Well, we got there in the end after, perhaps, one of the longest rain delays in the sport’s illustrious history; and it was more than worth the wait with an absolute belter of a 500-mile race at one of the best tracks on the schedule. Watching two of the sports great drivers duel it out in a fight to the finish was an absolute pleasure, especially after a ridiculously long day at work – thank the good Lord above for DVRs. Now just one race remains before the Chase field is set (more later) but before we delve into the delights that are in store – short track style – under the lights this Saturday, I want to start with the venerable old Atlanta Motor Speedway.
*ONE: One Race at Atlanta, Two at Kansas – A Sad Sign of the Times*
Since the debut of Atlanta Motor Speedway on the Sprint Cup schedule some 51 years ago in July 1960 there have been a grand total of 104 total Sprint Cup races run at the mile-and-a-half track. Over the years we’ve seen some truly epic races: Harvick winning his first race by a nose in his third Cup race following the death of Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Carl Edwards doing likewise, winning his first race in April 2004 being just two examples. Tuesday’s race joins the pile of instant classics with our own Tom Bowles giving the race a very high grade in his estimable race recap yesterday. Yes, I understand the attendance issues at the track — it’s something that appears symptomatic across all sports in this particular market — but the simple truth is outside of the track owners and people who leave nearby I can’t believe there is a NASCAR fan that prefers two Kansas races over two Atlanta races. Making matters worse yesterday was the sparse attendance. That again, was to be expected with the race running on a workday, but boy the stands looked like fans were expecting a Truck race and not a Cup race. Simply put: NASCAR would do well to look at the action on the track yesterday – the key takeaway — because there was more excitement in 500 rain delayed miles than we’ve had in all the Kansas races put together.
*TWO: The Original Four-Time Looks Racey*
What a great afternoon for the original four-time, Mr. Jeff Gordon. Not only did he record his third victory of the year, he also vaulted into third place on the overall wins list, supplanting Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (both with 84 wins). It seems unlikely that Gordon will reach David Pearson in second place (105 wins), but you never know – Gordon clearly has a new lease of life under the expert stewardship of head wrench Alan Gustafson. He’s had his moments this year, but his overall stats (3 wins, 9 top-5’s, 13 top-10s, 1 poles, 741 laps led, average finish 11.5) show signs of the consistency he’ll need in the final ten races. After coming so close in 2007, there were those who wondered whether Gordon would challenge so strongly again. This year, I think we’ll see him do just that. The fire still burns bright even after two decades of mashing the gas pedal and turning left.
*THREE: Even the Champ Gets Shaky*
In the immediate aftermath of the race, intrepid pit reporter Shannon Spake was the first to thrust a microphone under the nose of second-place finisher Double J. She started out the interview by commenting on the fact that his hands were shaking. Now, this to me was one of the most interesting ways to start an interview because it was in many ways so intrusive. You could look at it like she was calling him out, but in fact I think it was the opposite. What Spake showed with one simple comment was just how on the raggedy edge these drivers actually are. You’re not talking about a fresh-faced rookie neophyte. You’re talking about a man who has won 54 races in 352 attempts (a staggering 15% success rate); a man who has won five straight championships in the most competitive era in the history of stock car racing and a man known for keeping it ice cool when the pressure is at its most intense. What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that he is the best of the best. And still there he was, shaking with the effort and adrenaline of it all. It’s little moments like this, which remind me why I love this brilliant but frustrating sport. And it’s another timely reminder why Johnson, who took over atop the standings, is absolutely the man to beat once the Chase begins.
*FOUR: Richmond Should be Crazy:*
It appears you need some kind of advanced mathematical-type degree to understand the permutations this Saturday night with regard to the final open Chase slots. The wild card factor and the sheer number of different race winners in 2011 have livened up this “Race to the Chase” in a whole new way. Purists might hate it, but to them I’d say the emphasis really is on winning…and that’s a good thing. The best and most consistent drivers still qualify on points (with wins thrown in), after all. Any number of different combinations could occur this weekend once the green flag drops, and you can be pretty certain who’s in and who’s out will be changing from the first to the last lap. I’m sure one driver will make the Chase in most improbable fashion; and I’m sure some poor unfortunate wheelman will miss out in agonizing manner. But you know what? What better place than Richmond for the action to unfold. 400 miles at an absolute gem of a short track seems like the best possible way to settler matters.
*FIVE: Excited for the Chase:*
One final, and much abbreviated point, to finish up with this week: regardless of what happens I’m really looking forward to the Chase. I think this year, maybe more than ever before, there are six or seven (if not more) drivers capable of finally eclipsing the unstoppable Johnson. I’m not going to get all excited and say something crazy like eight drivers will be in contention at Homestead, but I do think we’ll see the Championship go down to the wire almost like never before. I can’t wait to watch, I really can’t.
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