Saturday, November 20, 2010

It Took Seven Years, But 2010 Chase Turned Out Just As NASCAR Intended

By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

When NASCAR implemented the Chase for the Championship format before the 2004 season, the organization's vision was to somehow spruce up the final races to be meaningful because it had been since 1992 that the final race had meant much in regard to crowning the champion. Between the competing football seasons and waning fan interest in the fall months, it was believed that by creating a postseason format like the other sports have it would better captivate the sports-viewing audience.

The move didn’t work as expected. There was a revised standings chart for all to follow, but other than the initial year when Kurt Busch won, the final races were almost as meaningless as the old system because the points leader still didn’t have any pressure in the last race. NASCAR envisioned a media frenzy publicizing their sport like others for their championship games, but no one gets excited for an event when the finale features a 60-point-or-higher favorite who doesn’t have to compete hard to get the crown.

After six seasons of waiting for drama to unfold that never did, the 2010 NASCAR Chase for the Championship has paid back those lost years with enough drama that's sure to satisfy all NASCAR fans and, quite possibly, capture a new audience. There is one race, winner take all. A bonus of not just having two competitors, but three, battling it out, all within 46 points of each other. None of the competitors can coast around Miami-Homestead Speedway like past champions have; they have to go all out and race like … well, race like this is for the championship, something rarely seen in NASCAR.

Sunday’s Ford 400 finally gives the fans something to be excited about for the season finale. Not since 1992 have we seen such a close battle for the final race and most of today’s fans never gave NASCAR a second thought back then. What we're all about to witness Sunday is a drama-filled event with several gripping storylines that most have never seen before involving NASCAR on television.

Now we can finally equate the drama from other sports’ playoffs to NASCAR. Who wouldn’t want to see a defending four-time champion make a run when they’re now the underdog going for their fifth straight title in a one-game format. In the process, we also have a new-generation young gun as the favorite and a long shot who has a small chance at beating both of them.

Jimmie Johnson has become that figure that many fans like to root against just because he wins so much, much like the franchises of the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys or the basketball program of Duke. He doesn’t do much to irritate folks other than win. He's not brash, arrogant or cocky and rarely says a bad thing about anyone. He’s a family man who keeps to himself and goes about his business like a corporate CEO. He comes into this race as an 8-to-5 underdog at the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book to win the championship.

Johnson will be using his third-place car from Fontana, a car that also won at Las Vegas and was runner-up to Denny Hamlin at Texas in April. This will be the first time in five seasons that he will be racing hard for the win at Homestead. He has a good average finish of 12.7 in his nine starts at Homestead, with three top-five finishes and has been the best in NASCAR the last six seasons on 1.5-mile tracks.

The favorite to win the title is Hamlin at minus-230, which is equivalent to being a five-point favorite in pro football. Hamlin holds a slim 15-point lead over Johnson and can clinch the title by winning, or finishing second while leading the most laps regardless of what Johnson does. It would certainly seem possible for Hamlin considering he won this race last year and is using the same car that won at Texas two weeks ago, but the deciding factor may be the pressure of the moment.

Yes, Hamlin won this race last year, but Hamlin wasn’t trying to win a series title against an iconic figure. He also has the baggage of trying to live up to his crew chief's comments following the Texas win that could be classified as trash-talking. It wasn’t exactly Floyd Mayweather Jr.-type of trash-talking before a fight, but it was quite unusual for NASCAR making it stand out more. Hamlin's news conferences and body language the last two weeks suggest that he may be feeling the pressure already.

Then we have the lovable long shot that everyone likes to root for in sports with Kevin Harvick at 15-to-1. Harvick led in points most of the season before the Chase started and is now 46 points behind Hamlin. It's a long shot for him to win, but still very possible. Should Harvick win and lead the most laps, Hamlin would have to finish fourth or worse while Johnson finished seventh or worse in order for the long shot to cash in.

Following Saturday’s practice, Hamlin would appear to have the edge on paper. Johnson seemed to regress in each session while Hamlin got better, finishing with the fourth-fastest lap in happy hour. Johnson was only able to manage the 22nd-fastest single lap and wasn’t any better in average speeds.

The driver who looked the worst on the stat sheet was Harvick, but following Saturday's practices he had the look of someone who was very confident. He brought a new car this week, looking to get an edge over anything they have used this season, and it looked like the move would backfire following Friday’s practice and qualifying where he finished 31st and 28th, respectively.

During Saturday’s practice things got a little better, especially during the final half of happy hour. Harvick was so confident with his car on the longer runs — where he didn’t lose any speed lap to lap — that he parked his car with about six minutes remaining, as if to say, “We’re all good!”

The best single-lap time Harvick could get in happy hour was 29th amongst the 43 drivers, but based on the way he’s run at Homestead over his career he should be in good shape. Harvick has an average finish of 2.5 in the two Car of Tomorrow races run at Homestead and is second overall in track history with an 8.4 average finish in nine starts.

Even though the practice times don’t suggest that he looks like a top candidate this week, his sneaky smile getting out of his car before happy hour ended suggests he has something good. Harvick always wear his emotions on his sleeves and is loud on the radio to his crew when things aren’t going well. In this situation, with the season on the line, if the 29th-fastest lap has him happy then we should expect a great finish on Sunday.

Team racing may come into play like seldom seen before in NASCAR. It won’t be as blatant as Formula One racing, but there are seven other drivers involved that have a direct link as teammates to the three Chase drivers. For the Hendrick team, which surprisingly has never won at Homestead, they also get the benefit of fellow Chevy drivers Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, whom Hendrick has helped immensely the last two seasons. Team Toyota and Hamlin will get help from Michael Waltrip Racing drivers David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr., who owe their team's success and rise in NASCAR to Joe Gibbs.

No one is going to allow anyone else to win the race, but there will be harder racing going on for position, making the Chase drivers work harder to make passes should they come close to their opponents' teammates. Late in the race, it could get real dicey when the precious positions mean everything to decide the eventual champion. What would normally be a relatively unimportant battle for 11th position, could be the most important one on the track late in the race and it‘s not going to come free unless it‘s one of the Chaser's teammates.

The top-rated driver to win this week comes from Roush-Fenway driver Carl Edwards, the 2008 Homestead winner. A Roush driver has won six of the 11 Homestead races and at one point had won five straight. Edwards was the most impressive in final practices with average speeds and single lap times. He also has a greater thirst for winning after taking Phoenix last week, ending his winless streak that extended all the way back to this race in 2008.

Greg Biffle won three races in a row from 2004-06 and was considered a pre-race favorite because he was bringing his favorite car that won at Pocono and led the most laps at Texas two weeks ago. However, during Friday’s practice, Biffle slapped the wall damaging his car to the point of it being irreparable and forcing the team to go with a backup car. Biffle still maintained good speeds in Saturday’s practice, but not like he would have with the other car.

Two candidates have legitimate shots at ending winless streaks like Edwards did last week. Jeff Gordon hasn’t won since the Texas spring race in 2009 while Jeff Burton last won at Charlotte in the fall of 2008. Each had terrific practices on Saturday in both single-lap times and average speeds. For Gordon, if he were to end his slump this week, he would also end a career slump at Homestead — the only track he has yet to win at on the tour. Incidentally, when Gordon won at Texas, it was his first win on that track after 16 attempts at it.

This will be Burton and Gordon’s 12th Homestead start, making them two of only five drivers to have started every race in track history. Of the five, only Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte can claim a victory.

Read More Here For Top 10 Driver Ratings Following all Practices, Vegas Odds, Stats and More....

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