And then there were three. That is effectively all there is left in the Chase for the Sprint Cup half way through the playoff. Unless Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick really just drop out over the final three races, that’s all that is left. After Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, I can’t see anyone else even having a chance.
When the field was announced, I really felt like Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, and Kurt Busch would challenge for the championship and that Jimmie Johnson would have some real competition. It was not to be. Gordon’s team has not shown championship form the latter half of the season, and made some uncommon mistakes at Charlotte. Biffle has run well, but a big disappointment at Dover and another at Auto Club Speedway, tracks where his Roush-Fenway Ford have shined ruined his chances. Edwards usually finds himself just outside the top ten and that’s his undoing. Kyle Busch has two 21st place finishes on his resume (Kansas and Fontana) and that was the end for him. Brother Kurt just hasn’t been very competitive. In the meantime, Johnson has finished first, second, or third in four of the first five playoff races, leaving everyone else to struggle to catch him.
That leaves three likely contenders, and even though each of the three are just a bad day away from elimination, it appears that Johnson has the inside track to the championship. This week the boys head to Martinsville, Virginia, the only short track in the Chase (a big mistake in my opinion—there should be at least two), and a place that Johnson and Hamlin have great success. That should separate the field even more, but then Talladega looms the next week where anything can happen. I imagine we’ll either be down to two contenders or the points standings will be a real mess. Regardless, I can’t see anyone out of the three at the top winning the trophy this year. And other than the threat of Hamlin at Martinsville and Harvick at Talladega, the rest of the schedule seems to be smooth sailing for Johnson. He can run conservatively the rest of the season and cruise to his fifth straight championship, as the others cannot afford one mistake the rest of the way.
It was somewhat amazing to see the emptiness of the campgrounds at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend. The attendance at the race was announced at a tick over 100,000 when there used to be a full house for every race. A lot of this stems from the inevitability of a fifth straight Johnson championship. The glee at Johnson’s bad luck in the beginning of the race led to the realization of Johnson just making another step closed to the fifth straight championship in the closing laps of the race. People left early and even a popular win by Jamie McMurray failed to lift the spirits of the fans. No fault of Johnson or his crew, who are fantastic, but fatalism has gripped the fan base. Why come to a race if you see the same old story five years running?
Under the old points system, Harvick would have a 249-point lead with Johnson in second. The purpose of the Chase was to have a close battle for the championship, but it has artificially made the field closer. Somewhat like the “lucky dog” and “wave around,” it makes the finishing position not exactly what it should be. NASCAR wanted a closer finish, and they have it, but at what cost? Lower television ratings and fan attendance? Yes, the economy is bad, but there’s more to it than that.