AVONDALE, Ariz. – You know the reality T.V. show The Amazing Race, where teams of two race around the world for $1 million?
It's a great show, with one major flaw. Let me explain.
Say a team wins a leg of the race by eight hours, which means they get an eight-hour head start at the beginning of the next leg. The next day they take their head start and go to wherever the next clue directs them, which, inevitably, is a museum or an amusement park or somewhere that doesn't open until noon. By the time the destination opens, all the other teams have caught up, and just like that the lead is gone.
It's done on purpose, of course, to make for a good race in the end. Who's going to keep watching if the suspense is gone by the time they reach Moscow in a race that doesn't end until they get back to New York City?
I bring this up because the exact same thing appears to have happened during Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500. On Lap 258, Kevin Harvick got into the side of Jeff Gordon, pushing a front bumper into Gordon's tire. Smoke began to puff from the left-front of Gordon's car. It seemed only a matter of time before the fender rubbed the tire raw causing it to blow.
If that were to happen and Gordon were to wreck, the Chase for the Nextel Cup would have been over. Jimmie Johnson, cruising near the front, would only have needed to start next weekend's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to claim his second consecutive championship.
Gordon needed a caution in a bad way so he could come into the pits and fix the tire without losing any more ground to Johnson.
And so, as T.V. cameras continued to focus on Gordon's left-front fender, showing the possible fatal damage, the NASCAR gods looked down and spotted a piece of debris on the track, bringing out the caution Gordon needed on Lap 269.
Without losing a step to the leaders, Gordon came down pit road, got the fender pulled away from the tire and managed to salvage a 10th-place finish.
Though Johnson won his fourth-straight race Sunday and now leads by 86 points with one race remaining, Gordon is still alive.
And that's the point. It seems that whenever something (or someone) threatens to take away the drama, NASCAR steps in to make sure it doesn't happen, at least not again.
When Matt Kenseth ran away with the 2003 championship, NASCAR responded with the 10-race Chase. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon failed to qualify two years ago, NASCAR expanded the field from 10 to 12 drivers, an obvious attempt to assure the sports biggest stars qualify.
Admittedly, there's nothing wrong with trying to make a sport more exciting. I actually like the Chase. But when piled one on top of the other, these "tweaks" lend credence to Tony Stewart's statement that NASCAR is rigged just like professional wrestling.
"I guess NASCAR thinks 'Hey, wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it’s going to work in racing, too,' " Stewart said back in April.
He later backtracked from his comment, but out of the mouths of babes comes the truth, and we all know Stewart can be a bit childish at times.
NASCAR's denials that it consciously throws caution flags at "key" moments may be sincere, but those denials are inconsequential. Through amendments like the Chase, the lucky dog rule, the champions provisional and the top-35 rule (where the top 35 cars in owner's points automatically earn a spot in the race), NASCAR the sport seems more and more contrived.
“I can’t understand how long the fans are going to let NASCAR treat them like they’re stupid before the fans finally turn on NASCAR," Stewart said in a continuation of his pro wrestling comment. "I don’t know that they’ve run a fair race all year.”
We'll never know how much truth there is in Stewart's fair-race assertion, but this much we do know: a well-timed caution on Sunday didn't just save Gordon, it preserved suspense. Which is the point, right, to make sure this amazing race isn't over?
So tune in next week to see who wins.
- Jeff Gordon