One race to go until the Cup playoffs begin.
That seems like a mismatched sentence, putting together autosport and hockey, but alas, that’s how things are now. This whole season has seemed like one big Chase storyline, beginning with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Daytona 500. Almost immediately after he crossed the finish line, it felt like everyone could breathe easy because he was locked into the Chase.
The Chase, the Chase, the Chase. Each race with a new winner conceded to this storyline, allowing for the winning driver and his fans to sigh in relief and know that, in some capacity, things were OK.
There are, however, two spots that are not quite locked up. Our Kevin Rutherford gives it a look here, and allows for the possibility of Tony Stewart joining the party. No matter how you feel about Stewart’s incident on the small dirt track, that he can still claim a spot is intriguing. With that being noted, it’s somewhat of a surprise that the three-time champion had not already done so – even as he returned to form following last year’s leg injury.
Aside from Stewart, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer are two of the other drivers closest to making the Chase on points. But Bowyer has won at Richmond before, twice in fact. Oh, but his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota has been off all year. Then again, so has Biffle’s Ford.
It seems like the expanded Chase field is just applauding mediocrity, really. Sure, AJ Allmendinger won at Watkins Glen, but has he really been all that awesome this year? Not really, because in points, he’s 23rd. Kurt Busch? 21st. Denny Hamlin isn’t all that much better, sitting in 19th. But points only sort of matter this year; it’s the win-and-in game now, which makes the Richmond race compelling.
Richmond now sits as the last best chance to make the Chase. Is someone like Jamie McMurray set up to tackle the race with a wholly different strategy and bounce into the playoffs? Might his teammate, Kyle Larson, go for broke to do the same? It’d be great to see a team do something like that, but NASCAR is also a place where it is rare to see people go all wild and crazy in their ideas. So look for Jimmie Johnson to win and assert himself as the favorite.
On to the happiness.
Happiness Is…Drama. As just discussed, this race has the potential to be quite interesting. Might there be hope that a team might do something strange like tackle the race in a backwards fashion, short pitting and going off cycle in an effort to go for the proverbial Hail Mary?
Certainly tires will be one of the aspects to any kind of strategy – two, four, none, anything that works to get that much-needed track position and put a driver in a place to possibly succeed.
Happiness Is…Not Fighting. One of the things that NASCAR has gotten right (holy crap, yes, you did just read that) is that the sport tries not to fight the NFL on its opening weekend. Holding a Saturday night race rather than going head-to-head with the monolith that is professional football is a good way to avoid a catastrophic ratings letdown. It’s also a marker of how big football is.
One of the funny comments that someone posted on Twitter a while back dealt with NASCAR drivers drafting their fantasy football teams. The comment went something like: how come there’s not as much attention paid to putting together your fantasy race team? Well, because football rules. Bill Simmons put together a pretty good piece at Grantland on the love of football, found here, and how it has become the year-round go-to sports headline.
Happiness Is…Intelligence. When NASCAR announced changes to the qualifying procedures at the beginning of the season, there was reason to rejoice. En totem, the new method has worked well and made for a more engaging part of the race weekend. That was the case, save for the plate tracks. The difference in speed between those at speed and those cooling off their engines was dramatic and looked like a wreck waiting to happen. The governing body has now shortened the amount of time for each qualifying session at Talladega, which should push everyone to be closer in their approach and avoid a big one – you know, saving that for the race.
Happiness Is…Power. It’s just worth mentioning once again that Will Power finally earned his first IndyCar championship.
Happiness Is…Broken. This item doesn’t begin on a positive. The feud that is consuming Turner Scott Motorsports caused the No. 30 truck team to be shut down. That’s right, the driver who held the fourth-place position in points, Ron Hornaday, Jr., just got his legs taken out from underneath him due to questionable management.
The easy way to look at the situation is that the people running the show are incompetent and they got what they deserved.
The better way to look at it is that the Truck Series is the best example of the NASCAR business model gone wrong. There’s just no money in that series with how things are configured currently. That the fields this season have followed the path of a yo-yo further exemplifies this issue, as a full field seems rare at this point.
The Race Team Alliance has been established to work on this matter at the Cup level, with an eye towards some kind of change or tapping into the new TV deal money. But the RTA has yet to move to the lower levels of NASCAR, and perhaps that’s where its best work could be done – at least for starters. Though the Truck Series may have a sponsor locked up for the next whatever number of years, it won’t mean much if the money’s not there to race.
Maybe it’s things like the shutdown of the No. 30 that might help bring about some change.
About the author
As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.
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