I came to the world of INDYCAR just as I did NASCAR – through a work assignment. Unlike with NASCAR back in 2005, it was not a bucket of freezing water over the head type rude awakening; I already had an interest and knowledge about the premier North American open wheel series, I just wasn’t an expert. Over the last two years, I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know the intricacies of Indy car racing and becoming an expert (or at least an approximation of one). After all, it’s the nuances that help you truly understand any sport you care to mention. This year, in particular, has been a fascinating season to watch Indy car racing in intensive detail with new engines and engine manufacturers (Chevy and the much maligned Lotus), a new chassis (the DW12); the departure of one Danica Patrick to pastures supposedly lime-greener and of course the tragic death of the popular British champion Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In short, there were plenty of unknowns.
Two races, two championship battles, two sets of contenders racing hard with each other and two incidents, despite being nothing more than a product of short-track racing, that will go a long way towards deciding both the Nationwide and Cup Series championships. That is, assuming that both Elliott Sadler and Tony Stewart live up to their words.
It never fails to amaze me how quickly the NASCAR season passes despite its immense longevity. Perhaps this is just simply a function of the passing of time – I keep getting older despite my best intentions – but can there really only be three races left until we start the oft ballyhooed 2012 Chase? It only seems like yesterday the one-man wrecking crew Juan Pablo Montoya smacked into the jet dryer at Daytona during the Great American Race. He’s been hitting just about everything else too, since. Ah, good times.
But I digress from my main point – a common theme for my columns these last five years I’ll admit.
_With Indianapolis and Pocono behind us, the 2012 Race to the Chase is now at full bore. Championship contenders are emerging at the front of the standings, but perhaps more importantly, the Wild Card picture is beginning to develop some clarity. Here’s my assessment of each of the Wild Card contenders along with their chances of making the Chase._
It certainly was strange not to have a Cup race to watch this past weekend. You get so used to the relentless nature of the schedule and the regular routine that when there is a brief moment of respite it seems, well, all a little strange. Now, though, with the off week consigned to the history books, it’s time for the stretch run and seventeen straight weekends of racing that will decide who does and doesn’t make the Chase; and ultimately who will be crowned the 2012 Sprint Cup Champion.
What Tony Stewart did last year in “the playoffs” was unparalleled in Chase history. No driver has ever won so many races to on the way to the wavy silver Sprint Cup trophy. You can top-5, top-10 the competition into the ground but wins count big. Real big. Truth is, it probably was something of an anomaly. How many drivers other than Smoke could have done that? You’re talking about a handful, at best. So yes, anything can happen.
I’m often asked why I love NASCAR. Most of the time it’s from a person with an incredulous look of either despair, disgust or out right confusion on their face. I get it given my circumstances: I grew up in England and moved with work to New York City in November 2001. I’m a football (soccer) loving Brit working in advertising. I’m not, let’s be fair, the natural demographic for the great sport of NASCAR.
This Saturday night’s 400 miles of restrictor plate carnage under the bright lights of NASCAR’s first ever super track will mark the half-way point in a season that, to be kind, has lacked a certain something; or if you’ll forgive the Jean Girard Talladega Nights type reference a “je ne sais quoi”. I’m not going to say the season has flat out sucked (although too many times, it has) but it’s fair to say it’s not been the sort of season they write epic sports literature tomes about. Yes, there have been some notable highs, some comedic lows, (step forward Kurt Busch and Jet Drier Montoya) but for the most part it has not been a season that quickens the blood and fires up the synapses. Now, the good news is that there’s plenty of time for that to change and every reason to hope it might, as the pressure of making the Chase and running for the title nudges inexorably northward.
Back in 2005 an unexpected job opportunity spun me head first into the often insane, always crazy world of NASCAR. At the time, I saw it as a penance; something that had to be suffered to get to work on something more interesting. I remember full well my sheer horror when I watched my first race, incidentally Kyle Busch’s first win at the Cup level. Then, over time, a strange thing started to happen and I found myself loving the sport more and more.
Seven years later, I’m still working in the sport–albeit in a different capacity as an intrepid Frontstretch columnist–and for the most part NASCAR has just brought great joy to my life; despite the ridicule of my friends back home across the pond in the UK and most of my colleagues and buddies here in Manhattan.
In this tepid, monotonous, dreary, follow-the-leader, long green-flag, passing-free zone of a season, we’ve now reached the midway point on the way to everyone’s favorite playoff system: The Chase for the Sprint Cup. 13 races are in the books, meaning there are only another 13 races to run until we reach the cutoff point after the second Richmond race. So with that in mind, here’s a look at the runners and riders – that’s a little horse racing reference for you there, ahead of the Belmont Stakes this weekend and I’ll Have Another’s quest for the first Triple Crown in 34 years. But I digress… back to a slightly faster mode of transport and those “three-and-a-half ton” stock cars and the question as to who makes this year’s version of the playoffs. For the purposes of this analysis, I’m going to consider the chances of making the Chase for all 31 drivers (except Kurt Busch, but I’ll mention him) who have completed all 13 races so far in 2012. (In total, just for the record, 63 drivers have taken the green flag at the Cup level this year.) Also, just because I like to be contrarian, I’m going to go in reverse order…
_12 down, 24 to go, and just ten races until the repeatedly slandered 2012 Chase for the Championship begins in earnest. With a good sample size, both in terms of races and also tracks visited now in the books the complexion of the season is taking shape. The probable and possible challengers for Tony Stewart’s crown are emerging; and as we start the summer swing (good news: just one more race on Fox, folks) we’ll start to see who is in it to win it with even sharper focus. So at the one-third mark of the season, it’s time I graded the pack for the first time in 2012._