Commentary

Non-Chasers feel like an afterthought -- unless they're winning races

How in the world does a non-Chase driver get any attention at a Sprint Cup race? Just win, baby, writes David Newton.

Updated: October 10, 2008, 1:53 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Talladega SuperspeedwayAP Photo/Glenn SmithBrian Vickers received little love after winning the 2006 fall race at Talladega Superspeedway. Fans littered the track in protest after a last-lap tangle took out Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jeff Burton pulled onto pit road at Richmond International Raceway, the final race before the inaugural 2004 Chase field was set. He was excited about a run that temporarily had him on the pole with only a handful of cars left to qualify. He expected the normal rush of television and print reporters.

There were none.

"There wasn't one person standing there," Burton recalled. "That explains it in a nutshell. If you're not part of the playoffs, if you're not part of the championship hunt, you feel like you're left out.

"Your mindset is, 'OK, we're building for next year and now we can go do things for next year,' but it's hard to take it and put a positive spin on it."

Well, there is one way for a non-Chase driver to feel he had a good day.

Win.

It doesn't happen often. Only 10 times in 43 Chase races has a driver not a part of the 10-race playoff won. Five of those came in 2006 when then-defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart won three times.

Greg Biffle has won three races as a non-Chase driver. He took the checkered at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2004 and '06 and won at Kansas last season.

Two of the non-Chase victories came at Talladega Superspeedway, the site of this weekend's race. Dale Jarrett won there in 2005 and Brian Vickers did so in 2006.

[+] EnlargeGreg Biffle
AP Photo/Terry RennaGreg Biffle hoisted the race trophy after winning at Homestead in 2006, but Jimmie Johnson stole the spotlight that day for claiming the first of his two consecutive Cup crowns.

No non-Chase driver has won any of this season's first three races. None has finished in the top three, either. Chase drivers took the top five spots at New Hampshire, the top three at Dover and the top seven at Kansas.

Burton is thankful he's not on the outside looking in.

"You feel left out," the Richard Childress Racing driver recalled. He's currently in fourth place, 121 points back of two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "You don't feel like you're part of the group. You feel like something is going on and you're not included in it.

"It's impossible for you not to feel like that. All the attention, and rightfully so, goes to the Chase."

Except if you win. Then, the attention, albeit shared heavily with the Chase drivers, gets shifted to those outside the top 12.

"It certainly is different," said Jarrett, now a television analyst for ESPN. "When it comes down to that time of the year that these are the teams and drivers that have a chance to win the championship, it's no fun not being a part of the Chase.

"The most rewarding thing you can do if you're not a part of that is go out and win a race."

Talladega might be the best opportunity for a non-Chase driver to sneak into Victory Lane. Fewer Chase drivers -- 17, or an average of four per race -- have finished in the top 10 at the 2.66-mile restrictor-plate track than at any other Chase venue during the past four years.

Lowe's Motor Speedway has had 24 top-10 Chase finishers, an average of six per year topped by seven last season. Texas Motor Speedway, which has been a Chase track only three years, has had 19 for an average of 6.3.

"There's no doubt this is their best opportunity," Jarrett said of non-Chase drivers' ability to win at Dega. "The reason the Chase guys run well at these other places is why they are in the Chase and have a chance to win the championship.

"But this has an equalizing effect for everyone. There's not a driver that goes there and makes the 43-car field that doesn't think and literally does have a chance to win."

Going for broke
Jarrett had lost 98 consecutive races when he entered the final two laps of the October 2005 race at Talladega. He had no real thoughts of winning that day, either. He figured he might finish second or third if he were to push Tony Stewart to the front.

But on the final lap of overtime, he slipped past the eventual Cup champion for his first victory since 2003.

The ensuing celebration was just as sweet as many of his other 31 victories, although he split most headlines and story lines with Chase drivers.

"I didn't feel like we were slighted in any way, shape or form," Jarrett said.

Neither did Brian Vickers the following year at Talladega when he collected his first Cup win. Vickers might have gotten more attention than he wanted because he spun out Dale Earnhardt Jr. and then-Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson on the last lap.

The media should give the fans what they want. That's what the Chase is about. It's to create popularity and media buzz and hype for the sport.

-- Brian Vickers

The pro-Earnhardt crowd showered Vickers with boos unlike any he's experienced. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, showered him with a tongue-lashing.

"I just don't think [Vickers] has the talent to understand what he has underneath him," he said.

But like Jarrett, Vickers didn't feel slighted.

"We won the freaking race," he said. "It wasn't exactly how I wanted to win it by any means. I'm sure the afterthoughts weren't exactly what I hoped for after my first win.

"I just don't let that stuff bother me. At the end of the day, I've got the trophy sitting behind my desk at home. I don't really care what's on the highlight reels."

Vickers understands what Burton means about non-Chase drivers feeling left out. He also understands that the main reason he goes to the track each weekend is to win, and that it doesn't matter whether he's in the Chase.

"If I cared about attention, I might feel differently," he said. "I don't really care what other people think. I don't mean that in a disrespectful way. I race because I want to be the best and for the adrenaline rush, and I don't want to lose.

"It doesn't matter to me if we're on ESPN if we won a race or not. It doesn't matter if there are 10 people waiting at the hauler or none."

Earnhardt, who missed the 2005 Chase along with four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, agreed.

"A win's a win," he said. "They're fun to celebrate. That's really what you show up for, is to be able to go to Victory Lane, get that feeling and celebrate with your team.

"If you haven't made the Chase, that's sure vindication I guess for the season and beyond. It gives you momentum going into the offseason, too."

Sometimes overshadowed
Not far from where Biffle celebrated his 2004 win in the season finale at Homestead was then-Roush Fenway Racing teammate Kurt Busch celebrating the championship on a much larger stage surrounded by five times as many people.

The same thing happened in 2006 when Biffle won the race and Johnson won the title.

Biffle was an afterthought in most news reports the following day. Some newspapers reduced his win to the lead of a notebook.

"That's probably the one time [being overshadowed] might come close to an exception, when you're crowning the champion," Jarrett said. "It might get overlooked simply because the championship is what it's all about.

"But any other time I don't think so. The ordinary circumstances, you're going to get just as much attention."

Biffle didn't seem to mind either year.

"I still get my check [$328,800], and I still get the trophy," he said after the 2004 win. "When we go to Daytona, I'm the most recent winner."

Vickers said non-Chase drivers who feel slighted by the lack of attention are missing the point.

"This is still an entertainment business," he said. "Once you realize that, it puts everything else in perspective. What the fans want and what makes the TV ratings go up is a brawl or a fight or crashes or talking about guys in the Chase and the guy that won the championship.

"The media should give the fans what they want. That's what the Chase is about. It's to create popularity and media buzz and hype for the sport. As soon as you realize that, if you sit on the pole or win a race and don't get as much attention as you think you should get, then it won't bother you."

Johnson can't imagine what it's like to be in that situation because he's never missed the Chase.

"But looking at it, I don't see how it changes much," said Johnson, coming off a win at Kansas Speedway that gave him a 10-point lead over Carl Edwards and 30 over Biffle. "I mean, everyone is still fighting for points and for a victory and for all the same reasons.

"You do see teams that decide to part ways and some other stuff that takes place during the Chase that maybe wouldn't have if they were in the Chase. Outside of that, I would say their agenda is really the same as the Chasers'."

That is, to win.

And because Talladega is such a wild card, the non-Chasers have more hope this weekend than ever.

"That's why it's going to be fun," Jarrett said. "We're not going to know until the very end of the race who it will be."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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