Three down, seven to go and we’re already starting to see trends in the Chase standings that for some (actually make that many) might just be insurmountable. You only need to listen at the expletive-filled rant from Greg Biffle to know how it feels when you start falling seriously out of championship contention. And speaking of that sort of thing…
*ONE: Talladega Could Be a Game Changer*
Just the name alone is enough to both quicken the blood and stir the senses… and I’m only going to be watching on television. The biggest, baddest track of them all on the Sprint Cup schedule is next up and, as ever has the potential to be a true Chase game changer.
Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski may very well be in the pole positions right now, but a sub-optimal finish on the high banks in Alabama this weekend could more than shake up the standings. Next year, just for the record, Talladega will return to being the sixth Chase race (rather than the fourth) which gives even less margin for error. For now, though, this Sunday could just be the day that we narrow down the Chase pretenders to the bona fide 2012 Chase contenders. Of course, some would argue that’s been done already, but there’s no question a poor finish at ‘Dega could finish off more than a few fleeting hopes for a championship. At the same time, should the likely top three (Keselowski, Johnson and Denny Hamlin) all get caught up in an incident, the 2012 Chase suddenly gets blown wide open all over again.
The one crucial component at Talladega is that your fate is *not,* for the most part, in your own hands. That alone is enough to give drivers kittens, but with a liberal dose of Chase pressure added on top, the burden grows even larger. Don’t expect the nerves to end anytime soon, either. Sunday’s race is scheduled for 188 laps, but based on recent history, expect not much to be decided before we get to that all important final one. It should be fun to watch.
*TWO: That About Sums It Up for Roush Fenway in 2012 (Despite a 700th top-5 Finish)*
As I mentioned above, we’re already seeing plenty of separation in the Chase standings with just three playoff races in the books. The Roush Fenway pair of Matt Kenseth (12th, -72 pts) and Greg Biffle (11th, -51 pts) who paced much of the regular season look done. For the latter in particular, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Kenseth’s “lame duck” status – he’ll drive the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013 – suggested he wouldn’t end up challenging for the Chase. But Biffle is someone who genuinely felt good about his chances to become the first man to win a championship in all three of NASCAR’s top echelons. The one momentary bright spot for RFR Sunday was Concrete Carl’s fifth place finish: the 700th such effort for Roush Fenway. But Edwards isn’t even in the Chase.
Truth is, that doesn’t mean a great deal in the grander scheme of the 2012 season and you would suspect that thoughts in the RFR camp will already be turning to 2013. And with the arrival at the top table of the Michael Waltrip Racing organization, along with the impending partnership of Penske Racing and Ford 2012 has been a year when RFR may have slipped just a little down the pecking order. Sure, there was the morale-boosting Daytona 500 win, but since then only Greg Biffle (Texas and the second race at Michigan) has visited Victory Lane. Simply put, it’s been a disappointing close to 2012, and better things will be expected all round at RFR in 2013.
*THREE: Why the Chase Points System Needs Tweaking*
As I discussed in the previous point, both Biffle and Kenseth are done for the year in terms of their Chase chances. They’re not the only ones: Jeff Gordon (10th, -48 pts), Kevin Harvick (ninth, -46 pts), Martin Truex, Jr. (eighth, -42 pts) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (seventh, -39 pts) are either a full race or just under a full race’s worth of points behind. Kasey Kahne (sixth, -32 pts), Tony Stewart (fifth, -32 pts) and Clint Bowyer (fourth, -25 pts) aren’t in much better shape but are still in the mix. One more bad finish, however, would see them out of contention.
All of which brings me to my point about the Chase system which, in my opinion needs a tweaking. Yes, you are rewarded for winning but you are adversely punished for a poor result. Gordon’s bad opening day has all but finished off his chances before he even got started. I’m not an advocate for throwing out your worst finish, but I would like to see all finishes lower than 25th scored with 25th-place points. At the end of the day, you want the stars competing and to knock people out based on one event (across a 36-race, 10-month season) does seem a little harsh. Them’s the rules, as they say, but this is one that should be adjusted.
*FOUR: Boogity Boogity Back for a While*
“Sports Business Daily is reporting this week”:http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2012/10/01/Media/Fox-NASCAR.aspx that FOX is almost ready to re-up with NASCAR on a new TV contract which would begin for the 2015 season. The current eight-year deal with FOX, TNT and ESPN/ABC runs through the 2014 season and is worth $4.48 billion, easily the biggest cog in what’s been a profitable 21st Century for the sport. The news that FOX is so keen to negotiate early can only be good for NASCAR, alleviating some of the concerns about flagging at-track attendance and flat or lower TV numbers.
Sure, it means we have the bombastic “WE ARE SHOUTY FOX SPORTS” to deal with, but long-term TV deals are the lifeblood of the sport. On the flip side, TNT and ESPN/ABC have still not begun negotiations, choosing to wait until their exclusive negotiating window next summer. But both parties are said to be interested in renewing their contracts, with both also wanting more races if possible. Depending on what happens, we might also see interest from the new NBC Sports Network and even CBS. That sort of competition is nothing but healthy for NASCAR.
All in all, then, it’s a positive piece of good news for the long-term future of the sport and that’s never bad.
*FIVE: What’s Next for Kyle Busch?*
It really hasn’t been much of a year for Kyle Busch. Chastened by events at the end of the 2011 season and not running anything like the schedule he’s been accustomed to in the past across all three series, Busch has been a pale imitation of the irascible, in-your-face driver we have all grown to either love or hate in 2012.
Sunday afternoon was another exercise in frustration for a driver that has had his fair share of just that this year. We heard Busch’s immediate opinion in a post-race, expletive-laden rant but you do have to wonder how he feels when he sees the lack of engine issues from the No. 11 team. In a weird way, like his older brother, Kyle is at something of a crossroads. Tipped as a future champion by just about everyone, the facts are Busch has yet to prove he can put it together when it counts – The Chase – and for the first time in a while rumors started to swirl as to Busch’s longer term future at JGR.
It was a point that Team President J.D.Gibbs addressed at Dover, saying he hopes to get Busch’s contract, which expires after the 2013 season, extended “sooner rather than later.” Gibbs went on to add that they are not in “panic mode” to get it done, but the lack of urgency is in itself interesting. Clearly, Kyle Busch is a rare talent, but you just wonder whether or not it will take a move to another team for him to finally break his Chase and championship hoodoo.
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