This season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup is like watching the final season of a really good, violent drama. You’ve come to terms with the fact that characters are going to be killed off, but you’re hoping it’s done the right way. In other words, don’t kill off Walter White and Rick Grimes in the season’s first episode.
They’re the reason people watch. They’ve carried the show this far. As a fan, you’re just hoping the writers and producers don’t screw it up.
That’s how I’ve viewed the Chase for the Sprint Cup, at least. I wasn’t rooting for Aric Almirola or Greg Biffle to defy the odds, get to Homestead-Miami Speedway and somehow raise the trophy. I didn’t watch the first 26 weeks of the regular season to see all hell break loose in an ill-conceived playoff format that crowns Lake Speed the champion.
I wanted to see the four drivers – Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick — who have dominated the season settle it amongst themselves. This is, after all, a championship we’re talking about. Include the drivers who have combined for 18 of the 32 race victories this season, and all of the Chase races seem kind of important.
Somehow, it happened. It was all by a stroke of luck, really. Luck is king when Talladega Superspeedway is involved. Sunday’s results aren’t indicative at all to the racing this season, but appear to be what would happen if you picked names out of a hat.
I don’t know the exact top 10 from Sunday, but it looked something like this:
1. Brad Keselowski
2. Bobby Hillin, Jr.
3. Landon Cassill
4. Ron Bouchard
5. Dave Marcis
6. Rich Bickle
7. Kevin Harvick
8. Shawna Robinson
9. Matt Kenseth
10. Kevin Conway
It was a good old-fashioned crapshoot. What a race to end an elimination round in a championship. Kyle Busch had done everything right in the Chase so far, but one wreck in front of him and one Austin Dillon behind him and he’s out. That’s all it took. Dillon, by the way, still hasn’t slowed down for that wreck.
In the crime drama, our heroes are pretty much guaranteed to somehow dodge the machine-gun bullets in the last battle scene. It’s not real, so that makes it easier. Unfortunately, Talladega is, and Busch was hit.
Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne were the other three eliminated. Johnson and Earnhardt had a pair of bad weeks leading up to it and weren’t championship-caliber looking, so seeing them cast off wasn’t much of a surprise. Kahne might as well have been an extra in the Chase. I’m not sure anyone’s going to notice he’s missing.
Kahne was nearly spared in favor of ousting an essential character, though. Gordon finished only three points ahead as the final driver to make the cutoff. If Gordon dropped a couple more spots and Kahne grabbed a couple more in the three- and four-wide swarm coming to the checkered flag, Four-Time, after an unbelievably consistent four-win year, could be out.
That would have caused a mutiny – or, at least, there should’ve been.
Keselowski is the luckiest to survive. He won a race he had to win at a track at which he had little control in order to advance. NASCAR lucked out with both drivers, then who now emerge into the next round as favorites. It’s a good thing, too, because their fan bases have been on edge about the playoff format – and most of all, the Talladega elimination race. If they ever needed proof that NASCAR’s top decision makers care far more about ratings than they do about crowning rightful champions, Talladega is it.
On Monday, the Los Angeles Times published a story saying television ratings are down for this year’s Chase compared to last year. More drama than ever is being manufactured, two legitimate championship contenders were nearly knocked out near the Chase’s halfway point, and the whole driving force behind it all – TV ratings – are going down.
Let’s just hope NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France doesn’t accidentally tune in to a race and get another idea. (The World Series is about to start so he should be occupied. That has more of the Game 7 moments for which France has been searching.) However, despite his best efforts to screw it up this year, causing perhaps another drop in viewership it appears we still have a legitimate battle for the Sprint Cup championship in front of us.
There are four episodes to go and all of the main characters are still alive. The schedule for the next three races (or elimination round) heads to tracks — Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix — where the eight drivers left should be able to settle it fairly among themselves. The final four races kind of resemble what a championship run should look like.
Congratulations to Logano, Keselowski, Gordon and Harvick for making it through that mess.