Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sprint Cup 2009, race 34: End Result: The Chase is Back On!!!

In our preview of race #34 at Texas, we commented on the points race quoting Yogi Berra, “It’s not over ‘til it’s over.” but if you stick a fork in it, the roast is juicy rare. As it turns out it was Jimmie Johnson whose goose was cooked in cattle country victim of a third lap mishap which put him behind the wall losing 129 laps while Chad Knaus and crew rebuilt his car. This was exactly what had to happen to open The Chase up to once again be competitive, but make no mistake about it, Jimmie Johnson still has a very favorable lead, but it’s one that can be destroyed. There will be a legitimate chase going into Phoenix. Mark Martin maximized his chances finishing in 4th clearly not having a winning car today.

Fuel mileage was a main factor in the race as is often the case at Texas. It was the battle of the Busch brothers, but Kyle ran out of gas while Kurt, having pitted two laps later, went on to win.

As bad as this afternoon was for the #48 team, give Chad Knaus credit. The day would have been over for most teams who would have pulled together the wreckage, hopped on the truck, and gone home. Instead, the crew sprung into action replacing everything NASCAR rules allowed them to replace including all new front sheet metal allowing them to pick up five positions ahead of Carl Edwards and Sam Hornish involved in race ending crashes, but also ahead of Michael McDonald, Joe Nemechek, and Mike Skinner, all three of whom are start and park drivers.

We’ve been suspicious for a long time that something wasn’t right about the “start and park” teams. Today, we’ve finally seen the consequences, by getting back in the race and adding just a handful of laps to his total, Johnson gained three positions because three teams just showed up with no intention of competing. Hornish and Edwards finished beneath him because of what happened in competition, but to hand drivers’ points and positions because some teams basically just show up and start their engines taints the integrity of the final finish. Suppose when the season’s over, the margin of the championship is determined by the three positions forfeited in today’s race. Perhaps NASCAR should mandate that cars who bow out after a short period with no obvious problem on the track not involved in wrecks should have their cars torn apart by the inspection process so it would put a significant cost disadvantage and likewise require much labor for teams shorthanded to begin with on teams who are not competing. Of course then what can MLB do about the Pittsburgh Pirates?

For those who think we’re nitpicking, if the season comes down to nine points, here’s one of the first places to look.

Certainly, the Sprint Cup field does now have a real “Chase” in play. Mark Martin gained 61 points with a 73 point deficit with two races remaining. Where going into today’s race only Mark Martin was within a race’s worth of points behind Johnson, now four drivers could be instantly energized if Johnson finishes in dead last! (And the likelihood of that happening is….????) Here’s what competition remains: Jeff Gordon (-112), Kurt Busch (-178), and Tony Stewart (-178). This probably means a real hot battle for third place more than three teams really looking to win the championship, but it’s a much more competitive picture than what the field faced at the start of business today.

So what does Mark Martin have to do to win the championship? If he won and Johnson finished in 11th next week, he’d take the lead (assuming most laps led). If Martin finished in 5th and Johnson finished in 26th, Martin would take the lead. For Jeff Gordon, a win coupled with a Johnson finish around 28th would put him in the driver’s seat. Another way to look at this, if Martin won and lead the most laps, Johnson would need to maintain top five finishes in the last two races to win. Turn the math geeks loose on all the other possibilities. It still looks very good for Johnson, but at least now he’s just one calamity from losing the cup.

In other action, Dale Earnhardt was doing well staying around the top five all afternoon before a late pit stop for fuel and having difficulty restarting his engine that dropped him back to 25th. The fellow just can’t buy a break in 2009. A.J. Allmendinger, running a Ford in anticipation of the switch to Ford with the pending merger of Richard Petty Racing with Yates, drove a Ford to 10th place.

Kyle Busch running out of gas late in the race kept him from an elusive goal he and few drivers have pursued, winning a weekend’s Triple Crown, Trucks, Nationwide, and Sprint Cup in one weekend. After winning the truck race and Nationwide race, things were looking good for the triple battling his brother for the win, but as was a thinly kept secret, he was a couple laps short.

Perhaps the biggest story of the week did not involve the Chase or Sprint Cup drivers at all, but perhaps a glimpse at the future. All indications are that Danica Patrick is in negotiations with J.R. Motorsports to run a part time schedule that does not conflict with her Indy Car obligations in 2009 in a move that looks like Tony Stewart’s approach to the sport when he did the same in 1998. Both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Patrick share Go Daddy sponsorship, who will be Mark Martin’s primary sponsor on the Cup level. With Brad Keselowski moving on to a full-time cup ride for Penske, Earnhardt needs a new driver for the #88 car while #5 has been a part time ride often used for Junior’s Nationwide engagements.

The Sprint Cup teams move further west to compete in the “Valley of the Sun” outside Phoenix, Arizona next weekend. Phoenix is an atypical flat one mile track a real challenge for crews finding the right setup. The track features close, fender banging action that if getting a little out of hand can find cars out of the race quickly.

In an area known for its high temperatures, the heat is up as Mark Martin will attempt to give his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, all he can handle in pursuit of the 2009 trophy. If Martin fails to narrow the points gap, all talk will be about a Johnson coronation for a historic 4th consecutive title the following week at Homestead. At least today’s action in Texas has restored the possibility the last two races will have real consequences.

Yes, Yogi, it really isn’t over until it’s over and we’ll be more excited watching next week’s race as a result.

No comments: