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There's been lots of talk about adding elimination rounds to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, but as NASCAR packed up and left Dover International Speedway, the field had already lost at least three title contenders.
It's happened this way since the Chase's 2004 inception: By the time the field completed the second round, Chase drivers at the back end were down too many points to win the title.
Sure, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth still have positions to gain, and all the perks that come with finishing high in the final standings are still on the table. But winning the Sprint Cup? Highly doubtful.
Same goes for Clint Bowyer, who was something of a folk hero this time last week after winning the opener at New Hampshire and skyrocketing to second in the standings. Then came the crippling 150-point penalty for a failed post-race inspection, and Bowyer found himself back in last place.
Toss in his 25th-place finish Sunday at Dover, and Bowyer is now totally out of championship contention. Even if he miraculously won his appeal of the 150-point penalty this week, Bowyer will still be 85 points out. That would put the title back within reach, but he'd still be ninth in the standings and overtaking the eight drivers in front of him would not be easy.
So when elimination happens naturally, what exactly is the point of creating a system that does it formally?
I still believe the right kind of elimination could be a boost to the format. In the first few years of the Chase, it felt like the excitement seemed to wane during the middle part of the 10 weeks. It's a long stretch of racing, and there had to be a way to keep people interested from Kansas (race No. 3) to Texas (race No. 8).
My initial suggestion was an elimination at the halfway point, when NASCAR would drop the bottom six contenders from advancing their position in the standings. The thinking was that, for instance, if you're a Biffle fan, you'd have three more races to cheer for him to improve from ninth to sixth and continue on his season.
Then the idea of eliminating two drivers after every two races began to make sense. But this is a risky proposition. Why? Say you are a Kenseth fan and you know right now he's ineligible to finish any higher than 11th this season. You may not tune into the next eight weeks. Since giving viewers a reason not to watch is the last thing NASCAR is looking for, that idea no longer seems to make much sense.
Still, the fact of the matter is that most of the time, the guys ranked at the back of the field aren't running well enough to win a championship anyway and no amount of tinkering with the system is going to ever change that.
Elimination may very well go forward, but if it does, it's got to be a well thought-out plan, because the idea has always been to create a finale where multiple drivers could leave as the champion. Two weeks from now, though, the leader may have a 100-point cushion on his next closest competitor and never look back again. And it may very well be Jimmie Johnson driving away with his fifth championship.
An elimination system – one that includes resetting points at some stage of the Chase – could potentially create a tighter battle up front. But there's no manipulation that could help those drivers holding down the back of the pack right now. Those drivers are there because they didn't perform well enough to be ranked higher (save Bowyer), and no amount overhauling is going to put them back into championship contention.
What went on at Dover?
The penalties levied against Bowyer and his Richard Childress Racing team made for an interesting weekend from the moment the garage opened Friday. Crew chief Shane Wilson, on a temporary stay until the appeal of his six-week suspension is heard, was one of the first people lined up to get through the gate and get to work on his car.
Soon after came RCR driver Jeff Burton's weekly media session, and the veteran didn't blast NASCAR. He certainly defended his RCR team and argued it made no sense why Bowyer's crew would cheat. But he also made many valid points that were in support of NASCAR and how inspectors examine the race cars.
Next up was Bowyer, who made a passionate case that was laced with defiance and disgust over the way his team had been treated by NASCAR.
Then came points-leader Denny Hamlin, who has settled in quite nicely to the role of "driver who isn't afraid to speak his mind." He debunked the RCR claims that a tow truck damaged Bowyer's car to the point it failed inspection and leveled a whopper of an accusation in that NASCAR had warned the RCR teams several times this season about how close they were creeping toward the tolerances.
Hamlin didn't make that up. It's been whispered throughout the garage since late summer that RCR was trying new things that NASCAR wasn't quite certain were kosher. But the cars were legal, NASCAR made no public announcements and the gossip was dismissed as sour grapes by competitors envious of RCR's season-long turnaround.
Well, Kevin Harvick didn't like Hamlin running his mouth and showed it as soon as Saturday practice began. He intentionally bumped Hamlin on the track, NASCAR called the drivers back to the garage, and Harvick and Hamlin had a heated exchange between their cars as team members and NASCAR officials stood watch.
It was a calculated strategy by Harvick, who stood up for his race team against a driver with a history of making mental mistakes under pressure. Everybody knows Hamlin hates Dover, so what did Harvick have to lose by trying to climb inside the points-leader's head the day before the race?
It didn't seem to work as far as Sunday's results, but the entire episode made for an exciting weekend of off-track drama.
NASCAR needs more of these subplots and sideshows, because the old-fashioned rivalries and tough-talking drivers are what's been missing the last decade. Fans so often complain these drivers aren't what they used to be, but if given a chance to break free of corporate restraint and NASCAR scrutiny, you may find that under all that media training they are the hard-headed, passionate drivers of yesteryear.
He went from hero to zero in a 72-hour span when NASCAR ruled the car he drove to victory at New Hampshire failed inspection.
Now, it will likely go down as one of the worst weeks in his career as Bowyer closed out the episode with a frustrating 25th-place finish that, even if he wins his Wednesday appeal, likely puts him too far back in the standings to seriously contend for the title.
As I noted last week, Dover was going to be a struggle for Bowyer and his No. 33 team. In his nine previous career starts, he'd never finished higher than eighth, and he was 15th and 17th in his last two visits.
Sunday was worse. He was caught speeding on pit road, needed a tremendous save to prevent a race-ending wreck, and developed a tire rub that cost him valuable spots on the track.
There was no comment from Bowyer after the race, and nobody really blamed him for hustling out of track.
Bowyer deserves credit for weathering the storm the best he could, and, regardless of your opinion on his car, he raced very hard over the last six weeks to make the Chase and then grab his first win since 2008. That victory was huge for Bowyer, his sponsors, his race team and his championship chances. And he had very little time to enjoy the spoils before the controversy over his car erased all his hard work.
Bowyer doesn't build his cars, he doesn't sit it on design meetings and he's very likely in the dark as to what goes on in the construction of his Chevrolets. If the car was indeed intentionally manipulated, it wasn't by him, and it's doubtful he would have known. That's probably changed in the meetings and phone calls that have followed last week's penalties, as Bowyer is probably now very informed on everything that did or did not happen to his car.
So he put on a brave face and went forward all weekend, at a track where he's never had much success. Now, as he prepares for the appeal and then the Kansas race next weekend, the Emporia, Kansas, native has got to be thinking there's no place like home.
And it blew up when he missed pit road trying to make a stop under green. He had a top-10 car at that point at a track where he's had success, but the mistake caused him to slam on his brakes and flat-spot his left-front tire, which ultimately blew up.
"It's 100 percent my fault," Kenseth said. "I just got in there too hard, and it locked the left front up. I tried to go around and the tire blew out."
The gaffe also cost Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, who was on pit road when Kenseth's tire blew up and was suddenly trapped two laps down.
Both drivers believed they had top-10 cars that could push them back into the thick of the Chase. Instead, Kenseth finished 18th and Biffle was 19th.
Biffle is now ninth in the standings, 140 points back, and realistic about his chances going forward.
"That probably right there was kind of our Chase hopes," Biffle said. "We're not out of it, but those two finishes are not a way to start the Chase off."
Kenseth now has two sub-par Chase races, is 11th in the standings and 165 points out. But he's not been running well most of the season, and he knew Dover was probably his last shot at salvaging something.
He's had just one top-five finish in the 15 races since he was third at Dover in May.
"To be honest with you, there was a lot of pressure here," Kenseth said. "This is probably the only track we've run worth a darn at in about four or five months, so there was a lot of pressure to try and get a good finish out of here, and we couldn't get it. I thought we were going to have a top-five to seventh-place car if I didn't mess it up, and I messed it up."
The two-time champion is the biggest disappointment of the Chase so far. He was supposed to be in the thick of the title hunt. Instead, he's 10th in the standings, 162 points out – a deficit that is self-inflicted.
First he ran out of fuel while leading at New Hampshire. Instead of winning, he finished 24th. Then came Dover, where a two-tire stop backfired and cost him serious track position. Stewart was later caught speeding on pit road and wound up 21st.
"I'm sorry guys," Stewart told his crew about the speeding penalty. "I knew it as soon as I came in. I just couldn't get slowed down enough."
The tough part of Stewart's predicament is that his mistakes have him in the hole. The penalty put him two laps down and too far back at Dover to ever show what kind of car he had, and he admitted after New Hampshire that he had run the car out of gas by not conserving enough as he tried to hold off Bowyer over the closing laps.
It's a shame that he finds himself in this position because Stewart was figured to be one of the cars who could compete with Johnson and make this a crowded championship race. There is some solace in that he'll head this weekend to Kansas, where he's a two-time winner, including last season's victory.
That could be Stewart's last chance to scrape his way back into title contention – if it's not already too late.
It's astounding how many fans actually think this is happening and who are adamant that NASCAR deliberately screwed with Bowyer to benefit Johnson.
"There's your proof!'' people cried after Johnson won at Dover on Sunday to climb to second in the standings.
Are there people out there – people not named Kyle Busch, and maybe AJ Allmendinger – who seriously thought anyone but Johnson was going to win Sunday? Check his records: The dude is really, really good at Dover. And he was coming off a really bad race in New Hampshire.
He's the best active driver at Dover, and he drives for the best team in NASCAR. Nothing except himself would get in the way of a win on Sunday, and Johnson doesn't really make many mistakes, especially not in the Chase.
He was a stone cold lock. Period. End of discussion.
Yet people want to live in a fantasy world of conspiracies where NASCAR is pulling strings behind the scenes to get everyone out of Johnson's way and give him a clearer path to that fifth title.
Why on earth would that happen?
NASCAR has already seen a steady decrease in attendance and television ratings during Johnson's four-year run, so wouldn't it be in the interest of the sanctioning body to throw every roadblock possible in his way?
It makes zero sense to believe Johnson was helped Sunday by NASCAR. He was winning that race when his Hendrick Motorsports team packed up at New Hampshire, against the ropes, with a very good track in front of them.