Friday, September 15, 2006

Wha' Happin'?

Last year, at this time, there was much outrage and consternation among NASCAR fans that two of the most popular drivers, Dale Earnhardt, Jr, and Jeff Gordon, did not make it into the Chase for the Championship, and thus made ineligible for last year's Championship. They are in, this year, based on their performance over the season, which is as it should be.
This year, there are no less than seven drivers who were in the Chase last year who did not make it this year. Here is a run down on what happened to them.
The reigning Cup Champion, Tony Stewart could almost always be expected to make the chase. In each season since his rookie year in 1999, Smoke has finished in the top ten. Not so, this year. The #20 team's downs outweighed its ups this year. Some of the problems were the result of Stewart’s own passion and intensity in racing--he got into situations which were his fault, and for which he took the blame. As in the case with almost any NASCAR team, most of the problems were mechanical and strategic, i.e. running out of fuel, engine problems, general set up of shocks and tire combinations, and other setup problems. The wrong things happened at the wrong times, and races in which Stewart should have done well in ended with poor finishes. So close was the points race for the last seven positions in the Chase, that if only one of the mistakes in the regular season had been avoided, Smoke would have had a chance to defend his championship.
Greg Biffle finished the regular season in second place last year. This year, the very talented driver barely got off to a start. Where the #16 team looked good, something almost invariably happened to take Biffle out of competition, something that was usually not of their doing. Bad luck, not lack of talent is the catch phrase this year for the #16 team, mostly a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To avoid this kind of luck, Biffle's team can work on its qualifying program for the rest of the year, to give Biffle a better ability to not get caught up in traffic. They will be back next year.
Rusty Wallace finished the regular season in third place last year. He then retired, so could not really be expected to make the Chase this year.
The competition this year has been extremely tough, as the teams and their drivers have improved their equipment, their strategies, and their talent. Perhaps this is where Kurt Busch failed to make the chase. Not to place the blame on the excellent #2 team, it is just that he had to get used to a different make of car than he was used to. The Dodge Intrepid, in which Busch started the season, was more like the Taurus Busch was used to, in aerodynamics and handling, but the Dodge teams, Penske included, were geared to run the Charger. Thus, familiarity with the equipment never really materialized as an aid to success. Busch had much of the bad luck many of the other teams experienced, but it was mostly parity that did in the Miller Light team. Busch is good, but so are all the other drivers.
Jeremy Mayfield had The Season From Hell, this year. The #19 team just never got it together, while the other two Everham teams of Kasey Kahne and Scott Riggs showed some success. Everham did away with the Crew Chief oriented organization this year, and adapted a system similar to that of the Formula One teams. This was an attempt to even out the parity among the teams under Ray Everham's wings. It just did not work out well for Jeremy, who was dissatisfied with the team, and will be driving for a different team next year.
Carl Edwards could have been better this year. He experienced the frustration of the Sophomore Curse. That is the slump most great drivers experience in their second year. Kasey Kahne experienced it last year, Kevin Harvick had somewhat of a problem with it in 2002, and Jamie McMurray has yet to get over it. In Edward's case, his intensity often got the best of him. His failure to make the chase was not the result of not trying; it was more as if he was trying too hard. Like those of Tony Stewart, many of his mistakes were the results of his actions on the track.
Ryan Newman's failure to make the Chase is the most confusing of all the seven who didn't make it. He was always there, leading laps, and doing what he does best--qualifying up front and driving hard. Again, it was probably parity and luck that did him in, but a team that should have been better, just wasn't.
It is not the end of the world for these seven. They all have plenty of talent, and they are on very talented teams. Their level of competence can only increase, ensuring us that the last ten races of this season, and certainly all of next season, will continue to be some of the most exciting racing we have seen.

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