Heading into Speedweeks, Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 1 on the side of his Chevy was synonymous with the one piece left alone from a desperation merger. Now, that “1” stands for something far more exciting – Daytona 500 polesitter – closing out a weekend that’s given hope to people looking for some different faces up front next Sunday. “The guys felt good about this all winter,” Truex said after pulling what had to be labeled a minor upset. “They’ve felt like they’ve had a shot at coming down here and sitting on the front row for the 500. I’m just the lucky guy who gets to sit in that seat and drive that thing.”
Dear NASCAR Faithful, the offseason is over, and I can’t wait! What a refreshing change from the past few years; it’s amazing what a couple of weeks off not having to cover test after test in December and January will do for your tired soul. After a disappointing year, the worst thing to happen when the racing doesn’t match the hype is to have it hammered into your head day in, day out. And while some fans still complain about your precipitous decline the past few years… I know there’s a lot more who actually started to miss you for the first time in recent memory.
Once upon a time, the laps are winding down at Homestead; and while you might not like a fuel mileage finish, for once, you’re sitting there on the edge of your seat. Carl Edwards has made the daring gamble to go the final 66 laps on a tank of gas, canceling out the brilliant strategy of Jimmie Johnson and a two-tire stop that finally got him the track position needed to run up front. Now, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are staring at a terrifying dilemma. They know their car isn’t capable of going the distance on fuel; and knowing a win by the No. 99 will likely cost them the title, Knaus doesn’t know which direction to turn. Should he hope against hope his numbers are wrong, leave Johnson out, and hope he can save a little extra Sunoco? Or, should he send him out on a banzai effort to gain as many positions as possible, putting distance between the No. 48 and Edwards before short-pitting for fresh tires with 20 laps to go – a desperation maneuver in hopes new Goodyears can gain enough positions in time to save the championship?
For so many millions of us, favorite athletes become so much more. Role models for our kids, our communities, ourselves; they’re put on a pedestal of success we can only wish to achieve. Through them, we choose to live our wildest dreams, placed in a fantasy world in which a larger-than-life persona can show us the joys of perfection. Every once in a while, we get lucky in love, and the dream never dies. Our idols leave the sport we love at the top of their game, and we’re allowed to remember the end just the way we want it – like a fairy tale. But more often, the bubble bursts and we find out the truth – that these drivers we worship are human, too, unable to fend off the inevitability of age and time. And that makes it so much harder when you see their careers come crashing down.
For all intents and purposes, Carl Edwards took his 2008 Sprint Cup championship, threw it on the table, grabbed the dice, and rolled Sunday night. That’s not to say Edwards’s trip to victory lane came based on blind faith alone; far from it. Instead, after watching a sure win evaporate into a top-five finish at best, he and crew chief Bob Osborne worked together on balancing a calculated risk. With their championship rival en route to a 15th-place finish, there was an opportunity to do some serious damage; however, anything short of a win and the No. 99 team knew they would have failed to rattle a team going for their third straight title.
As one of the younger NASCAR writers on the beat, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding a changing of the guard in this sport. So early on, it came as no surprise I was ready to jump on board with a season in which Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards spent the spring and summer trading punches back and forth in their battle for Sprint Cup supremacy. A seemingly unstoppable force on the track and off it, one of the two appeared ready to rise as the first 20-something champion since Busch’s brother Kurt Busch in 2004. And if that wasn’t enough, these men had personalities about as volatile as Mt. St. Helens itself. They didn’t like each other to the point they loved trading verbal barbs, and a title Chase between the two seemed destined for its own set of National Enquirer headlines.
Joe Gibbs Racing entered the postseason as the winningest organization in Sprint Cup this year, armed and ready to rumble. There was the No. 1 seed and odds-on favorite Kyle Busch, everyone’s favorite darkhorse in Tony Stewart, and the man with momentum in Denny Hamlin. On the cusp of singlehandedly powering Toyota to a manufacturer’s title in just their second season, the next 10 weeks were supposed to be nothing less than a championship coronation for this crowd. Too bad NASCAR never approved the script.
So much bad press has come out this year surrounding the consolidation of power within Sprint Cup. The Big Four of Jack Roush, Richard Childress, Joe Gibbs, and Rick Hendrick own three cars apiece in this year’s Chase, the only ones capable of making noise at the top during a year in which the focus was supposed to be on leveling the playing field. Instead, the chances of two cars within the same organization battling tooth and nail for the title – a la Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon from ’07 – are higher than they’ve ever been.
Just think about how many names most fans would have gone through if they didn’t see this race and had to guess the winner. Not only was Biffle far from the top of most peoples’ championship lists, to say he’s struggled at New Hampshire Motor Speedway would be an understatement. Coming into Sunday, he’d had only four top-10 finishes in 12 career starts, with as many DNFs as races led (two). Frankly, the Biff’s last four finishes up north read like the beginning of a random powerball ticket: runs of 14th, 31st, 13th, and 21st had you looking far beyond the No. 16 when it came to finding a Loudon race winner. We should have known The Biff would come out of nowhere… right?
There were differing opinions on the quality of racing Saturday night; but if we learned anything from the new Bristol that everyone can agree on, it’s that the Kyle Busch – Carl Edwards battle is officially the sport’s newest rivalry. With one angry swipe on the cooldown lap – and one angry slam hit in retaliation – NASCAR’s two most successful drivers of 2008 also decided that they didn’t like each other all that much. But what the sport has yet to understand – and what they’ll be watching – is whether this is the battle fans in the stands are looking to see.