One year ago, Texas equaled triumph for a Joe Gibbs Racing operation cocking back to deliver what they thought was NASCAR’s equivalent of a knockout punch. While Jimmie Johnson’s team imploded, their pit road area turning into a deleted scene from _Days Of Our Lives,_ driver Denny Hamlin won the race, crew chief Mike Ford talked some trash and the four-year title reign for Johnson’s No. 48 was left hanging by a thread. JGR, whose risky move to Toyota once cost them superstar Tony Stewart, was on the verge of handing the manufacturer their biggest piece of hardware yet. Add in Joey Logano finishing fourth that day at age 20, along with three-time season winner Kyle Busch, just 25 that Sunday, the organization posed a triple threat of twenty-something drivers peaking years from reaching their prime.
There have been many, many times when Tony Stewart could have seriously challenged for the season title. One of the sport’s most versatile drivers, his ability to turn scorching hot during a season’s second half in midsummer makes him the perfect closer under NASCAR’s hokey, let’s make a stick-and-ball playoff system. Already the owner of two Sprint Cup titles, most times seeing Stewart pop up at or near the top of the Chase wouldn’t do much more than raise an eyebrow.
Until this year. For Halloween, the perfect costume for this aging veteran should have been the Grim Reaper; his entry to the Chase, more than any other not named Denny Hamlin, was supposed to mean little for a championship bid predicted to be DOA (dead on arrival).
It was the Fall of 2008, and carnage ran rampant over the Talladega racetrack – as the Big One tends to do – with a finger of blame landing squarely on Carl Edwards. The awkward-timed bump, spinning teammate Greg Biffle around took out a dozen cars and all but giftwrapped the Chase for the Championship to the burgeoning Five-Time dynasty that back then went by the name “Jimmie Johnson.”
The latest version of NASCAR’s Chase has resembled an _American Idol_-style elimination, without the horrible singing, Ryan Seacrest, and 80% of the viewership. We started with the final 12 title hopefuls at New Hampshire, but each week, no matter what happens there’s always one person who ends up eliminated before moving on.
On Sunday, it was Jeff Gordon’s turn as the number of realistic championship contenders got trimmed to eight. The four-time titlist, labeled a prohibitive favorite after his late summer charge never really established much consistency the past four weeks, stumbling through this playoff before a blown engine officially put him out of his misery Sunday on Lap 264.
In every Sprint Cup race, 43 drivers come roaring to take the green. On every Sunday night, hours after the checkered 42 of them lay awake, fighting off sleep and daydreaming through every moment, every turn they could have handled differently to take a trip to Victory Lane.
“I’m going to lay in bed,” said Carl Edwards, giving his best looking-at-the-ceiling impression after running third. “My wife’s going to yell at me and tell me to get over it. That’s just how it goes. That’s how racing is.”
After starting the Chase in critical condition, Tony Stewart’s rocky season has been righted. Just a playoff add-on two weeks ago, sneaking in by the width of its front splitter, the No. 14 car plus its owner/driver’s mouth were both more temperamental than Kurt Busch’s radio channel. But a two-for-two start in Victory Lane, plus vindication at a track (New Hampshire) where Stewart ran out of fuel while leading just one year ago has left once-unfathomable championship chances very much alive.
Apparently, when hyping up this year’s Chicago-based Chase debut, NASCAR forgot to send an invite to Mother Nature. She had her hissy fit Sunday, rain popping the hot-air playoff balloon by postponing the scheduled Sprint Cup race until Monday at 11 AM Central – a time when there’s still a 30% chance of more green stuff on the radar. It was a murky end to a week of pomp and circumstance, designed to pump up Sprint Cup’s new playoff system by placing it smack in the country’s No. 3 media market.
The “Have At It Boys, Era!” in NASCAR was supposed to create driver rivalries with their peers – not the press box. But as the 2011 season turns toward the playoffs, one of the biggest battles to watch leading into the Chase isn’t Johnson-Gordon, Harvick-Kyle Busch or even brother Kurt versus Johnson.
Nope. It’s drivers versus the NASCAR beat reporters who cover them.
Certainly, this topic isn’t one most media, especially those at-the-track each week want to touch with a ten-foot pole. I can imagine fans aren’t too thrilled about it, either, more interested in a competitive year with seven, possibly eight drivers in position to win a wide-open Chase. But the sheer number of conflicts, each involving high-level drivers have forced the issue; this weekend alone, three tiffs between drivers and reporters have reflected a continuing, on-and-off tension they’ve had with the media at large.
If there is absolute truth in racing, it is that nothing is as it seems. After all, it seems as though, right on schedule, five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is finding his stride. After 24 races, Johnson is tied for the points lead and has put up better numbers than he has since 2006. It seems like Johnson, with his stellar record at nearly every track he’ll see in the Chase, would be the odds-on favorite to win his sixth title in a row.
But nothing is as it seems.
Despite Johnson’s numbers (one win, 10 top-5 finishes, a series-best 16 top 10’s), it’s much harder to peg him as the favorite heading into the Chase. In fact, it’s hard to define a favorite at all; a streaking Brad Keselowski had an inconsistent first half of the season, Kyle Busch has a series-leading five wins and the reputation of falling apart in the Chase, Carl Edwards is slumping and Jeff Gordon just needs the barest _something_ to grab a title. Again, it seems like Johnson, who has five top 5’s and six top 10’s in the last seven races, should have an advantage as he’s coming on strong just when he needs to.
Three weeks into August, the only thing missing from NASCAR’s Race to the Chase is that boxing announcer obnoxiously shouting, “In _THIS_ corner…” No, I’m not talking about the “wild card” race, or even the $3 million dollar _Sprint Summer Showdown of the Century!_ (Or so the phone company says). Instead, it’s some “playoff posturing” among the men already guaranteed to make the cut that’s becoming a major story. While “Junior Watch” continues, in between some frantic fighting over a wild card winner who will promptly fall flat over the final ten-race stint for the title the challengers to Jimmie Johnson’s five-time throne are making some serious statements – not mincing words or the accelerator towards a certain man who wears No. 48 on those boxing gloves.
When we look back on the 2011 Chase field, likely to include Brad Keselowski NASCAR’s new “iron man” has but one woman to thank for his inclusion. No, it’s not his mother, nice as she is or the nurses that helped him heal in the hospital after Road Atlanta. It’s not even the Lady In Black, a Darlington track whose third-place result spurred Keselowski’s initial comeback in May. Instead, the answer comes as simply as standing outside, looking up at the clear blue sky one sunny day and appreciating the type of perfect weather for racing we weren’t supposed to have for long on Sunday afternoon.
What a nice little assist Kes got from Mother Nature, right? After a raging thunderstorm stopped the racing, forcing out the red flag on Lap 124 for all intents and purposes, most fans and drivers thought the 500-mile race would be rain-shortened. Indeed, a quick look at the forecast and the radar meant no one would have blamed NASCAR if they didn’t dry the track, pronounced it a lost cause and ended the event right then and there. The fact that they didn’t, rolling the dice and making an ending happen changed the face of the race and in some cases, perhaps altered the course of driver’s seasons. How important was restarting this race? These drivers can tell you… let’s start with the losers first.
I’m a stats guy living in a writer’s body, a failed mathematician with a healthy dose of superstition on the side. So it’s no surprise to me that as Brad Keselowski crossed the finish line, completing one of the great “iron man” performances in recent history all that I could think about was similar to a closing line from Sesame Street:
_This race has been brought to you by the letters K, J, and the number two._
Sounds silly, right? Especially considering what Keselowski did was a physical feat rarely equaled in NASCAR’s Chase era; only Denny Hamlin’s torn ACL, then seemingly instantaneous recovery post-surgery in Victory Lane at Texas last season can compare. It was a _two-pronged_ lift for the driver in his sophomore season – comments after the race, humbly praising soldiers killed in Afghanistan as the real heroes also moved mountains in establishing himself as a role model, not a rebel amongst the fan base. Off the track, Keselowski can no longer be viewed by his peers as a one-hit wonder; he’s the first driver in years to move up the ranks the right way, from Trucks to Nationwide to Cup and develop into a proven major-league talent.