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NASCAR's championship chase looms, and what kind of buzz will this one create?

  Kasey Kahne put Jay Frye's Toyota on the pole Saturday afternoon for Sunday night's Atlanta 500, in a boost for the team that is still looking for a new sponsor for 2012.(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   The leaves are starting to yellow, the days are getting a bit cooler, the rainy autumnal equinox looms, hurricane season is in high gear….and the American sports season is shifting to fall. College football and high school football are in the air; the National Football League is on the air; and Major League Baseball is heading into the home stretch toward the World Series.
   It's been quite a while, it seems, since unknown Trevor Bayne stunned the sports world by winning the Daytona 500 for the legendary Woods.
   And, yes, it's been quite a season of surprises...

   But now for NASCAR's premier stock car racing series, the question is will this season's championship playoffs, which open Sept. 18th in Chicago/Joliet,  offer enough sparkle, buzz and pizzazz to grab the attention of U.S. sports fans and the casual observers?
   Again, that's the question…as it has been for years now, since this sport cracked out of its long-time Southeastern base with fall stops in non-traditional markets like Kansas City, Dallas-Fort Worth, Boston/New Hampshire, and Miami-Homestead.
   Last fall's chase was a hot one. What will this one offer?
   The NASCAR 'chase,' this year featuring 12 drivers essentially 're-zeroed' in points for the year's last 10 races, will include a couple of 'wild card' contenders, tour winners who are in the top-20 after the Sept. 10th Richmond 400. That's the new 'Jamie McMurray rule,' after last year's Daytona 500/Brickyard 400 winner failed to make the playoffs.


    Trevor Bayne: got the season off to a stunning start at Daytona (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


The point system this year is new too, basically with the race winner getting around 48 points, the runner-up around 41 or 42, and last place finisher one or two points.
    That new system was ostensibly designed to make it easier for the casual fan to figure out the points than the long-time Bob Latford system; but it's clearly not made that any easier, only murkier for everyone involved.
    Title contender Carl Edwards suddenly realized that after he broke a sparkplug at Michigan two weeks ago, finished 36th, and lost a whopping 39 points to race winner Kyle Busch.
   What effect that part of the championship game may have on the contenders is uncertain, but it will likely make everyone just a bit more cautious, because the point system still penalizes a driver more for having a bad day more than it rewards him for having a good day. And that has long been a fatal flaw in the point system – a blown engine or crash hurts far more than a victory, or leading tons of laps, helps. NASCAR executives, for some reason, have continued to ignore that basic flaw.
   So consider well what happened to Tony Stewart in the first race of last fall's NASCAR championship chase – he was leading at Loudon, N.H., and gambled on fuel mileage down the stretch….only to run out of gas and lose the race and essential lose any shot at the title.
   NASCAR racing should be about winning and leading laps. Period. And the champion should be the guy who wins the most races and leads the most laps.
   Not the guy who strokes his way down the stretch.

    Kurt Busch has won two of the last four Cup events at Atlanta Motor Speedway (Tony Stewart won here last Labor Day weekend.) And Busch's Roger Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, could win it this Labor Day -- and earn Sprint's $1 million bonus. Others in the running for the $1 million, if they can win here, are Paul Menard, Kyle Busch, and Marcos Ambrose. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


Certainly the NASCAR playoffs, if anything, have become an annual flash-point for suggestions from fans and drivers about how to make NASCAR racing each fall more fun and exciting.

   -- One thing that hasn't really changed in the 'chase' is the list of NASCAR tracks used for the playoffs: this fall's run goes from Chicago (new to the chase), to Loudon, NH, to Dover, Del., to Kansas City, to Charlotte, to Talladega, to Martinsville, to Texas,  to Phoenix, and to Homestead-Miami Thanksgiving week.
   There is much debate – particularly since Jimmie Johnson has won five straight chase titles – about NASCAR needing to change-up the line up of tracks for the final 10. (The NASCAR 2012 tour schedule hasn't yet come out – expect it to come out not at a Bruton Smith track but rather during the week of a France family track, probably the next few days leading into Richmond.)
   Johnson himself says NASCAR should add a road course to the chase, and he's in favor of a Canadian road course, like Montreal or Toronto's Mosport….though the predictably drier weather in California's Marin County might make Sonoma a better choice.
   Bristol, some say, should have a more prominent place in the chase.


     The legendary Warren Buffet (L) watched last year's Atlanta 500, with an invite from Kyle Busch (R). Hey, for $5 Billion,  Buffett could probably buy NASCAR if he wanted to.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


-- Not a few have questioned NASCAR's decision to open the playoffs in Chicago Bears Country during the opening weeks of the NFL. Still, the Loudon, NH., opener for so many years failed to ignite much playoff passion….and track owner Bruton Smith has pointedly suggested that it's time just to drop the chase entirely, that it adds little if anything to the attractiveness of the sport as a whole, and that as a promoter Smith simply hasn't seen any marketing punch for his tracks (New Hampshire, Charlotte, Texas) from the chase.

   -- Some have criticized the chase for putting more focus on the 12 men who make the playoffs and for cutting attention from the rest of the men playing the sport.

   -- Some have criticized the chase for trying to put more emphasis on the 'championship' and less on winning races, pointing out that fans don't buy tickets to see a 'chase' event but to see a race, and that fans don't turn on TV to watch a 'chase' event but to see hard racing.

   -- Some have criticized the points format entirely – and this is not new – for creating a 'points-racing' environment for drivers, who become more concerned with not having a great day but rather with not having a bad day.
   Winning races, it is argued, should be the championship focus, not just scoring points.

   -- Some have suggested the 'chase' begin earlier, like Labor Day weekend – making it a 12-race chase: '12 faces, 12 races.' The mid-September start, it is argued, means this sport's playoffs simply get lost in the glut of other sports events.
   That point appears acutely ripe for debate: the timing of the start of the playoffs in mid-September comes just as rival sports are grabbing so many of the headlines. The chase was designed, in large part, to make the NASCAR championship stretch each fall more attractive to followers; but for whatever reason, it really doesn't seem to have made much difference in that.
   Regardless of all that debate, it seems highly unlikely that NASCAR will dramatically change up anything for 2012.

    Can't say that NASCAR's marketers are shy about getting their message out there.....(Photo: Autostock) 


And no matter how you cut it, with only two races left till the cut for the NASCAR playoffs, of the final 12 players in this fall's title chase, it appears increasingly likely that the real battle for the Sprint Cup championship is down to three, maybe four, men: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Carl Edwards, and maybe Matt Kenseth.
   The rest of the guys in the playoffs will likely be merely marketing fluff or long-shots. And some of them concede as much, like Stewart.
   By early June, after the Charlotte 600, it seemed clear which teams and drivers had things under control, and which teams didn't. At that point six men looked to have a decided edge over the rest.
   Now, three months later, that's boiled down to three or four.
   Sure, we'll all hear hopes and hoopla the next few weeks – particularly in that national PR whirlwind by NASCAR marketers in the days leading to the Chicagoland 400 – about how 'no one's the favorite,' 'everyone's got a chance.'
   Except that's simply not true.
   To win the title a man and his team will have to put together at least eight great races, possibly nine, over the last 10 weeks.
   Only three or four men have shown that potential.
   And to beat those three or four, a rival will not only have to match them but hope for some breaks. And the odds that all three or four will falter dramatically is unlikely.

     This sport has been searching for the next Alan Kulwicki for nearly 20 years now....(Photo: Autostock) 


When was the last upset champion?
   Probably the late Alan Kulwicki, in his brilliant 1992 run, with crew chief Paul Andrews, against the powerhouse Robert Yates and Junior Johnson operations. It is storied NASCAR lore how Kulwicki and Andrews were so far down in late September – how many cars did they need just to get through that crash-marred Dover weekend? – and yet managed to rally to win the Winston Cup championship.
   Alas, 20 years later there is no Alan Kulwicki running the stock car tour any more, no such Cinderella story in the wind….
   And there is no Mr. October lurking, like Harry Gant and Andy Petree back when.
   Today it is giant corporation versus giant corporation, and may the best engineers win….
   Heck, even Richard Childress, who has stockpiled drivers and engineers and machinery with the best of them, is still looking for his first NASCAR Cup championship since 1994…..(and Kevin Harvick was so far off the game at Bristol last weekend as to raise serious questions about the Childress operation heading into this chase. Since winning the 600 in May, Harvick has led just 22 laps.).
   Harvick, with three tour wins early, and considered a big-game closer, has been in a slump for months. Teammate Paul Menard, ironically, has become Childress' team 'leader,' though it doesn't appear the Brickyard 400 winner will make this chase….
   However the most disappointing team this season has to be Denny Hamlin's, which simply never caught fire….as if it left its game on the playing field at Phoenix last fall, where the 2010 title bid ran dry, for lack of another gallon or two of gas. Hamlin performed brilliantly last season, only to lose at Phoenix…and then he stumbled in the Homestead finale….and he's been out of the running too many times this season.
   Perhaps that Phoenix race was a harbinger of how this season's races would go – with too many, far too many, coming down to gas mileage gambits rather than hard door-to-door racing. Some blame Goodyear's tires for simply being 'too good,' and essentially taking pit stops for fresh tires all but out of the equation. Others blame a lack of caution flags, allowing the field to stretch out; maybe there is just less stuff falling off cars this season, but the lack of late-race cautions has been striking, leaving crew chiefs sweating out gas mileage. The Charlotte 600 was the best case in point, where car after car after car just ran out of gas down the stretch.
  Certainly one issue to consider – though probably only as a sidelight, considering NASCAR's general reluctance to shake things up – is which tracks really provide the most exciting racing….and how many of them could be incorporated into the playoffs.
   If the chase is supposed to be part of the highlight of the season, then why not play it at NASCAR's best tracks?
   Your picks?


  Remember when Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L) gave little-known Brad Keselowski (R) that first big break.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Remember that great New York City pie-fight among NASCAR's title contenders, to promote the Sprint Cup championship? Wonder who dreamed that thing up? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


tracks an gas

I think the Chase is a farce anyway but the tracks are a fairly good mix. I would like to see a little more individual items added in such as a lottery for track selection.
The gas thing is a bit harder but if a cars team were able to say select one of three differing gas tanks it would allow some real team strategy and add a little randomness to the races. The yellow is pretty easy to figure out for me. Place a Hendrick car in the lucky dog position or about to be lapped and its fairly good bet you'll see one, IMHO.
What do you think?

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