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Happy Hour: NASCAR’s “Epic” 12th-Place Battle? Sorry, Ain’t Feelin’ It

As I write this, NASCAR.com’s main article showcases large photos of the soulful faces of Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer as the headline grabs us with the words “RUMBLE FOR 12TH.” They even provide links to Martin’s and Bowyer’s driver pages and store pages, just in case the prospect of Bowyer making the Chase makes you want to buy a No. 33 t-shirt.

NASCAR isn’t the only one. FOX Sports ran an article Tuesday called “Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer in Epic Battle for Chase Berth.” On Monday, the Binghamton Press & Sun noted that Martin had moved into the 12th spot last Sunday at Watkins Glen. Racin’ Today ran a piece called “The Fight for 12th Heats Up.” And there was ESPN’s coverage of the Watkins Glen race, where several times we were treated to the graphic that showed how many points ahead Martin had moved in front of Bowyer, as the announcers intensely speculated at the earthshaking prospect of the Chase field changing.

I can’t make this stuff up. It really says “Rumble for 12th.”

No matter how clearly it’s demonstrated that the dogs don’t like the dog food, NASCAR still insists that the Chase is a marketing bonanza. If it’s reached a point where they’re calling a battle for 12th place in the standings — with 14 races left to go in the season — an “epic rumble,” I’d say it’s time to admit that there are limits to what marketing can accomplish.

I get that all of us need something to write about. And Martin and Bowyer are both well-liked drivers that people would probably want to read about. But “rumble for 12th”? “Epic battle for Chase berth”?

There are four whole races to go before the Chase starts a month from now. It’s a little soon to be making a big deal out of a 10-point differential between the two drivers. At the end of the Michigan race the points margin will very likely be larger; after two races it could be almost decisive. With a big enough wave of bad luck Denny Hamlin could be on the Chase bubble in three weeks.

People who defend the Chase on the grounds that it’s boring if a driver gets a 200-point lead in the standings don’t realize that a 200-point lead can be wiped out in two races. And rarely does a driver go a full season without a DNF. Should Kevin Harvick crash and finish 35th while Jeff Gordon wins at Michigan this Sunday, Harvick’s lead will become just 53 points.

And, I might add, it’s a hell of a lot more exciting to watch another team catch fire and start cutting into a big lead over a stretch of four or five races than it is to just equalize 12 drivers by legislative fiat.

Harvick is 185 points ahead of Gordon thanks in part to two restrictor-plate wins. Gordon finished 26th in the Daytona 500 and 22nd at Talladega. Plate-race finishes are mostly determined by luck. (No driver seriously disputes this.) Throw the plate races out and Harvick would be just six points ahead of Gordon — so Harvick certainly would not exactly be able to call his lead a comfortable one.

Except, who cares? Both Harvick and Gordon, by beating everyone else, have only cemented their position in a playoff, where one blown tire could likely end their chances at a championship. These guys can cruise for the next four races, so there isn’t any point on discussing the great years both drivers are having. Instead, the focus has turned to drivers having mediocre seasons, especially by their standards.

Does anyone really think Martin or Bowyer is going to seriously challenge for a championship in the last 10 races? Martin did finish second last year after barely making the Chase cut, but his season was an unusual one, with several DNFs that were no fault of his own (those blasted plates) knocking him down in the points before Richmond despite four wins. It wasn’t consistently weak runs that put Martin on the bubble. This year Mark has zero wins and is fighting for his playoff life because he hasn’t been running as well, for whatever reason. If he does make the Chase, he’ll need a serious turnaround to be a factor in the championship hunt.

Bowyer won at Loudon in 2007 after just making the Chase and ended up third in the standings, but Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were so crushingly dominant that season that no one thought Bowyer was going to get near them, and he didn’t.

And those are exceptions. More often, the guy that is 12th after 26 races isn’t going to even be a blip on the radar in the last 10. Brian Vickers eked into the Chase at Richmond last season; in the Chase he did not finish in the top 10 once. Matt Kenseth cleared the Chase bar in 2008; he finished 11th in the standings (although I grant that some of it was DNFs and he in fact did run fairly well). Remember Jeremy Mayfield just skinning his teeth into the first two Chases? That was back when only 10 drivers made the cut. Mayfield finished 10th in 2004 and ninth in 2005, ahead of only Kurt Busch, who didn’t run the last two races.

This is what the Chase has wrought. Rather than sitting down in front of the TV and watching to see if Gordon can cut into Harvick’s lead as the two drivers finish near the front each week with every reason to fight for every spot, the big story is two drivers who have not smelled victory lane all season and that almost no one considers to be title contenders. Martin vs. Bowyer, at least this season, isn’t exactly Yarborough vs. Waltrip. An “epic rumble” the 12th-place battle is not.

And this begs another question.

If NASCAR and ESPN believe they can convince us that we should get excited over who is going to be 12th, then why didn’t they think they could sell a 36-race season where the driver with the most points at the end became the champion?

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Much as I love Atlanta, I get one of their races being moved. Same with Fontana, and I like that track more than my cohorts do. Short-term, it will bring in some cash to the sport; long-term, NASCAR still has a venue problem that should be addressed and hasn’t been. Maybe in a future column.
  • Inasmuch as I’ve accepted the Chase, I actually think starting it at Chicagoland is a good idea. Chicagoland has little history and produces generally dull races by comparison, so NASCAR giving the race there some weight may be a good thing. If we must have a Chase, it ought to focus at least somewhat on tracks that need a boost in importance.
  • How, exactly, was Rick Hendrick able to work a deal with Red Bull to put Kasey Kahne in one of their Toyotas for next year? I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but does anyone think something doesn’t compute there?
  • My first NASCAR race was at Michigan in 2002. I remember about three-quarters of the crowd being Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, and not even being able to hear Gordon’s name being announced over the boos. Good times. It’s sucked so much life out of racing having those two as teammates.

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