A thrilling race at Kansas in the new car? Who saw that coming?
We're halfway through the 2008 Chase. So what surprises have we seen? Terry Blount takes a look.
Here are a few of the things most of us didn't see coming when the 2008 Chase began:
A three-man battle for the title: Oh, we all saw that, but not these three. It started out as Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. A week into the playoffs it was Johnson, Edwards and Greg Biffle, and now it's Johnson, Biffle and Jeff Burton.
Quality racing: Who knew? The new car has produced exciting finishes at New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas and Talladega.
Yellow fever: NASCAR tried to explain away another controversial finish. OK, you probably saw that coming. But rookie Regan Smith became the people's hero as NASCAR's latest victim.
NASCAR officials ruled Smith broke the rules by going below the yellow line to pass Stewart for the checkered flag at Talladega. The majority of fans in an ESPN poll thought Smith deserved to win because he was forced below the line by Stewart.
The slide job: Many fans hadn't heard that term before Edwards pulled out the gambling maneuver on the last turn at Kansas.
He tried to turn sharply under Johnson and slide by without slamming the wall so hard that it caused him to slow down. No such luck, but it sure was fun to watch.
No closer with the Chase: The goal of the 10-race Chase format was to keep things closer in the standings for more drivers down the stretch.
Not this year. Five races into the 2008 Chase, the standings are no closer than they would be in the old full-season points system.
The names have changed, but the differential is similar: Johnson is 69 points ahead of Jeff Burton and 86 up on Greg Biffle. Edwards is fourth, 168 points back.
In the old system, Johnson would be 64 points ahead of Kyle Busch and 83 points up on Carl Edwards. Burton would be fourth, 231 points behind.
Check the poles: Johnson doesn't have the most victories this season. He doesn't have the most top-5 finishes or the most top 10s. And he hasn't earned the most prize money.
So what is the one thing Johnson has done better than any other driver this year? Starting on the point. Johnson's five poles are the most of any driver in 2008.
I doubt if that's the key to his success, but it is interesting.
Winning isn't everything: Three drivers in the Chase (Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth) are winless this season. Three drivers outside the Chase (Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch) have won a race this season.
Wake up, Bernie
Clearly, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone couldn't care less about racing in North America.
One year after nixing the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis, Ecclestone has tossed out the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, the only North American race F1 had left.
Some reports claim Montreal race officials owed Ecclestone $10 million. If so, Ecclestone wasn't offering a bailout.
Whatever the problems, abandoning an entire continent isn't sitting well with some of the manufacturers that spend hundreds of millions of dollars to race in F1.
Honda, Toyota, BMW and Ferrari sell lots of cars on this side of the pond. Those automakers want to race in North America to help market their wares to millions of F1 fans in the U.S. and Canada.
Ecclestone hasn't gotten the memo. And one other thing, Bernie: It's not a world championship if you a skip a major portion of the civilized world.
There is a difference
Jeff Gordon gives today's lesson on the flawed logic about cookie-cutter race tracks. Those 1.5-mile speedways aren't as similar as many fans think.
Atlanta and Texas, upcoming back-to-back events in the Chase, look almost identical. But looks can be deceiving.
"When you're in the garage area, you're not real sure which track you're at," Gordon said. "But the thing about racetracks is that every one of them has its own personality.
"Atlanta in qualifying is exceptionally fast, but in the race it has no grip whatsoever. It's the slickest place you've ever been in your life.
"Texas has a lot of grip. It keeps that grip. It's much rougher, and there are some really big bumps at Texas that we don't have at the other racetracks."
Gordon added that similar banking and shape do not make the tracks race the same way.
"There's also the way the banking changes from the straightway to the corner," he said. "You can have same-shaped 1.5-mile racetracks, but the radius of the corners isn't similar.
"Those things have a huge impact on what makes the racetrack have its personality. So they look the same, but to the drivers, they're completely different."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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