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The Chase should have a road-course race

12 August 2009

Why isn't there a road-course race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup?

Some variation of that question pops up every year, with impeccable timing — as NASCAR's regular season is winding down, and as the Cup series visits (you guessed it) the road course at Watkins Glen International.

It's a fair question. The idea of putting a road course in the Chase is to test every aspect of a Cup driver's skill set.

Some of the old arguments against road racing in the Chase no longer apply. Where road courses used to favour a handful of Cup regulars, along with a sprinkling of specialists, NASCAR's new car, along with almost universal testing at road courses such as Road Atlanta and Virginia International Raceway, has negated much of the advantage.

As a result, moving a road course into the Chase wouldn't constitute rank favouritism, as it would have a few years ago.

A road course in the Chase, of course, would mean that a race already in the Chase would have to go, and that, says NASCAR president Mike Helton, isn't likely to happen.

“The Chase wasn't about changing the schedule,” Helton said Friday at the Glen. “It still is not, because that gets really complicated moving types of tracks around in the closing of the season. It kind of is what it is.

“We're still in the mindset not to adjust the schedule to accommodate the Chase. The Chase accommodates the schedule.”

Of course, that doesn't mean movement within the final ten races is impossible. The Chase schedule changed this year, in fact. Atlanta is out, for the first time since the Chase was introduced in 2004, and Auto Club Speedway in California is in.

Even that move is not without its backers and detractors. Jimmie Johnson thinks the change favours his #48 team because of its strength at two-mile California — as if the three-time defending champion needed another slight edge.

Johnson team-mate Jeff Gordon rues the loss of Atlanta from the Chase, because of the #24 team's prowess at 1.5-mile intermediate speedways.

The bottom line is that scheduling should not be a deal breaker if there is a real desire to put a road-course race in the Chase. Sonoma in September, when the grapes are ripening on the vines, sounds like a wonderful idea.

If adding a road-course race to the Chase means adding a third road-course race to the schedule — in addition to Sonoma and Watkins Glen — Mark Martin is against it.

“I just think then you would add even more extensive expenses to the race teams, because then they would add expenditures to make sure they were even better at road racing,” Martin said. “I really feel like the oval track racing is our forte, and I have always been a supporter of having road course-racing on the schedule but I would not necessarily be a supporter of the expansion of that.”

There's no denying that oval track racing is the essence of NASCAR competition, but even that has changed in recent years with the proliferation of intermediate speedways and the disappearance from the schedule of shorter tracks. Thirty years ago, part of the allure of Charlotte and Atlanta was that those tracks were different — as were Daytona and Talladega.

Even with the subtraction of Atlanta from the Chase schedule, there are four 1.5-mile speedways in the final ten races. You could make the argument that recent events at road courses have produced more dramatic racing than the intermediate speedways have.

Gordon would prefer not to have a road course in the Chase, presumably because of the wear and tear road racing could exact on his body, and specifically, his back. Gordon took a vicious hit Monday when Sam Hornish Jr.'s Dodge caromed off the tyre barrier out of turn nin and spun back into Gordon's path.

“The only saving grace is that there are no road courses in the Chase,” Gordon said after visiting the infield care centre.

From the standpoint of his physical well-being, perhaps that's so.

The Chase, however, wouldn't suffer from more variety, and it's hard to argue against the notion that a complete examination of a driver's and team's skills is the fairest examination possible.

September in Sonoma — that has such a nice ring to it.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News


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