_In the words of Jim Mora: “Playoffs! You want to talk about playoffs? You kidding me?”_
_That’s the reaction of the majority of the NASCAR fan base nowadays, but like it or not, the seventh edition of the postseason format is finally upon us. Has it really been that long since Matt Kenseth lulled us to sleep in 2003, a one-win season causing sheer panic in the offices of Daytona Beach that led us to the current contraption we have now? Once a shiny new Mercedes, the Chase seems sold to us by that shady used car place where they didn’t tell you it had been through an accident, has a faulty transmission, and “new” tires with 50,000 miles already on them._
_Now, we’re simply limping to the finish, hoping for that moment where the car just craps out and we can go buy ourselves a new one and start from scratch. Will it be this year? Will it be next year? Only time will tell. But in the meantime, we all have to do our jobs; and in this case, that’s to head off the hype and give you the real hot streaks, at least on paper, among the 12 drivers competing for a spot in the Chase. And since all 43 still compete each weekend – not that anyone else will pay any attention – I’ll throw some wild card drivers in for good measure._
_Deal? Deal. Just don’t turn me off before the end of the column like your NASCAR
Remote Control does to New Hampshire…_
*Jimmie Johnson:* You mean to tell me the four-time champ woke up in time to post back-to-back top-5 finishes just before the Chase? I’m shocked. What’s that you said? He’s led 204 laps the last four races? Nooooo. Get out of town. And he’s the defending champ at the first race on the Chase schedule, Loudon, where he snuck up on the competition and knocked aside a hard-charging Kurt Busch in June? Seriously, you must be on LSD. Are you sure Dale Earnhardt, Jr. didn’t slip you some sort of AMP hallucinogen he’s using to get through the rest of his season?
Here’s the bottom line for the Chase: this system allows the favorites to take the summer off, pursue a “Win or Spin” strategy, and then rise to the top when it really counts. As I pointed out last week, last season Johnson had the worst average finish of any of the twelve Chase drivers the last four races before the postseason, then came out like a lion and had the title on lockdown with five races left. With that type of track record, it’s hard to knock him out of the role of title favorite until the fat lady actually gets up and sings. I hear she’s still at Burger King with Tony Stewart, so …
*Kyle Busch:* If momentum counts for something, anything, then I guess you have to side with the only Chaser armed with three straight top-5 finishes – including an impressive Bristol sweep. But it’s one thing to be a short track ace, another one altogether to be running circles around the competition at the 1.5-milers that comprise five of the ten tracks in the postseason. That appears to be Mr. Busch’s weak point right now, 17th at Chicagoland and 18th at Michigan before this current hot streak started with a fifth at Atlanta. Chances are he’ll have to improve those numbers in the face of Johnson, his teammate, Kevin Harvick, and one or two other Cinderella title contenders to be named later. Kyle also credited the No. 11 team with giving him the right air pressure adjustment needed to close the gap on Saturday night. Think those teams will be swapping secrets like teenage girls when they’re going for the title in earnest? If the answer’s yes while the race is being run … this sport is losing all sense of real competition. Oh, and note to Kyle: Todd Bodine is running the Cup race at New Hampshire this weekend. You might want to smooth things over before you come up on him as a lapped car this Sunday…
*Marcos Ambrose:* Whoa there, Aussie! The Ford faithful had to be trembling in their boots the second he said, in perfect English, “I’m second guessing my decision” to leave JTG-Daugherty Racing for greener pastures on television. Typically, those choices to run towards the ex leave us with a hangover and a heavy heart the next day, but this time there’s reason to give this pending divorce another look: back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time all year showcase the type of potential this team was supposed to achieve back in February. Will it inevitably be enough to keep this guy on the Toyota side of the fence? Probably not; but the Blue Oval crowd better make sure there’s enough money and plenty of permanent signatures on their contract just in case.
*Honorable Mention:* The NFL (record ratings for their Thursday night debut: 16.5 rating / 28 share. That makes this year’s Daytona 500 look like the local dog show by comparison); Richard Childress Racing (three cars in the Chase for the first time since … 2008. Did we forget they used to do that every year?); Rafael Nadal (career tennis grand slam champion; you know, similar to that Winston Million thing NASCAR used to do); the Truck Series (huge summer ratings increases; who knew The Onion and the Shrub could be such a popular theater attraction?)
*Clint Bowyer:* In what amounts to a mild surprise, the only member of the RCR trio riding three consecutive top-10 finishes into the Chase is the one who only made it by the skin of his Clinty-chin-chin. The Cheerios No. 33 is clearly No. 3 on the totem pole, but in a year where everyone in Bowyer’s organization could win Comeback of the Year, their equipment clearly deserved a postseason bid. And Mr. Chase Cinderella has been here before, going from 12th in 2007 to winning New Hampshire and becoming an unlikely championship challenger to both Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. I’m not saying Bowyer will do it again … but I’m not saying he can’t, either. Sorry, just preparing for my post-NASCAR career as a politician…
*Juan Pablo Montoya:* Just like teammate McMurray, consistency within Earnhardt Ganassi Racing came too little, too late for this year’s version of the playoffs. Personally, neither team will really complain, armed with three victories between them – more than each of the Chase-bound Penske Racing, Stewart-Haas, and Roush Fenway Racing programs. But while his teammate at the No. 1 car seems to be more hit or miss, Montoya has developed into a true wild card contender to stir up trouble heading into the Fall. Five straight top-10 finishes are easily a season best, and let’s not forget this team won the pole at Loudon in June before a late-race wreck left them mired back in 34th. Don’t be surprised if the Target car becomes the bulls-eye everyone’s chasing come the closing laps of Sunday afternoon…
*Honorable Mention:* Roush Fenway Racing (three cars in the Chase, but can any of those three run up front long enough to win a race?); Joe Gibbs Racing (1-2-4 finish on Saturday night, two cars in the Chase, but will reliability issues keep them from finishing a crucial race?); the Nationwide Car of Tomorrow (three races in show a marked improvement in the quality of competition; now, about cutting down those ugly expenses…); Saying this Chase is the closest, bestest thing that ever happened before it even starts
*Mark Martin:* One of the most complex puzzles that’ll be debated long after the Chase and this rough and tumble season get put to bed is how Mark Martin lost his mojo. At 51, did age finally catch up to a grizzled vet who’s made a career out of being more physically fit than drivers a generation below? Or was it taking away a prized engineer, handing him to the sport’s Most Popular Driver with a Sympathy note from Mr. Hendrick that said, “Sorry, buddy; your time to win the title was last year?” I’d go with option three: Kasey Kahne, uncertain plans for 2011, and a major circuslike distraction that caused chaos internally at the No. 5 shop. By the time a resolution came, they were already in desperation mode to the point Martin made some uncharacteristic on-track mistakes. You’d hope 2011 will be better, and I think we’ll see a turnaround in the final ten races; but clearly, Barnum and Bailey press conferences for four months was not what this guy signed up for when he inked an additional two full-time years on his contract.
*David Ragan:* Now here’s a name that hasn’t come up much recently. Funny, considering his three teammates have been charging up the standings these past five races while Ragan’s sponsor, UPS, remains one of the highest-paying this sport has to offer. But runs of 11th, 32nd, 19th, and 23rd these last four weeks aren’t what the doctor ordered for a program that’s struggling under the radar with a driver that once showed unlimited potential. In 2008, we saw the Chase near-miss as a launching pad to bigger and brighter things for this young man; now, it may have been the high ceiling on what will be a career that ends next season as _Jamie McMurray At Roush: The Sequel._ Only Jamie Mac is too busy elsewhere to land the starring role…
*Honorable Mention:* Thanking fans in every single interview before the second sentence (apparently, the “in” thing to do in the face of declining ratings and attendance); all the 9/11 ceremonies over the weekend (cool to know that nine years later, we never forget); Brad Keselowski (15th in Cup but still upset over the finish, claiming there’s not enough speed; and he’s right); Cape Race, Newfoundland (56 degrees tomorrow … winter’s coming, folks; we can’t stop it)
*Joe Nemechek:* OK, I understand start-and-parkers aren’t going away anytime soon. But even PRISM runs the occasional race every once in awhile to try and keep things honest. What bothers me about NEMCO this year is they’ve failed to finish every race they’ve entered, a whopping 24 of 26 in which only two of those efforts lasted past the halfway point. Even worse, sponsors like Washington Music, Hostgator.com, and others have signed on simply for the exposure of _qualifying._ I guess I understand their logic, since it’s not like these backmarkers get TV time during the race itself – but sponsoring a car to qualify and park? Come on! That’s like getting a sponsor to walk to and from your office cubicle. Sure, it’s cool for you; but does anyone else really care?
*The Labonte Brothers:* It doesn’t matter who you focus on, Richmond stood for “rock bottom” with one of the sport’s best brotherly tandems of all-time. Bobby had his car catch fire shortly after the final round of pit stops, his eighth straight finish outside the top 25 amidst driving a merry-go-round schedule for putt-putt programs Phoenix Racing and TRG Motorsports. Speed proves elusive when the engine and the chassis are simply second-rate; and now, the 2000 Sprint Cup champ stands ten races away from going without a top-10 finish for the first time since joining the series as a baby-faced rookie back in 1993.
Those were the glory days of brother Texas Terry, now 14 years removed from a second title in ’96 and another four from a tearful retirement from Hendrick Motorsports. That was supposed to be his swan song, but the 53-year-old stubbornly refuses to let go of his driving dreams. He’s gone without a top-10 finish since then – a total of 20 starts the last four years – leading to more frustration than fun. But maybe money’s at the root of it all, the nearly $2 million he made in that span more than double the prize money he earned in his first year driving for Mr. Hendrick in 1994.
Early this year, it looked as if the driving gloves had finally been laid down for good. But Labonte and businessman Bill Stavola stayed busy trying to build their own program, earning the trust of sponsor Gander Mountain and a three-race deal to test the waters for a possible 2011 expansion. The Terry of old would have turned that around into a performance worth writing home about; this Texas Terry? My friends, he’s just old. A DNQ with the newly-painted No. 10 led to the duo buying a ride from PRISM just to make the field, a hasty partnership turned sour through a cut tire that sent him pummeling into the wall just before halfway. The only car to DNF due to an accident, you wonder if that licking made the driver wonder if it’s worth it to keep ticking much beyond the end of this season.
*Honorable Mention:* Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (For more, check out “Doug Turnbull’s”:https://frontstretch.com/dturnbull/31292/ _Fight Club_ column from yesterday; it says it all); Kevin Conway (three races, three start-and-parks with Robby Gordon’s No. 7; ladies and gentlemen, your 2010 Rookie of the Year!); Sam Hornish, Jr. (four straight races outside the top 20); the New York Jets (some _Hard Knocks_ Super Bowl contender they are)