Commentary

NASCAR's dream scenario playing out early in Chase

With just 10 points separating the top four drivers, even Hollywood couldn't have scripted a more dramatic start to the Chase, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: September 25, 2007, 8:03 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Has the Chase peaked too soon?

If this weekend's Nextel Cup event at Kansas Speedway were the last one of the Chase instead of No. 3 in the 10-race playoff, NASCAR officials would do cartwheels down International Boulevard in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Ten points separate the top four drivers, and three of them are Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.

The Dover race was anything but a pristine display of racing. Counting the down time for red flags, the event took more than four hours to complete.

Only six cars finished on the lead lap, and more than half the field had bent sheet metal from numerous wrecks that contributed to 13 cautions.

But the end result on the tally sheet bunched up the Chase contenders as close as they've ever been since the playoff format was introduced in 2004. Five drivers are within 18 points of the top spot.

Four drivers were within four points until Carl Edwards got his expected 25-point penalty Tuesday, dropping him 28 points behind leader Gordon.

The only other time the top four drivers were separated by 10 points was after the first race of the 2007 Chase.

In previous years, the points leader went to the final race needing to run well enough to maintain his advantage over the other drivers still in contention. He didn't need to beat them, just stay close.

If the last race were Sunday, the only way you could win the championship would be to beat the other guys ranked in the top five. That probably would mean winning the race to win the Chase.

It's the dream scenario for NASCAR, so enjoy it for the moment and hope it lasts.

Force was with him
How many race car drivers do you think would hold court with the media in a hospital room less than 18 hours after undergoing surgery?

John Force did that Monday afternoon, much to the chagrin of his nurses at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

Force had casts and bandages on every limb, but he was his usual boisterous self, cussing and complaining about being in pain and saying not to count him out just yet on racing at Richmond in two weeks.

That's highly unlikely, but Force would race in a wheelchair if they let him.

Don't blame Bernstein
A few misguided fans on Internet chat rooms have blamed Kenny Bernstein for the accident that caused Force's injuries. Some of the comments are quite nasty, and all of them are completely unfair.

Bernstein's car veered over the centerline and hit a timing cone. Bernstein did a remarkable job of driving to keep his car from going into Force's lane.

"John feels terrible that some people are blaming Kenny," said Dave Densmore, longtime publicist for John Force Racing. "Kenny hit a cone, which every driver has done at some time or another.

"The assumption, I suppose, is that the cone blew out our tire, but that just isn't the case. When given access to video from all angles, it's obvious that the cone goes behind John's car and is never a factor.

"For reasons we don't yet understand, our chassis pulled apart. It was the front half of our car that actually came across the centerline and punched out Kenny's car."

State of the Union
A driver from outside the Southeast was the exception in NASCAR for many years. Not anymore.

Only two of the 12 drivers in the Chase for the Nextel Cup are from the South -- Virginians Jeff Burton and Denny Hamlin.

Three are from California -- Johnson, Gordon and Kevin Harvick. Two hail from Nevada: brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch. Plus one each from Indiana (Stewart), Kansas (Clint Bowyer), Missouri (Edwards), New Jersey (Martin Truex Jr.) and Wisconsin (Matt Kenseth).

Only 11 of the top 35 drivers in the Cup standings are from the South.

Castroneves or Cuban in dance-off?
I'll give it two weeks before half the women in America fall in love with Helio Castroneves. Once they see and hear the effervescent Brazilian, the majority of females watching "Dancing with the Stars" this season will root for Castroneves to win it all.

Helio Castroneves
Castroneves

The two-time Indy 500 winner is one of 12 contestants on the show, which is a great thing for the IRL. Millions of people who've never watched an IndyCar Series race will see Castroneves for the first time. The man is a dynamo of happiness and cheery personality.

Even Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage is getting into the spirit of things. Gossage, the champion of promotional gimmicks, has come up with a good one for the Dickies 500 in November.

Dallas Mavericks team owner Mark Cuban also is competing in "Dancing with the Stars" this fall. Gossage offered this challenge to Cuban and Castroneves:

The man who gets eliminated first agrees to dance on stage at TMS in the prerace ceremonies before the Dickies 500.

Neither man has responded to the offer, but I'll take the 33-year-old Latin race car driver over the 49-year-old billionaire any day in a dance contest.

Hornish's Cup debut at Dega?
IndyCar Series star Sam Hornish Jr. could make his Nextel Cup debut at Talladega in two weeks. That's a little like asking someone to learn how to ride a bicycle on a Harley-Davidson chopper.

Hornish failed to qualify in the past two Cup races, his first two attempts at competing in a Cup event.

This is another example of how the top-35 rule hurts drivers trying to break into Cup. Only eight spots are available at each event (seven if someone has a past champion's provisional to use).

Hornish was faster in qualifying at Dover than four drivers who made the field because they ranked in the top 35 in points.

Team owner Roger Penske wanted Hornish to compete in the five Car of Tomorrow events in the Chase, but Hornish has only three chances left at that now -- Talladega, Martinsville and Phoenix.

So the team is adding some Chase races in the old model to give Hornish much-needed seat time. Good idea, but does Penske really want to throw him to the Cup lions at Talladega?

Talladega's sour grapes
Just when you thought NASCAR-related sponsorships couldn't get more bizarre, this little tidbit comes in last week:

Yellow Tail, an Australian brand that is America's No. 1 imported wine, now is the official wine of Talladega Superspeedway.

What's next? The Bolshoi Ballet performing on the frontstretch at Martinsville?

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter