Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Life Beyond the Chase – Putting Things in Perspective for NASCAR’s Other 31 Drivers

Now that the 2009 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup is upon us, the usual band of detractors have come out of the woodwork, citing a few familiar reasons why they don’t like the Chase format.

I will be the first to admit, I think the format for determining the Sprint Cup champion is convoluted at best. Our own Kurt Smith wrote masterfully and in detail of his disdain for the Chase in his Tuesday Happy Hour column. While I have long been a proponent of a Formula 1-type points system – if anything other than the traditional points system that seemed to work pretty well for nearly 30 years be used – for the final 10 races to determine the champion, that probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The current format is the one we have to work with, and the one that will be around for the foreseeable future.

And by foreseeable future, I mean through 2009.

One argument that comes up repeatedly that has always irked me is, that if you don’t make the Chase, your season is shot. To quote Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket, “Bull—-, sound off like you got a pair!”

Come now; is it really that bad? Give me a break. Here’s a novel way to get noticed during the final 10 races: win a race… or, at the very least, score a few top-five finishes.

If you’re up front, you’re going to garner some attention. If you’re slow and run poorly on a consistent basis, that is why you failed to make the Chase in the first place, and why you probably garnered as much television time as a start-and-park car during the first 26 races. Anybody remember Tony Stewart in 2006? He missed the Chase much to the surprise of virtually everyone as the defending champion, yet still went out and finished strong, winning three races in the process. Under the traditional points system, he would have finished fourth overall.

Remember Joe Nemechek and Ricky Rudd battling down to the wire at Kansas in 2004? Neither one of those two drivers where even close to being in the top 20 in points at the time, yet went out and staged one of the most memorable finishes of that season or the Chase itself.

Smooth and steady wins the race, but slow and sloppy you miss the Chase.

Those who are less than enthusiastic of the Chase often cite the classic battles of the late 1980s through the 1990s, and even as late as 2002, with the Sprint (i.e., Winston) Cup going down to the wire between a pair of drivers. Heck, in 1992 there were six drivers entering the final event in Atlanta that weekend who had a shot at winning the championship. Looking back at that period which many consider the golden age of modern-era competition in NASCAR, rarely were there more than three drivers who were competing for the title during the last 10 races.

Does that mean that coverage was omitted of the other 41 drivers in field? Hardly. Sure the lion’s share of the attention during the race was centered around those contesting the title as it should have been – however that doesn’t mean that nobody else got to play. If anything, there are drivers who have qualified for the Chase that probably are getting more coverage than they ought to, just as there are some who are outside of that top 12 who deserve some recognition but are largely ignore.

Three prime examples of that for 2009: Kyle Busch, David Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose.

For the last two months, all we have heard is how uninspired and BORING the Chase will be should Kyle Busch not qualify for it. Right – because he was such a compelling story in 2006 and last season.

In both of those instances, his title hopes were dashed before the racing really even got underway. That is not to kick a man when he’s down. After all, from the looks of things over the last six months, Busch has behaved as if he was running as well in Cup as he had been in the Nationwide Series. Either someone told him he had an image issue that needed desperate attention, or that being one bad race away from 16th in points is not a cause for cockiness.

Now here we are, just four days away from round one of the Sprint Cup title fight sans Kyle Busch, and wouldn’t you know it – they’re going to race anyway. Besides, if he isn’t going to spout off and flip guys’ helmet visors, what’s with the sackcloth and ashes mentality of one driver not making the field?

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Kyle Busch's Chase Crumbles Around "Points Racing"... Will He Be Next?

Some think it is illegitimate that he is not included in the Chase because he is currently tied for the most wins at four, while there are four drivers in the Chase with zero wins this season. That then becomes a circular argument, because if you agree with that, then you have bought into the slippery slope that is The Chase, and are looking for a reason to include even more drivers to the already overcrowded field.

As Dane Cook would say, you’ve just been brain ninjaed.

Reutimann on the other hand, is 14th in points, while having a breakout season, having just missed qualifying for the Chase by 155 points. Reutimann so far this year has five top fives, eight top 10s, a pair of poles and even managed to score his first win at the 24 Hours of Charlotte in May at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, courtesy of some smart pit strategy and an Old Testament-like rain storm. Not bad for an organization that just a year and a half ago was the laughingstock of NASCAR, missing half of the races it showed up to.

Unfortunately, the most airtime the No. 00 team has received this year, even pre-Chase has been either because of the now infamous Billy Bad Butt incident with Stewart during the rain delay at Lowes Motor Speedway, or the reply of the Michael McDowell wreck at Texas in 2008, that runs in a constant loop almost as often as TNT runs ads for The Closer or Rescue Me. Will Reutimann receive any less coverage now that the Chase is under way? Unlikely, as half of nothing is still nothing.

Ambrose is another example of a driver who could easily transcend Chase banishment to the Land of Nod, with simply a good run or two by way of his personality. No need for a PR charm school offensive with the Tasmanian Devil, the next big star in NASCAR has been well received by fans by being humble, gracious, and a great interview as well. He has posted a number of consistent runs this season, so far scoring four top fives and seven top 10s, which have his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Camry sitting 17th in points.

While he was never really a threat to make the top 12, he still could possibly snatch a Chase win over the next few months, and I hardly think it would be passed over – even if it is weather related – as have been those of Reutimann and Joey Logano’s first wins were in 2009, simply because of who won it.

Is it worth noting that all of these drivers pilot Toyotas? Probably not, but some purists might find some sort of connection here that would be lost on even Oliver Stone. My God – can you imagine what would happen if Dale Earnhardt Jr. should win a race during the next 10 weeks?

In short, there are still 10 races left in the 2009 season, and each one has the atmosphere and importance of a Super Bowl or Final Four game, to draw a stick-and-ball-sports parallel that many insist on repeating hypnotically to fans that after five years, already get it and would be tuned in regardless. Just as points leader Mark Martin said after his win at Michigan in June, people forget that each Sunday is still about the race, and that is what each week should be dedicated to: that particular event. You can’t see the forest for the trees if you are constantly obsessed with how the Chase will turn out.

Just because you didn’t make the top 12, doesn’t mean your season is over. If anything, it has just begun anew, as the ultimate toilet bowl prize of Lucky 13th awaits! Race hard, drive clean, try some freaky stuff for next year, or take some chances and go for a win.

After all, if you aren’t in the top 12 in the Chase, you really do have nothing left to lose.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via