Give Jimmie Johnson the trophy and let's all go home?
By Mike Mulhern
Now that Jimmie Johnson has made a statement in Chicago, quite a statement at that, and reaffirmed Las Vegas books favoring him to win a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, maybe it's time to looking ahead on other battlefronts in the racing world.
Like, what may happen next in the topsy-turvy Indy-car world, now that its season is over...
Like, should NASCAR officials have been a little more proactive with the 2013 Cup tour, like making a spot for Montreal, and reassessing its game plans for Chicago and Los Angeles?
Like, will there be enough time following a Johnson crowning at Homestead-Miami Thanksgiving week to add some highlight photos of this year's championship charge to his just released photo-essay book in time for Christmas 'coffee table' sales?
Tongue in cheek of course. A bit.
But then again maybe not that much....if Sunday's Chicago 400 was as telling as it would first appear:
-- Johnson is still top dog in stock car racing.
-- Brad Keselowski is just as wily as ever, especially on pit stops.
-- Tony Stewart (who may be ready to announce Bass Pro Shops as new sponsor soon, just in time for hunting season) is still as cantankerous, ornery, humorous, and hungry and scrappy as ever.
Isn't it time for NASCAR to make Montreal a Sprint Cup tour stop? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- And the rest of the chase challengers, well, they all showed vulnerabilities:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew an engine in practice with a missed shift and had to start the 400 dead last. (And then Monday he added to his sidetracking headaches by firing cousin Tony Eury Jr. as Danica Patrick's crew chief....just days after firing Tony Eury Sr. as competition guru.)
Denny Hamlin carefully stroked along, then got run out of gas, reviving bad memories of that afternoon at Phoenix two years ago when he lost the championship but for a few more gallons of fuel.
Kasey Kahne couldn't make a pass on teammate Johnson even trying as hard as he could, which was surprising.
Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. couldn't really get rolling, and neither could Greg Biffle (surprisingly slow).
Kevin Harvick couldn't even get in the game.
Matt Kenseth couldn't keep car parts from falling off.
And Jeff Gordon still can't catch a break....
Denny Hamlin: outta gas at Chicago. Momentum broken? He vows to win Sunday's New Hampshire 300 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It may not be time to start writing people out of the chase, but like Hamlin says the first three weeks or so of this thing are all about not making mistakes and taking yourself out of the hunt.
Hey, you saw Jimmie Johnson Sunday: Would you want to spot him 20 points or so and then try to catch up?
Johnson, by the way, is expected to be autographing copies of that new book again this week on Souvenir Row at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
One race doesn't make a championship, but one bad race can lose it.
So what to make about those who didn't fare well in Sunday's Chicago 400?
How telling is the first race of the chase?
In 2004 Kurt Busch won the opener and went on to win the title.
In 2005 Stewart won the opener and went on to win the title.
In 2006 Harvick won the opener and wound up fourth in the chase; Johnson finished 39th in the opener but rallied to win the title.
In 2007 Clint Bowyer won the opener and wound up third in the chase; Johnson ran 6th in the opener but rallied for the title.
In 2008 Biffle won the opener and wound up third in the chase; Johnson finished second and went on to win the title.
In 2009 Mark Martin won the opener and wound up second in the chase; Johnson ran fourth in the opener and won the title.
In 2010 Bowyer won the opener but got hit with a savage points penalty and finished 10th in the chase; Johnson ran only 25th in the opener but rallied to win the chase.
In 2011 Stewart won the opener (Chicago) and went on to win the title; Carl Edwards ran fourth in the opener and tied for the title.
Brad Keselowski: NASCAR's newest superstar. But if he wants to win this championship, he'll have to beat Jimmie Johnson. But he just did just that.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
If Johnson is as strong on the four other 1-1/2-mile chase tracks as he was at Chicagoland, he could -- barring more magic from Keselowski -- wrap up this championship early.
One question here, of course, is if NASCAR execs were so quick to change the championship format after Kenseth's 2003 runaway, why haven't NASCAR bosses reacted to Johnson's annual routs?
Johnson was on a run to make it six in a row last fall, only four points off the lead midway through the chase when he crashed hard at Charlotte while running seventh and just 30 miles from the finish.
Wonder if Jim France (R) has been asking Tony George (L) and questions lately? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But NASCAR isn't the only game in town...though it is the biggest, and about the only racing game between now and Thanksgiving.
With the end of the Indy-car season, and the start of NASCAR's championship playoffs, and considering the crowds at the two tracks over the weekend, California Speedway in Los Angeles and Chicagoland Speedway in Chicago, here's a curious question:
Is it time to consolidate American racing?
Or to put it more succinctly, is it time for the NASCAR Frances and/or Bruton Smith to consider buying the Indy-car series from the Hulman-George family?
Put another way, is it time for the Hulman-George family to sell-lease the sport's marketing, promotion and officiating department?
The family didn't seem to like the way its own Tony George ran the sport. Now new leader Randy Bernard, despite all his pluses and his energy, appears to have ruffled some feathers among team owners, to what extent isn't quite clear.
Maybe the Indy-car world just needs a good dose of NASCAR's tough-love, and its marketing zing! and business discipline.
Indy-car's Randy Bernard (L) and Dario Franchitti (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Yes, race fans were once staunchly in one camp or the other, and typically quite distinct.
Open-wheel fans in this corner.... stock car fans over in this corner.
And the overall relationship between the two camps has been frosty at times.
But maybe times have changed.
Race fans are race fans, and a good race is a good race.
And, heck, NASCAR has raced at the Brickyard itself since 1994.
One big thing to consider: the stands this season, on both sides, aren't full.
Perhaps there are enough synergies and economics of scale to make something work here.
Begin with sanctioning fees and officiating.
Spread sports overhead over a bigger, wider base.
Open up some new demographics, and some different markets.
Give potential sponsoring companies yet another angle to play.
Tony Stewart: the 'people's' champion. Thinking he's just fired up enough to go for that fourth NASCAR championship....and, hey, didn't he used to run Indy-cars? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Of course it could be argued that NASCAR has its hands full managing the three national series it has, and the Truck series has been iffy for quite a while. (And didn't it seem curious that TV last weekend was advertising the Geico 400 during the Nationwide race at Chicago?)
But then NASCAR has not only brought sports car racing, the Grand-Am series, under its official arm, NASCAR has now also merged Grand-Am with its long-time rival the American Le Mans Series.
In that business spirit of merger, perhaps it's time to at least take a look at the Indy-car tour under NASCAR reins, the pluses and the minuses.
Now Randy Bernard has been a breath of fresh air for the staid Indy-car world.
But what to make of that incipient car owner revolt that Bernard has talked about?
Maybe he just needs some support like only Daytona and Charlotte can really provide.
The Indy-car world has long been a car owners' world. The NASCAR world has been quite the opposite -- shut up and drive.
The Smiths have been staunch Indy-car supporters, even if the politics of it all sometimes gets in the way. Maybe they could clean up some of the politics.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now NASCAR's marketing is sometimes brilliant, sometimes scratch-your-head.
But when it comes time for the Frances and the Smiths to deal with the bottom line for their 20-some race tracks, it takes more than just Sprint Cup weekends to keep things humming.
And it was rather curious when the Frances over the last two years dropped most Indy-car events. Sanctioning fees too high, maybe, versus the return-on-investment crowds.
However a healthy Indy-car series is only good for NASCAR and its tracks.
And with Jim France having just put together a unification/merger of the American sports car world, maybe it's time to take the next step.....
Is it time for a significant reevaluation of the marketing of racing in the U.S.?
There is thinking that Detroit car makers may think so. And it's looking like Chevrolet is leading the way.
General Motors just put its Chevy brand in the Indy-car camp, and it is revamping its Chevy NASCAR brand, on both the Cup and Nationwide sides, and it has all but demanded the two American sports car racing series, ALMS and Grand-Am, merge.
NASCAR is pumping its own Sprint Cup brand with new models for 2013. A major test of the 2013 Daytona 500 cars is set for Talladega in a few weeks.
The loss of Dodge from NASCAR may be an opportunity to consider all this.
Dodge is expanding its sports car program, with the Viper.
And Detroit car makers might like for NASCAR to do a bit more internationally. After all car sales are global, and the biggest market in the world is now China.
Now if the NASCAR Frances and/or Smiths were interested in buying the Indy-car series from the Hulman-George family, what might be the pluses?
First, it would give the NASCAR Frances and Smiths more clout in TV negotiations and sponsor negotiations.
Second, it would give the NASCAR Frances and Smiths more control over events at the family-owned tracks, particularly good Indy-car tracks like California's Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, and Texas Motor Speedway.
By moving into the Indy-car world more directly, NASCAR powers would also gain access to Honda, as a potential Cup sponsor.
It certainly wouldn't be foreign territory. Consider that Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti are the big Indy-car powers. Penske and Ganassi also play major roles in NASCAR, and Andretti just came close to cranking up a NASCAR Cup effort of his own.
There are a number of interesting potential synergies.
The 2012 Indy-car tour just finished, at California's Auto Club Speedway, the 15th event. The Indy-car series is a jumble of street courses and road courses -- St. Petersburg, Fla.; Long Beach; Belle Isle/Detroit; Toronto; Mid-Ohio; and Baltimore, Sonoma, Birmingham, Ala., and Edmonton, and traditional ovals in Indianapolis, Texas, Milwaukee, Iowa, and California....plus the Brazilian oddity in Sao Paulo. (The Shanghai race was cancelled midseason.)
Next season it's all but certain that Pocono Raceway will finally return to the Indy-car tour, with that smooth new asphalt.
NASCAR's Trucks and Grand-Am have been companion Indy-car events, another angle to consider.
Roger Penske hasn't forgotten how to spray champagne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Penske and Chevrolet are backing the Indy-car Belle Isle/Detroit event. (Do you get the impression that Chevrolet is taking a commanding presence in this sports world? Maybe people at Ford Motor Company need to pay closer attention....)
-- Andretti is deeply involved in the Milwaukee and Baltimore Indy-car events.
-- Smith owns the NASCAR/Indy-car tracks at Sonoma and Texas, and his tracks here at Loudon, Charlotte, Las Vegas and Kentucky have also hosted Indy-car events.
-- The France family owns the NASCAR /Indy-car track at California, and the France tracks at Michigan, Watkins Glen, Phoenix, Kansas, Chicago, Richmond, and Homestead-Miami have all hosted Indy-car events.
Now all those events might not have been successful, but those tracks are all clearly viable for both series.
Certainly it appears there are more than enough synergies here to merit consideration.
Jimmie Johnson and the victory lobster. Wonder who gets to wrestle the lobster here this weekend? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)