NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fanning the Flames: Shuffling Chase Venues Won’t Slow Jimmie Johnson Down

I’ve corresponded with a number of people over the last couple of weeks through emails, conversations, interviews, etc., that bring up the topic of changing the Chase venues in order to level the playing field. Unfortunately, no one has addressed this issue in relation to this column (ironic, I know), so I thought I’d use this space to address – during a slow question week – what seems to be a hot topic.

The train of thought is that by rotating Chase dates, it will not only benefit the sport in general by allowing more tracks a piece of the pie, but will also level the playing field for the competitors. Why has Jimmie Johnson and his Lowe’s team won the last three championships? The logic here says it’s because the tracks play to their strengths. Well, I say otherwise.

Before I tackle that, let me first state that rotating the venues is, in principle, a wonderful idea. It makes for a unique experience each year, it spreads the wealth among tracks and it generally gives fans a reason to tune in. For let’s be honest: Loudon, Dover, Kansas and Homestead aren’t exactly marquee tracks that get the blood of the casual or hardcore fans boiling.

The problem is in the marketing. The tracks currently in the Chase have built their marketing programs around the fact that they host playoff events. It’s nearly impossible for NASCAR to simply say, “OK, next year, we’re shuffling the schedule.” It’s even tougher to work through the schematics a fluid schedule would bring about on an annual basis. That said, if there were a way around these obstacles, I’d be all for it.

Now to Point No. 2, and this argument is where it gets dicey for me: Johnson and Chad Knaus keep winning titles because the tracks on the docket are favorable ones. True… but not true. This is where Knaus’s leadership and foresight come into play. He’s perfected the science of using the first 26 races as a ramp to the Chase. Not a test session, mind you… a ramp.

Knaus tinkers and tools with setups that will translate to the Chase tracks, all the while working his way up this 26-race ramp. He utilizes the most advanced technology and far-reaching resources at the premier operation in the sport at Hendrick Motorsports, constantly adjusting, showing just enough to keep the team safely inside that Chase bubble.

By the time the show hits Race No. 26 – the top of the ramp – he’s got that team at full throttle, barreling off the edge with enough smarts, savvy, confidence and momentum that the playoff itself is the easy part. The homework is done, after all, and the guys know the material… so the test is a breeze.

The genius here is that his formula will translate regardless of which tracks comprise the Chase. You want to throw Bristol, Richmond and a road course in there? Fine. He’ll just shift the focus. I mean, there’s a reason the No. 48 team has “struggled” (I use that term with a grin and shake of the head) at specific locales: Those tracks are not in the Chase! In fact, there is nothing even remotely similar to those tracks in the Chase. Why waste your time trying to win at what we perceive is a prestigious place like Bristol when the real prestige only comes in winning championships?

Again, do the tracks play to the 48 team’s strengths? No; I think it’s the other way around.

And with that, we’ll hit some questions. I’m out next week – I got a little wedding and subsequent honeymoon to knock out – but send the questions along all the same… I’ll have my laptop on me and will forward them on to your special Flames host.

Q: Any word when Kurt Busch may get a new crew chief? 177 points behind seems too much to make up at Jimmie’s pace. How do you think Pat Tryson will do with Truex next year? Thank you. – Shaun, Jackson, Miss.

A: No idea when we’ll see a new crew chief for Kurt. They’ve been playing it pretty close to the vest, although Busch says there has been a lot of interest (not surprisingly). There’s no reason to plug in a new wrench just for the sake of having one, but getting the new guy’s feet wet sure would help. Until then, Tryson is under contract through the end of the season. The only thing we can safely assume is that once the guy is found, he’ll assume duties immediately.

This situation is a lot like what’s going on over at RCR, where Todd Berrier has been assigned the seat atop Jeff Burton’s toolbox: If you don’t get the crew chief and driver together now, you’ll have to wait until Speedweeks 2010 to do so. That means three or four weeks of live fire will work wonders in the long run.

And I think Tryson will do fine at Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 56 team. That’ll be one of those groups to watch next year. They’ll have their growing pains, and success may come at a slow pace, but that’s a pretty solid driver/crew chief duo Mikey has paired up with an established team. There are no guarantees in this sport, of course, but it looks like a promising outfit.

Q: Matt, can you tell me a little about the history of the No. 48? I don’t remember that number being used before Jimmie Johnson. Was it a number used by any one driver in the good old days? I’ve been watching NASCAR since 1982 or ‘83. My buddy and I tried to think of anyone we remembered using it but just came up with blanks. I guess the beer didn’t help! – Tim Malone

A: Look on the bright side, if you all had been drinking whiskey you wouldn’t have remembered to write me.

OK, the first thing to know is that Johnson has had more statistical success driving the No. 48 than any other driver. In fact, his 46 wins account for all but three of the No. 48’s victories. Bill Norton won with it at Carrel Speedway in Gardena, Calif., back in the formidable days of 1951. James Hylton then drove it to two wins, at the Richmond Fairgrounds in 1970 and again at Talladega in ’72.

The number was synonymous with Hylton from the time he started competing on what was then a close to full-time schedule in 1966. While he only scored the two aforementioned wins, he drove the No. 48 top-10 finishes of seventh or better in the points standings from ’66-’77. Trevor Boys and Greg Sacks each drove the No. 48 in the ‘80s (along with a host of others), but the number sat dormant from 1993 until Johnson began his run in 2001.

And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that Possum Jones, Stick Elliott and Slick Johnson have all taken a spin in the No. 48. Major League Baseball’s Pickles Dillhoefer, Mickey Klutts and Dick Pole got nothin’ on those three.

Thanks for tuning in, gang. Treat the new guy as well as you treat me next week… see ya on the other side of Key Largo!

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