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Is the Chase its own worst enemy?

28 October 2009


Don't blame Denny Hamlin for feeling cheated by the mathematics of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

There's nothing inherently wrong with NASCAR's ten-race playoff system. There is something wrong when an obsession with the standings blinds you to the action in front of you on the racetrack.

Just ask Hamlin, who won Sunday's Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville. During what should have been the afterglow of a hard-fought victory came the acknowledgement - because Hamlin, realistically, is no longer a factor in the Chase - that what he accomplished at Martinsville will become more of a sidebar than front-page news.

“I'm sure on the websites tomorrow there will be 20 stories and they'll all talk - I take that back.... there will be twelve stories - and there will be one about how much this guy lost to Jimmie [Johnson], how much that guy lost to Jimmie,” Hamlin said after the race, “How much Jimmie gained, or stretched his points lead, will be about three or four stories, and then mine will be in that little column, Denny Hamlin wins at Martinsville for the second time. Y'all do it, you know - write something different.”

From the media standpoint: Guilty as charged. Guilty, too, are the marketing machines at NASCAR and the networks, which tend to hype the Chase to the exclusion of all else. Most of the discussion about next Sunday's race at Talladega, for instance, pertains to the possibility of NASCAR's most unpredictable racetrack scrambling the championship standings.

The fans who buy tickets to the races, however, aren't sitting in the grandstands with calculators, computing the Chase standings with each pass for position. They are sitting there with scanners, listening to exchanges between a favourite driver and his crew chief or flipping channels to catch reaction to battles on the racetrack.

On the frequencies of Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya, they got an earful Sunday, after hard racing between the two left a pair of black 'doughnuts' on the side of Montoya's Chevrolet. The invective the two drivers heaped on each other after battling at close quarters is emblematic of a burgeoning rivalry between two world-class drivers. If no-one else was paying attention, fans in the grandstands certainly were.

“I never really had a big problem with him, but he's always so hard to race against,” Montoya, Sunday's third-place finisher, said later, “But he probably says the same thing against me. Because he never gave me any room, why am I going to give him any? It's a vicious circle.”

And it's a story worth following.

To supporters of Dale Earnhardt Jr, who did not qualify for the Chase, it matters little whether Johnson leads second-place Mark Martin by 18 or 118 points heading to Talladega. Roughly 20 per cent of the crowd at Martinsville headed for the exits after Earnhardt blew a tyre and hit the wall for the second time 359 laps into the 500-lap event.

If that's not a wakeup call to the Chase-obsessed, nothing is.

Johnson's bid for a record fourth straight Sprint Cup title is a huge story, but it shouldn't overwhelm everything else that happens in the sport. Even Johnson is sick of the constant speculation about his points lead.

“I'm so tired of answering this question,” he said, when asked whether he felt comfortable with his advantage entering Talladega, “I think you guys can all figure it out.”

Fans who invest their money in race tickets care most about what happens that day in that race at that racetrack. They function in the present tense. It would benefit those who administer, broadcast and write about the sport to remember that perspective.

by Reid Spencer / Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service


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