The thought hung over Denny Hamlin like the Balloon Boy story over America before the hoax made us all want the darned thing to fly away on its own. Fresh off his third career victory – setting a new career high – at one of his two hometown tracks, Hamlin’s post-race celebration Sunday should have left him floating on cloud nine, a well-deserved center of attention for a job well done. But in the matter of a moment, his newsworthy balloon got popped with a reality check as to why anyone should care, a reporter sending a tough reminder that a certain second place finisher still has a very big leg up on the No. 11 where it “really” counts.
“Do you sometimes feel that all the attention dedicated to who’s going to win the championship takes away from the individual celebration of winning one of the 36 races?” said Monte Dutton of the Gaston Gazette in the media center, asking as politely as the question was pointed. “It seems like to me that in some ways, the Chase has become so all-powerful that in some ways it diminishes the accomplishment of an individual race win.”
To his credit, Hamlin hit back with a humbling dose of honesty, dealing with an awkward truth that the latest Grandfather Clock to his Martinsville collection brought him nothing more than a way to tell time. For his 15 minutes of Chase fame ended not when he took the checkered flag at Martinsville, but during two straight DNFs at California and Charlotte that turned an underdog title shot into little more than a pipe dream.
And the culprit at the root of it all? Hamlin’s biggest short-track rival, an unassuming man with Lowe’s colors whose monotonous bid for four straight titles has stolen the hearts of few but the resourcefulness of many in a news cycle that seems not to think about anything else.
“Good point,” Hamlin said to the awkward laughter of those who knew full well they’d get busy turning the other cheek as soon as he left. “It really is a good point, without a doubt. I mean, everyone just talks about it.”
“I’m sure on the websites tomorrow there will be 12 stories, and there will be one about how much this guy lost to Jimmie, how much this guy lost to Jimmie, how much Jimmie gained, stretched his points lead – there will be about three or four stories, and then mine will be in that little column, ‘Denny Hamlin wins at Martinsville for the second time.’”
“Y’all do it,” he continued. “You know, write something different.”
How much his audience actually agreed with that assessment, it’s hard to know for sure. But certainly, no one disagreed, at least in public – and that’s telling enough for someone that not only agrees with Monte’s question, but would be inclined take it one step further. For not only has the Chase overshadowed Hamlin’s successful weekend… it’s condensed the final 10 races into a select few, predetermined storylines narrowing the focus on a series that was once about a full field of 43.
Let me explain. Back before the Chase format barged into your living room, a race like Martinsville would be filled with three, maybe four drivers with a realistic shot at a championship. Everyone else would have their own storylines going on, some set of realistic goals to finish the season on a high note. Maybe it was a battle to finish in the top 10 in points and earn a right to be on stage for the season-ending banquet. Or it could be sneaking into the top five and the hundreds of thousands more in prize money that comes with it. For drivers further down the list, fighting for 25th in points, a ride for next year or even to keep their team’s sponsor would play a factor.
That would leave everyone – television, writers, radio – with more than enough to talk about. But now, with 12 drivers automatically assigned a chance at a championship, some of those stories all but disappear. Instead of fighting for a top five in points, a very successful season, Hamlin’s year becomes defined by the “championship bid that fell apart.” Instead of using a long list of top-five finishes in the playoffs to build momentum for 2010, one restart at Lowe’s haunts Juan Pablo Montoya when the Lowe’s car motors further away. Right now, considering Jimmie Johnson’s (I’m hoping not to mention his name much more in this column) 118-point lead on the field, there are 10 other drivers with similar sob stories to share, buried amongst historic hype in a series in which more than one driver used to feel like a winner by the time the checkered flag fell at Homestead.
But it certainly doesn’t feel that way now, does it? With the Chasers comprising over a quarter of the starting field, the title and everything about it seemingly has no choice but to take center stage. So instead of these men celebrating some individual success at the end of the season, they’re all grouped together in the type of playoff where you feel like anything second or worse is a failure. It’s almost like watching the NCAA tournament where it’s the final game and the other 62 teams are in the arena… so people feel compelled to mention it. But by no means does anybody consider their presence; after all, they didn’t end up winning, did they?
In NASCAR, that feeling of failure trickles down to the 31 teams each week who didn’t qualify for the playoffs. Even if they’re not just going through the motions, a full 25% of the field “technically” running for the title (even though some are on the verge of being mathematically eliminated) is enough to send their stories to the sidelines. Did you know that Sunday, Jamie McMurray had his best finish of the year in sixth? That Joey Logano quietly tamed a track that’s dismal for rookies and came home 12th? Or that Bobby Labonte pulled the perfect audition for 2010 with a 13th-place run – his best result since the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day?
Even amongst the Chasers, there were plenty of exciting plotlines to pursue in their own right. Ryan Newman completed a “short-track sweep” – top 10s in all six races at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond – with a seventh-place finish. Brian Vickers bounced back from a dismal Chase to come home 11th, conquering a track that specializes in chewing up and spitting out the Team Red Bull star. But neither one sits in championship contention, so even though four straight doesn’t attain historical significance for, yes, another four weeks, they’re pushed aside for instant analysis about such a feat right now.
Fans have complained so much this season about boredom to the point of pre-scripted competition. Boring races, mystery debris cautions just to spice things up at the finish and dominance by four cars within the same organization have been just some of their multiple complaints. But when the Chase controls our stories, keeping us from concentrating on some of the other things that keep this sport exciting, no wonder why everyone’s so upset. I mean, why celebrate history now when we can do it in four weeks? History’s not history until the season’s over… so with the title in the bag sans a Talladega wreck, can’t we take time to talk about something else?
After all, you can’t expect people to get excited about a story they’re not aware of – so why write according to the script? For as Hamlin so aptly proved on Sunday afternoon, just because Johnson’s in control of this Chase doesn’t mean everyone else has given up.
Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)