Race Weekend Central

Down the Rabbit Hole

“Curiouser and curiouser!” exclaimed the title character in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 literary classic Alice in Wonderland.

Alice must be following this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship….

Just when the bizarre events of Martinsville settled down to a dull roar, along came the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Never have more unusual situations affected more teams in such a short period of time.

Ten laps in, Joey Logano blew a left rear tire and set the tone for Sunday’s race. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. blew a right front forty laps later. Ryan Newman lost a left rear on lap 145, and both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson suffered tire failures on two different occasions. Kyle Busch also had tire woes in the Lone Star State, but could hit the pits quickly and hold his ground.

Adding to last Sunday’s fun, Denny Hamlin lost a fuel pump early, Martin Truex, Jr. lost power steering late, and there were four separate cautions solely for debris. Oh, and non-Chaser Jimmie Johnson passed Brad “The Dominator” Keselowski with three laps to go to take the win.

Just another day in NASCAR Nation as the 2015 Sprint Cup season winds down…..

Not that many other Cup races this year have ended so competitively. Complaints about “dirty” air, the benefit of running upfront, and challenges posed by the dreaded aero push have reduced much of this year’s action to elaborate exercises in “follow the leader”. Even though it looked like Keselowski was headed to Homestead by way of Victory Lane at Texas, the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team proved otherwise.

The collective efforts of Penske Racing for 2015 have led to two glaring conclusions: Keselowski should win, and Logano must win, at Phoenix this week if either hopes to make the “Final Four” and have a shot at running for the title. After decent seasons, it all comes down to this….

Remember what Alice said.

The constructed tension of the Chase format is a harsh reality of NASCAR racing. It seems as if the cars themselves are succumbing to the strain of going fast or going home. Along with tires and fuel pumps, we’ve seen rear axle seals, roof hatches, gear shift levers, and exhaust pipes make problems for drivers and their crews – problems that have directly affected the composition of the title contenders.

Then there have been the tracks themselves. With each race in the Chase we seem to be prematurely linking drivers to their best chances for success. Racing at Talladega? Give the win to Junior. Off to Martinsville? Hats off to Jeff Gordon. Going to Texas? Hitch your wagon to Jimmie Johnson.

And next weekend? We’d have to be the Mad Hatter to not consider Kevin Harvick the favorite. We may as well hand him the trophy now and give everyone a much-deserved break before heading to South Florida….

But how dare we think of time off at such a chaotic point in the season? Just like there’s a fine line between competition and contact, or racing and retribution, there’s an equally fine line between 2015 and 2016. As soon as the checkered flag flies over Homestead on November 22nd, Sprint Cup teams will devote their energies full-time to Speedweeks 2016. The new low-downforce package, and changes to restrictor plate engine configuration, will wait for no one.

That’s why the Chase, as it approaches its final two races, elimination of half the title contenders, and the eventual crowning of the 2015 Cup champion, reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s famous story. As the Queen-of-Hearts said to Alice: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere, you must run twice as fast as that.”

This season feels like we’ve been running awfully fast for an awfully long time. With only one driver locked into the final at Homestead, and seven needing wins and/or top-five finishes to make the cut, I’m guessing Chase teams are feeling the same way.

I offer just three simple words of advice, courtesy of the Caterpillar, as we approach this weekend’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix: “Keep your temper”.

That said…. Drivers, have at it!

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