NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding A Pretty Wheel: May the Best Man Have a Chance to Win

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.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Jimmie Johnson has been a major championship contender much of the last decade but could easily be out of the Chase in two weeks. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

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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11 Comments
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Bill B

I wouldn’t say Joey Logano is taking anyone to school. He’s running great and could win the big trophy but he finished better than the aforementioned 2, 24, 48 and 88 because they all had issues that had nothing to do with how good Joey ran. So let’s stick to reality not sensationalize this deal.
And you can bet that if 2 or 3 of the guys that ran in the top 5 during the regular season get knocked out because of one bad tire or someone else wrecking them, their large fan bases will have a negative view of the crapshoot nature of this new chase (if they don’t already).

Bill B

BTW, great article Amy.

Steve

You can bet there will be lots of “debris” on the race track at Charlotte if any of the chosen ones are at risk of going a lap down. Instead of the teams doing the manipulating to have their cars advance, it will be Nascar to do their best to manipulate the races to make sure their cash cows go as far as possible in the playoffs.

messengerfm

Steve, you are 100% right. If there is one thing NASCAR knows how to do, it is manipulate the outcome of races and championships. They aren’t going to let Kansas stop them now from getting the champion they want. Amy can rest easy. NASCAR won’t let the Chosen Ones be eliminated.

messengerfm

Ridiculous column, as usual, Amy. Just because your favorites are struggling, the new Chase format is automatically a bad idea. How sad for you! You say you are against manufactured excitement, but in truth, you want a manufactured champion – one that will please the fan base to the max. And just what would that look like, Amy? Jimmie again? Jeffie for old times sake? Oh no, what you and the other whiners REALLY want is Dale Junior hoisting the trophy. So, let NASCAR stop playing silly games about giving the championship to the best driver and do the obvious – award the Cup by fan vote. Then you and all the rest of the faux-fans can talk about what a deserving champion the sport finally has! In the meantime, I will laugh myself sick if this latest attempt at recapturing the fan base NASCAR lost years ago results in a champion named Logano, Busch, Hamlin, Edwards or Newman. And a double whopper if it turns out to be Rowdy Busch, the guy you hate the most, but who has the best career record of anyone who has not already won a championship! Have at it, boys!

kb

I don’t like any form of a playoff, but I do agree with you about Amy seemingly mad as her favorites are in trouble. That was my first take as well. But before this past weekend, I got the impression all was well, favorites were hanging in. I said wait till one of your favorites gets knocked out for a dumb reason, your tune will change..it seems it is a changin’. Hopefully in this mess the crowned winner will be at least one who’s stats all year are worthy.

JohnQ

I think pretty much anyone not on the NASCAR tit acknowledges that the Chase is a hopelessly flawed format incapable of producing a legitimate Champion. But, so what, NASCAR has rarely produced a legitimate Champion with the pre Chase formats. Let’s translate the old consistency format to boxing. You have ten fighters. Only one has never won a fight. He is however the only one never to be knocked out, or even knocked down. In fact, he is the only one to go the distance in every bout. In the common sense world he is a very good fighter. In NASCAR world he is the Champion. NASCAR has never found the formula for producing a legitimate Champion so I say let’s just enjoy the racing.

racefangurl

Joey, some say would have the points lead under the non-Chase system anyway. He could be a legitimate champion. He has non-Chase and Chase wins.

Bad Wolf

The Chase drove the real old school “Cool Kid” fans away over a decade ago. NASCAR is just a hollow shell of it’s former glory and is nothing but a two bit spec series that relies on star power instead of real racing.

Stick a fork in it, it is done. We fans of old have moved on and don’t even bother to tune in anymore, and I have checked out this sight only a couple of times this year. Check out the number of replies to the columns here and tell me that the state of NASCAR is strong.

Russ

Your comment about the number of replies is spot on I think. Also look at the number of blogs gathered together on Jaski. Seems that a high percentage of them are either by Nascar and its affiliates, or “stakeholders”. Even then very few are about the racing, mostly fluff. The times have changed haven’t they?

Russ

I wonder how many people really give a rip who is the champion? More and more it appears to be just something to keep Nascar in the conversation as its less and less about the racing.

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