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Voice of Vito: Not in the Chase? You’re Far From a 2nd-Class Citizen

When the call came down from race control Sunday at Kansas Speedway for Brad Keselowski to be mindful of how he was racing against the Chase competitors, it was as if somebody took a jack handle to a hornet’s nest. More than a few NASCAR fans were up in arms over this admonishment from the race stewards to the non-Chase driver after getting an eyeful of the bright red No. 42 Target Chevrolet – and nearly paying the price. Juan Pablo Montoya initially passed Keselowski through turns 3 and 4, but the two got a little close in the process and made contact, leaving a donut on the side of Montoya’s car and a warning landing smack in the rookie’s lap. Is this is what it’s come finally to, you may be asking yourself right now, NASCAR dictating who is allowed to race and who isn’t?

If you aren’t a Chaser, you might as well not even be out there, right?

Not so fast.

First of all, there is nothing wrong with reminding a driver – particularly a rookie running a handful of Cup races – just who, exactly, he is racing against at this point in the season. NASCAR does not want an errant mistake by a young driver who has little vested interest in the title fight determining the outcome with an ill-advised move, contesting a position halfway through a race. Many purists are crying foul, citing this madness as further evidence of a contrived championship system, one where the sanctioning body colludes to ensure that the top-12 drivers are left alone to decide the race amongst themselves.

But although the Chase drivers have certainly received their fair share of attention, I do not feel that they are being unfairly spotlighted – or offered protection from NASCAR. I understand that line is an open invitation for some to fire-back replies related to The Godfather, but I’ve got plenty of facts to back me up.

First off, it isn’t as if this issue is unprecedented territory for NASCAR. Through the years, they have routinely issued friendly reminders to drivers who are not contesting for the title to be both aware of their surroundings and mindful of whom they are racing. Does it really make sense to be scrapping tooth and nail with a guy for seventh, only to take him out because your car wasn’t fast enough – it just happened to be in front of his – while drawing the ire of competitors, fans, and NASCAR in the process? A young driver especially does not need to make a bad name for himself so soon, brand himself a troublemaker, or seriously shake the confidence of those he will be competing against for the foreseeable future.

Particularly in the case of Keselowski. He was involved in an accident during the Nationwide race at Dover a week earlier, and showed no remorse following the contact. Granted, Denny Hamlin’s tough-guy antics on pit road after the race probably did not do much to soften his resolve, but Keselowski does have a bit of a reputation of driving with a chip on his shoulder. While he’s already scored a Cup victory, it was at a plate track, and it was in part (though clearly not his fault) due to an accident he was involved with, one that cleared the way for Talladega to erect higher catchfencing for this year’s Chase race in November.

So for NASCAR to call his number and give him a bit of a heads up after being on the receiving end of some slight contact with Montoya, I don’t see anything malicious or contrived taking place. It isn’t as if the transmission wasn’t without merit or precedent.

In years past, there have been incidents where drivers not contending for the title have served to impact the championship. In 1997, during practice for the final race in Atlanta, Bobby Hamilton Sr. made contact with Jeff Gordon on pit road, severely damaging Gordon’s primary car. Gordon ultimately won the title, but nearly lost it at several points during the race. Five years earlier at Atlanta, in 1992, Ernie Irvan lost control coming off turn 4, blocking the track and collecting Davey Allison. As a result, the man who entered the race with a 30-point lead over Alan Kulwicki saw that erased while Kulwicki wound up the eventual champion.

In 2005, at New Hampshire on the very first lap, Scott Riggs lost control of his Valvoline Chevrolet and spun defending and inaugural Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch. The accident served as the catalyst to Busch’s downward spiral that season, one that ultimately saw him get arrested for refusing a Breathalyzer test and ejected from his Roush Ford for the final two races of the season.

In 2004, the lapped cars of Jimmy Spencer and Brendan Gaughan collided at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, taking out Chase contenders Mark Martin and Ryan Newman as innocent victims. Two years later in exactly the same spot, Martin was deleted by JJ Yeley, who for some reason was attempting to pit from the middle of turn 4.

Now, this is not to bag on Brad. He, in fact, did nothing wrong – and neither did NASCAR or the man (Montoya) with whom he was racing. Additionally, looking back in recent Chase years, it has actually been real mistakes of playoff drivers themselves who have made more of an impact on the championship than others (See: Jimmie Johnson at Talladega in 2005, Carl Edwards at Talladega in 2008.)

That brings up a related criticism. There’s this notion that if you are not a Chase driver, nobody is paying attention to you, and you will be treated like a second-class citizen. I think that is a bit exaggerated, to say the least. Yes, let’s be honest; the Chase guys are going to get the lion’s share of attention – as they should. There is a reason why there is such emphasis placed on making that top-12 cutoff, and the reward for that is exposure for yourself, your sponsor, and your efforts on track. Having said that, how often do the networks and the media (yours truly excluded, obviously…) spend covering the guys back in 20th?

(Yeah, I know… insert Dale Earnhardt Jr. comment here… but I digress.)

It isn’t as if there is going to be an hour-long tribute film to AJ Allmendinger planned before the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway this Sunday, nor do I believe that Jamie McMurray and Martin Truex Jr. are going to be spotlighted through the race. That is, unless they are able to crack the top 10; which, at last count, non-Chase drivers have combined to place six top-10 finishes in the last three races. A six-for-30 ratio isn’t that hot; but even then, when those drivers were up front and contending, they received the appropriate coverage.

Matt Kenseth at Dover was a great story, as was David Reutimann battling in the closing laps with Chase drivers he was trying to fend off – all without receiving admonishment from NASCAR while getting plenty of camera time on TV. If anything, more drivers get airtime now than they normally would in the beginning of the year – when only a precious handful seem to garner the spotlight early in the season – or in the days of old, when the attention would be focused for the two or three drivers who had a legitimate shot at the title. In fact, it would take a spectacular accident or a win to get much in the way of any coverage not that long ago.

Not anymore. Remember Johnny Benson Jr.’s first Cup win at Rockingham in 2002? It was a popular victory and didn’t go unnoticed – particularly by NASCAR. The team planned to flip the car over and spin it around on its top, but officials stepped in and prevented the team from going onto the track for what would have been the best celebration ever. How about Tony Stewart’s late season turnaround in 2006? After missing the Chase, he went on to win three times in the final 10 races while the fans and media couldn’t get enough of seeing him shimmy up fences, climbing into the flag stand or commiserating with the commoners in the stands with his most recent checkered flag.

For those that are a fan of the way things used to be (like I am), let’s not kid ourselves here. In 1992, when the final race came down to six drivers, the only other guys getting any mention were Richard Petty for starting his final race and Gordon his first. Sterling Marlin in 10th didn’t have a camera on him all race long and Ken Schrader got a mention only because the hood flew off his car and went 30 feet into the air during the King’s big, fiery, accident.

Looking at some more recent examples, when Kenseth was waltzing away with the last Winston Cup in 2003, was there much mention made of his other three Roush teammates who failed to finish in the top 10 in points? No, there wasn’t – but there was plenty of hoopla surrounding Bill Elliott and the flat tire he suffered on the last lap of what turned out to be his last race in the No. 9 Dodge – one that saw him all of a mile from victory, but alas, turned out to be one of the most heartbreaking moments in recent memory.

So while I understand the frustration and the myopic nature that the Chase format brings to the sport, I don’t feel like it is precluding competition or contributing to the downfall of the 31 teams who are not a part of the playoffs. Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer the way things were title-wise – a knock down, drag out, 36-race, 10-month long battle royale, with every race counting equally and no such thing as a six-month test session before the real racing got underway. But that being said, this is the system we have to work with, and the fist-shaking and wrangling over an innocuous warning to a rookie driver ranks right up there with the breaking news that the two cars leading the points were found to have “barely” passed tech inspection.

Much ado about nothing, I say. So let’s just wait until four to go at Talladega before something really gets messed up and worth fretting over.

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