Time to lay down law, but NASCAR wimps out
NASCAR's Chase format has undoubtedly infused the lengthy schedule with a late-season boost of excitement. But combine that with the short-track confines of New Hampshire's 1.058-mile oval and the result is the fireworks we saw Sunday afternoon.
NASCAR needed to eliminate those fireworks to preserve the integrity of its Chase format, but it failed because of weak punishments doled out to Sunday's offenders.
For Kasey Kahne, who reacted to Kyle Busch wrecking him by taking aim at the young Chevy driver during a caution lap and ramming into him, NASCAR issued a $25,000, 25-point penalty and put Kahne on probation. For Robby Gordon, who reacted to getting turned by Michael Waltrip by waiting around on the race track to sling his helmet at Waltrip's No. 15 Chevy, NASCAR issued another $25,000, 25-point penalty and slapped on an additional $10,000 for Gordon's cussing on television.
Neither penalty made the statement that NASCAR needed to make: That punishment for on-track altercations comes from the sanctioning body, not drivers who choose to take matters into their own hands. The urgency in that message cannot be understated under the new Chase format.
When the Chase format was announced, the near-consensus among drivers was that consistency should be rewarded, and reseting points to set up a 10-race championship season would make it difficult for anyone to bounce back from one bad day no matter how consistently they ran thereafter. Kurt Busch, who was wrecked by Scott Riggs unintentionally early in the race and retaliated off the track by giving Riggs's crew chief an earful, might become the poster boy for that sentiment.
So if the sanctioning body wants to avoid criticism for the format, which up to this point has received rave reviews from fans, it must take measures to ensure no other contenders go the way that Busch has. The way to do that is to put racing on the race track, not a circus that drivers have to dodge.
Chase contender Jimmie Johnson said he almost got run into when cars checked up after seeing Gordon on the race track. Other drivers said Kahne's reckless pursuit of Busch could have caused accidents, too. If any of the Chase contenders had got caught up in that, their playoffs would be over.
It appeared that NASCAR understood the importance of preventing this from happening.
"There have been a growing number of incidents lately where drivers have taken matters into their own hands. Such unsafe and inappropriate behavior has to stop," NASCAR President Mike Helton said in a statement. "NASCAR will use whatever means necessary to stop it."
The means used, however, will hardly deter drivers who are out of the title picture and have nothing left to lose once their chances of winning a race are over. Kahne and Gordon lost drivers points, but what did those points mean if they had no shot at the title? Each was put on probation, too, but NASCAR probation is akin to a two-week grounding. Nobody takes it seriously.
Now, after the sanctioning body's latest wimp-out on laying down the law, there's no reason for anybody to take NASCAR rules all that seriously, either.
"My point of view is that these first five races of the Chase, you're not going to win it," Johnson said, "but you can definitely lose it."
Or, in the worst-case scenario, you can have it taken from you.
Biggest Winners: Busch was the only contender to take a serious hit in the points. Of the other nine, seven finished among the top 10 making it tough for the field to separate. That's why points-leader Tony Stewart's runner-up finish made him the big winner Sunday: while he lost the race lead with just six laps to go, he widened his points lead to 20 points, staying ahead of a clog of six racers behind him separated by a mere 34 points (five are separated by only 14 points).
"It was just tight racing there at the end," Stewart said. "We did everything we could do [to win] today. I think we ran about as good a race as we could run here. We just came up a little short today."
Newman, who passed Stewart with six laps to go, had a lot to celebrate, too -- and not just the race victory. Newman's late-race pass and puts him on track to follow Busch's model to the title set last year when Busch was first out of the gates with a victory at New Hampshire. Newman said the team is dripping confidence and can feel the momentum pushing them into week 2 of the Chase.
After the win, Newman jumped seven positions in the rankings. But that doesn't buy the No. 12 Dodge team any breathing room -- not now that he's right into the middle of the six-driver clog.
"You have to race for the win [each] race," Newman said, and added that fails you have ot race "to get the best position that you can if you can't win it. Today we were lucky enough to get a win."
Feeling the Heat: The model under which Kurt Busch won his first championship last season, the first title won under the new Chase format, was so persuasive that each of the nine other contenders for this year's title were determined to mimic it. Newman was successful in that regard, winning at Loudon one year after Busch used a victory there as a springboard to the top of the standings. Busch, on the other hand, had the opposite fortune.
After wrecking early in the race, Busch finished 35th and fell to 10th in the standings, a daunting 142 points out of first.
The good news for Busch fans is that the team has that can't-quit attitude. After laboring for over a half hour to get back on the race track, the 97 crew earned at least 20 extra points off of sheer determination not to finish last in the race. In part motivated by his team's spirit, Busch remains optimistic and mindful of the comeback Johnson made last season to finish second to Busch by only eight points after dropping to ninth after two sub-30 finishes in the third and fourth events of the 2004 Chase.
"We saw Jimmie Johnson go on a tear last year and win four out of the last 10," Busch said, sneaking a bit of optimism into his post-race fury. "So, we're just hanging out and we'll see if we can gain some spots back."
Still on Course: Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Rusty Wallace never really threatened to win, but they finished as reliably as their teams have come to expect. Behind his fourth-place effort, Biffle moved into the second position in the points standings, 20 points behind leader Stewart. Kenseth's third-place effort and Wallace's sixth-place finish set them in a tie for third, 40 points out.
"We needed a top five or a top 10 to kick it off and we had a top 10," said Wallace, who has gone winless all season but remained a fixture at the top of the rankings thanks to his consistency. "That's good."
In today's NASCAR, good might be enough to be great. A top six in each of the 10 races of the Chase would be hard to beat out for the title.
Mark Martin, who finished seventh, and Jimmie Johnson, who finished eighth, also kept their title shots on track.
Hardly a Peep: With seven of the Chase contenders finishing among the top eight positions at New Hampshire, Sunday was a bad day to post anywhere outside the top 10. Busch found that out the hard way. Less conspicious were the 16th- and 19th-place finishes of Jeremy Mayfield and Carl Edwards, respectively.
After uneventful top-20 efforts, the duo each dropped one spot in the standings, Mayfield to eighth and 95 points out of first, and Edwards to ninth and 109 points out of first.
"Well, the good news is that we started the Chase out better than we did last year," said Mayfield, who after squeaking into the playoffs last season finished 35th. "The bad news is that we battled the car all day long. We just couldn't get it handling right. We really wanted to come out of here with a top five or a top 10, but at least we didn't come out with a DNF."
Road Hazards: Obviously there were many -- with Riggs actually taking out one contender and Kyle Busch, Kahne, Gordon and Waltrip each putting themselves in position to potentially have taken out others.
But with NASCAR deliberating on how to curb that mess, two other road hazards lurk for the Chase contenders. They happen to be the two biggest names in NASCAR not involved in the Chase: Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
New Hampshire marked the start of different eras for both teams, with Gordon's 24 team replacing long-time crew chief Robbie Reiser with former car chief Steve Letarte and Junior being reunited with his cousin and crew chief of last year Tony Eury Jr.
The result was that both drivers ran with the leaders on Sunday, with Junior becoming the only non-Chase driver to finish among the top seven and Gordon bringing his Chevy home 12th.
"Tony [Eury] Jr. and I are a good combination," Junior said. "And we're going to try to work toward next year. These next nine races are real important and we're going to try to build on that."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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