My, how things have changed.
For most of the NASCAR season, a few names stood out as title favorites: Jeff Gordon, who led the standings for much of the year; 2012 champ Brad Keselowski, who was a contender everywhere almost from day one; Dale Earnhardt, Jr., whose three wins were a statement that he was hungry to prove himself; and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, because, well, you don’t ever count him out.
And through the first three races of the Chase, things were going more or less according to plan. Gordon and Keselowski were in the thick of things, along with Keselowski’s young teammate Joey Logano, and while Johnson and Earnhardt were not quite up to pace, most figured that was because they were biding their time, doing what they needed to advance but concentrating on the later races in the final 10.
And then came Kansas Speedway, a track where all of them had had success in the past. All were looking for a top finish to boost their title hopes.
Only this time, the wheels fell off.
Contact with other drivers and tire woes took away any chance of winning. Gordon recovered from his issues to finish 14th, but Keselowski finished 36th after a blown tire. Earnhardt also had a tire go down and finished 39th as a result. Johnson got tipped into the wall by Greg Biffle and, though he’d get back on track eventually, came in 40th. Suddenly three of the four favorites are in jeopardy of not making the next round, let alone the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The fourth has to be careful not to fall behind as he has no cushion to lean on the next two weeks.
And the next two weeks include Talladega Superspeedway.
That makes this week’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway highly critical. The good news is that all four drivers (as well as Kasey Kahne, who’s also in danger of elimination) have good records there. Johnson has seven Charlotte wins. Gordon has five and Kahne’s got four. Keselowski has a win in this race. Earnhardt has an All-Star victory, though no points-paying wins to date. Certainly, all of these drivers could win Saturday night.
The problem is, only one of them can. And there will be 38 other drivers trying to take it away from them. Good finishes won’t be enough to erase Kansas unless someone else has trouble. That’s possible – even likely – at Talladega, but it’s never a good thing when you have to count on someone else’s misfortune to steer the ship.
Make no mistake, things are pretty bleak for Keselowski, Johnson, and Earnhardt. They need a Hail Mary.
The question in all of this is whether the situation is a good one for the sport in the first year of a title format that has received mixed reaction from fans. And the answer is… not really. At first glance, it’s a dream come true — a relative underdog in Joey Logano taking the veteran favorites to school, with a veteran hungry to prove himself waiting in the wings in Kevin Harvick, who has perhaps the fastest racecar of them all. For the fans with an “anyone but Hendrick Motorsports” mindset, it’s the best possible scenario.
But for a sport that already struggles for mainstream acceptance, it’s not so good. What people tuning in for the first time this year are being treated to is some guys who weren’t really the best during the regular season suddenly leading the way to a title. For someone who doesn’t follow NASCAR closely, that’s confusing – why isn’t the best driver all season in championship contention (or, in a couple of weeks, not even allowed to compete)?
Sure, wild card teams have won Super Bowls and World Series, but NASCAR isn’t football or baseball where two teams face each other at a time without 41 others on the field trying to break up the party. The wild card in stick-and-ball sports is not a team who’s been marginal all season, but just one step under the very best. It’s simply not comparable in any way, and maybe it’s time for NASCAR to stop trying and let racing be what it’s always been: a season-long competition where the title is really secondary to who wins races every week.
But for now, the chips are down for some of the sport’s biggest names and the biggest players of the 2014 season. It’s possible that a couple of them can move on and right the ship. Earnhardt points out that he and Johnson had fast cars last week at Kansas and their finishes weren’t because they weren’t running well.
Earnhardt says that he and Johnson can approach Charlotte and Talladega in one of two ways.
“There are two kinds of approaches and they are both equally as nerve-racking,” he said. “The one approach is to run well and hope that nothing bad happens and the other approach is if something has happened you can really just kind of go for broke.”
If one or two of these drivers can do the latter and do it successfully, it could make for great racing and perhaps restore some credibility to the format.
But if all of the season’s best fall out before the final cut, then the format cannot be a legitimate way to determine a champion, and that makes NASCAR look trivial to mainstream sports fans.
While manufactured excitement might be a part of this ADD generation of fans, a manufactured champion is not.
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