ONE: UNDER PRESSURE
Two races remain – 579 laps or 712 miles, if you prefer – until we crown the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, and right now it’s anyone’s title, with all eight still-eligible drivers absolutely in the mix for the big silver wavy trophy.
This new Chase version is certainly polarizing, but it’s anything but boring. Each of the eight races to date have had a different kind of intensity, with every position on the track being more crucial than ever before in the playoffs.
To put some context around the polarizing comment, a text I received right after the race from a lifelong NASCAR fan said, among much profanity and thoughts on certain drivers’ parentage and proclivities, “How does anyone take this awful circus seriously.”
The NASCAR fan in my office, meanwhile, came by my desk on Monday morning looked at me and said, “Loved it.” Two opposite points of view at absolutely different ends of the spectrum seem to very much define the NASCAR fan’s reaction to this Chase format.
In the comments section of this column these past few weeks, I’ve had a number of fans denigrate the new system but at the same time I’ve heard from folks who love the format. Either way, NASCAR isn’t going to win. The old adage that you can’t please all the people all the time rings true here. Sport, particularly professional sport, is one of life’s great distractions and for what it’s worth, I’ve loved this iteration of the Chase. I get why folks don’t like it and I respect it but I’m telling you I cannot wait – literally cannot wait – to see what happens these next two weeks.
TWO: 500 STRONG
Aside from finishing in second place and playing a part in the post-race brouhaha at Texas Motor Speedway, last Sunday’s race was a big milestone for Kevin Harvick – namely his 500th start at the top echelon.
The No. 4 Budweiser Chevy Harvick wheeled to the first loser position at Texas featured several special logos to commemorate this impressive milestone. In his 500 starts, Harvick has recorded 26 wins, 112 top 5s, 227 top 10s, 6,245 laps led and an average finish of 14.2 in his career, and he might just augment that wins total this Sunday at Phoenix – remember he dominated the spring race leading 224 of the 312 laps.
One statistical anomaly of Harvick’s career to date is his pole positions. In his first 13 seasons, Harvick started from first just six times, but he’s picked up a remarkable eight poles this season alone with two races still to go.
Is this the season that Harvick finally picks up that elusive championship? I wouldn’t bet against him.
THREE: FIERY PHOENIX
After the incidents at Charlotte and Texas, this Sunday’s 500-kilometer contest at Phoenix International Raceway could be an especially feisty affair.
We’ve seen retaliation here before with Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer in particular, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some scores settled on Sunday afternoon. Late race restarts, if we get them, could be fractious affairs, especially if there are drivers on the bubble of making the final four.
The grandstands are already sold out – “The excitement generated by the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format and by Phoenix hosting the final Eliminator race in the Chase has made the demand for tickets very strong,” Phoenix International Raceway President Bryan R. Sperber noted in a release. And I’d expect those fans to be on their feet for much of the afternoon as the desperation for a chance to win it all in Miami ratchets up lap by lap.
Compounding this is the fact that the race is a short one – just 312 miles – so there is little to no scope for error. Either way, with all eight drivers still in contention, I doubt this will be a processional, boring race. Far from it.
FOUR: THE BIG UNKNOWN
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this iteration of the Chase, it’s to expect the unexpected. And I’m expecting just that at Homestead-Miami Speedway a week from Sunday.
Simply put, NASCAR has never had a race quite like it. Sure, we’ve had situations where two or even three to four drivers are in contention during the final race of the season, but there’s never been a situation where four drivers are on absolute level pegging, points wise, for the final frantic 400 miles.
One of the most fascinating things to watch for under the lights in South Florida will be just how far drivers are willing to push it with the race on the line. That hole that Brad Keselowski tried to insert himself into at Texas might just be considered cavernous by comparison to the shenanigans we’ll likely see in any late race restarts at Homestead.
The really interesting question to answer will be: how far is too far? Do you wreck one of your fellow final four drivers to ensure you win the title? Quite possibly. But how far is too far? And what role might teammates play in terms of potential spoilers? One way or the other, this race is a total can’t-miss contest.
FIVE: CHAD AND JIMMIE
In total, Sunday was win No. 70 from the Chad Knaus-Jimmie Johnson partnership, a testament to their enduring excellence.
In recent weeks, intensified by Johnson’s early exit from the Chase after Talladega, rumors have circulated as to the future of this tandem. When asked about this issue in the media center following the race, Knaus was typically forthright.
“No, man, I’m set,” he said. “I don’t foresee a change with the (No.) 48 car from a driver or crew chief standpoint in the near future. I don’t foresee that happening. If it does, I’ll have to be a reporter because I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do after that.”
Chad Knaus the media man? The mind boggles.
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