Monday, September 18, 2006

The Chase Race 1 Review

Once again, I was wrong. Common sense had told me that caution and circumspection would determine how the race at Loudon would materialize. But these guys don't listen to me. As we ought to know by now, common sense isn't the best way of predicting the race. From the very start, the Chase drivers put on a show along with the best of the rest..
On lap 20, Kevin Harvick threaded the needle between teammate Jeff Burton and fellow chaser Denny Hamlin to take the lead. Going three wide like that at Loudon means something has to give, and Hamlin's #11 car was the one that gave. Hamlin's excellent car handling ability kept that car out of the wall and the young star stayed in the race to finish fourth. But we're talking about the beginning of the race here, and these guys were racing as if it was lap 290 out of 300.
We didn't think that Gordon would make a strong move early in the race, but the man is a racer, and undoubtably a good one, and on lap 39 he was mixing it up in a five-way fight for the lead. Harvick, Burton, Hamlin, Martin and Gordon were all racing hard to get the lead, and they were racing as if everything depended on it. It was true joy for the race fan, seeing all those guys up front and racing like that.
Unfortunately, television technicians and producers don't see the beauty of a good race as the fans do. We missed, perhaps during a commercial, or while we were watching someone else, some truely classic racing between the two best drivers in the sport. We know they were racing and rubbing wheel-to-wheel, and we know that they enjoyed it, but we didn't get to see it. It sounded great on the radio, however.
Jimmie Johnson had problems with his engine, losing a cylinder, and then found himself where he didn't want to be--in traffic. He was forced into the wall, causing extensive damage to his car, and this is something no one wants to happen in the final ten races. His car was repaired, but he finished in 40th place, the last position of the chasers. In order to have a chance to win the championship, he has to have a lot of good luck over the next nine races, and hope that nothing else goes wrong.
Kyle Busch also had problems, and may also be out of range of first place. It is not inconceivable that he could finish the rest of the nine races in the top three, and still win the championship, but, again, that depends on a lot of luck.
Johnson's and Busch's troubles hearken to the first Chase for the Championship in 2004, when Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield were wrecked through somebody else's actions (cough*Robby Gordon*) at Loudon and never recovered over the last nine races.
It is the actions of others that most concerned Tony Stewart. We could see, through most of the race, that even as he was moving up through the field from his 31st place starting position he was reluctant to make a move when he came upon any of the ten chasers. Rather than risk being the reason for anyone to be knocked out of the running for the championship, he took care to not put them in a situation where they could wreck. His wheel to wheel racing with Jeff Gordon may seem like a departure from that attitude, but it appears both drivers were racing the way they like to race, and they congratulated each other on a good race afterwards.
Kasey Kahne had a car that just wouldn't work for him. He started in 32nd place, and had mentioned a plan to follow Stewart to the front. That plan never materialized, however, because his team could never find the trick to the tricky New Hampshire International Speedway. Credit should be given to Kahne for his ability to take a 30th place car to a top twenty finish.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr expressed postrace misgivings about the ability of his team to get the championship. He had a good finish in the top ten, but he did not feel that his car was all that it could be. Perhaps his comments were motivating to himself and his team, and they will work harder to give Jr. a better car, or, perhaps Driver #8 has already thrown in the towel on his Chase for the Championship this year.
Notable finishes for the non-chasers included Tony Stewart in 2nd. He passed Jeff Gordon cleanly, to take the 2nd position, in the last three laps of the race, but didn't quite have what it would take to beat Kevin Harvick in that short of a time. Elliott Sadler brought the Everham #19 Dodge Charger to its highest finish this year, in 6th, proving his value to that team after a mostly dismal season in the #38 Robert Yates Ford Focus. And Dave Blaney showed us that his run of success is no fluke by finishing in 9th.
There was some controversy after the race. There is a gray area in the NASCAR rules that allows the teams to try different ways of tweaking the car to gain advantage over the others. Most of the time, if NASCAR finds that such tweaking results in an unfair advantage over the others, it will confiscate the equipment with a stern warning not to do it again. There would be no fine or penalty given in these types of "infractions", because no rules were broken. The gray area has been around racing rules since the invention of the wheel, and this is the area from which innovation comes. Most notable of this type of activity is the flying wing of the Dodge and Plymouth cars in the late sixties and early seventies. In 1995 there was the famous "T-Rex" car of Jeff Gordon, and most recently the magic shocks used by Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson's #48 team last year. Now, in the post race inspection after the race at Loudon, such gray area tweaking was found in the cars of race winner Kevin Harvick, and team mate and chaser Jeff Burton. The Childress teams had been using wheel rims which had a miniscule laser cut to bleed excess tire pressure caused by warming. It wasn't cheating, because it wasn't against the rules, and NASCAR said "Cool, but now that we found it you can't use it."
Ah, well, (sigh) it looks like we're going to be stuck with "parity" for the rest of the Chase.

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