Waiting until week three to comment on the Chase is probably unorthodox, but, as many readers know, hating the Chase is typical of old-timers like this writer. It’s like a team that was horrible all season and barely got in the playoffs still has a chance to win it all. It’s almost unfair. It’s obvious that the format is popular among those fans who are left (most of those who have followed the sport for more than 20 years are gone), and that is alright. So, we have to listen as television and radio guys want to talk non-stop on who is going to be the champion. Once this week a whole call-in show was dedicated to who the final four would be. What a crapshoot.
As it is in these kinds of formats, designed after stick and ball sports, it matters not how your whole season goes, but who gets hot at the end. Remember the wild card teams in baseball who won about 86 games and eliminated the team that won 100 for the season? That’s where we are in this year’s Chase. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are in trouble. Harvick finished in the Top Five at what seemed like every race and Busch’s season since May has been unbelievable. Yet, here they are in a situation where they almost have to win to move to the next round. Both won’t win. Add Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the list. One cannot imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth if Junior doesn’t make it, but that’s the magic of the Chase, or so they say.
Harvick has had the worst luck. Obviously, his Stewart-Haas team has arguably been the best team all year. He’s only won twice, but he has been a threat in what seems like every race and finished second so many times. Now he faces elimination. A dustup with Jimmie Johnson at Chicago and running out of fuel at New Hampshire and now it’s do or die. Please remember that Dover is not one of Harvick’s best tracks.
Being appalled at television coverage is nothing new. While NBCSN had no trouble documenting the push from Harvick in the motor coach lot last week, they pretty much ignored that Greg Biffle finished fourth and was a threat to win the race. It was a big deal for Roush Fenway Racing, but Biffle is not in the Chase, so all the attention was elsewhere, which is my main criticism of the Chase format. While media concentrates on who’s in and who’s out, who’s in trouble or who’s not, we miss milestones that used to be a big deal. It’s not anymore. It’s all about the championship. I can remember a time when Pearson, Yarborough, and Petty won championships and the races still meant something. Those days are gone. Sadly.
This week, we also saw that a second driver decided to retire at a young age. First it was Jeff Gordon who announced late last year, and now Tony Stewart. Both are in their early 40’s, and it just doesn’t seem right. I first met Stewart at Rockingham in (I think) 1996 when Stewart and Matt Kenseth were racing for the win. Kenseth won the race but used the chrome horn to get by him. Tony was like one of my heroes, A.J. Foyt. He wasn’t a happy camper. He was gracious. I didn’t have any contact after that until the Sprint Media Tour in 2014 when I noticed the difficulty Stewart was having walking. I had broken my ankle at Bristol and in recovery myself. I had the opportunity to exchange notes with Smoke on broken bones. He was funny, sarcastic and just Tony. I will miss him.
Many have talked about the void that may have caused NASCAR to lose fans starting with the death of Dale Earnhardt. I’ve witnessed that over the last few years. Fans still come in the campgrounds (the most loyal fans) with their big black and white No. 3 flags but many more have 24 and 14 flags. This is another stumbling point for the sanctioning body. As many more icons leave the sport, what will be the effect? Earnhardt was bigger than life, but Gordon and Stewart were the younger generation’s big heroes. That generation has grown up, but many former Earnhardt fans moved to Stewart, Gordon, and Dale Junior. It’s another crisis that NASCAR has to deal with now. The sport is strong, but will the Chase, which probably will eliminate two strong contenders in the first round, and the retirements, have the effect that that horrible day at Daytona caused. We will see.