Friday, July 23, 2010

Midseason motorsports update: NASCAR

By Rick Morris

The biggest story of the year in NASCAR concerns the man at the top of the season’s leaderboard – a Chase qualifier from 2006 to 2008 who tumbled to 19th last year.

Kevin Harvick has rebounded in stunning fashion and has rounded out his game to levels unforeseen by just about anyone. For example, he did not average a Top-20 finish on restrictor plate tracks in ’09, but won the Bud Shootout and also the July Daytona race this year. His name was not among those widely speculated as those having a decent chance to dethrone four-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson, but he has established himself on that short list with a fury as the top driver at present.

Elsewhere on the landscape …

^ Jeff Gordon (second at present), Jimmie Johnson (third), Denny Hamlin (fourth), Kurt Busch (fifth), Kyle Busch (sixth), Matt Kenseth (eighth), Tony Stewart (ninth), Carl Edwards (tenth), Greg Biffle (eleventh) and Clint Bowyer (twelfth) are all in position to qualify for the Chase as was expected by most observers. Kyle in particular is putting the fluky 13th-place finish of 2009 behind him strongly. Jeff Burton (seventh after a 17th place finish in ’09) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (13th after a 25th place finish in ’09) are also sitting in Chase contention at present with decent comeback campaigns. Lil’ E still has a current winless streak of more than two years; however, his recent Nationwide series win at Daytona is expected to deliver momentum to he and his team. We shall see.

^ Of the other drivers widely expected to be in contention for the Chase, Mark Martin is in 14th place and won’t need to run too much better than he has thus far to edge into the qualifying. Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne are positioned not far behind him. Brian Vickers’ blood clots sadly cut short his campaign and took him out of contention altogether. Juan Pablo Montoya has been a huge disappointment, following his breakthrough finish of eighth in 2009 with a plunge back to 21st at present.

^ As expected, David Reutimann, phenom Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. are on the absolute periphery of Chase contention at the moment. They are joined at that level by surprise Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, who predictably was not able to sustain that early level of success.

^ AJ Allmendinger and Sam Hornish, Jr. continue their fitful transitions from open-wheel racing and each has to be eyeballing what would be significantly greener pastures back in IndyCar right about now.

NASCAR chairman Brian France has indicated that the series is considering tweaking the Chase rules for 2011 to try to ensure that more drivers are in strong contention leading up to the final races. This would of course dilute the effect of strong racing all throughout the Chase, which is the exact element that has allowed Johnson to more or less coast to the title at the very end frequently through the course of his four consecutive victories. Such a modification would be reminiscent of the creation of the Chase in the first place, when Matt Kenseth floated through the 2003 season with only one win but claimed the title anyway and led series officials to believe that a playoff format was necessary. Unsurprisingly, Johnson thinks little of the proposed changes, which would cause the championship to be decided over a smaller sample size over the last month or so. He likes the system just the way it is – and why wouldn’t he?

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