

Now only if those responsible for covering it would come to this same conclusion, the set up for what will likely go down to the final race between more than two drivers would a bit more climatic that its being made out to be.

After all, wasn’t that the whole point of the Chase to begin with?

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