NASCAR catches break with Chase race at Char­lotte

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. >> When it’s all said and done at the end of this sea­son, NASCAR just might have to thank Hur­ri­cane Matthew for sav­ing its Chase.

It sure didn’t seem like that when rain was try­ing to swamp the week­end at Char­lotte Mo­tor Speed­way. No track ac­tiv­ity Fri­day, noth­ing again on Satur­day and no buzz about the open­ing race of the sec­ond round of the play­offs.

Forced to run two races on Sun­day, both NASCAR and Char­lotte Mo­tor Speed­way some­how man­aged to pull off a mir­a­cle. They got a pair of de­cent races on a per­fect North Carolina fall af­ter­noon — not great races, but good enough that the Chase now war­rants some chat­ter .

Even bet­ter, con­ver­sa­tion will be about driv­ers and the stand­ings and how teams are go­ing to re­act af­ter a race of at­tri­tion at Char­lotte caused five cham­pi­onship driv­ers to fin­ish 30th or worse. Now, only eight points sep­a­rate Denny Ham­lin in the trans­fer po­si­tion from last-place Kevin Har­vick.

Do you know what that means? A re­prieve from talk­ing about laser in­spec­tion, chang­ing rules and en­cum­bered fin­ishes.

Fi­nally, a chance to fo­cus on what should re­ally mat­ter: the rac­ing!

The word “drama” was bandied about of­ten Sun­day as con­tender af­ter con­tender went to the garage. First up was Joey Logano , who had a wrecked car be­cause of a tire is­sue. Then Har­vick pulled into his stall with a me­chan­i­cal prob­lem. Austin Dil­lon was spun by Martin Truex Jr. on a restart. Chase El­liott was col­lected in that ac­ci­dent. Then Ham­lin had an en­gine fail­ure while run­ning sec­ond late in the race.

None of that is the kind of “drama” that has driven the Chase the last two years. That ex­cite­ment cen­tered around Brad Ke­selowski get­ting tack­led, Ke­selowski get­ting punched and Matt Kenseth’s run­ning feud with Logano. Yes, those are the in­stances that make NASCAR a wa­ter­cooler con­ver­sa­tion on Mon­day morn­ings, but the driv­ers ab­so­lutely ab­hor the sen­sa­tion­al­ism and scru­tiny that comes with such dis­plays of emo­tion or per­son­al­ity.

So now they’ve pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity to re­ally look at the rac­ing and won­der how each team will re­act in this sud­denly in­tense Chase.

The first round didn’t knock any­one’s socks off — two Truex wins and a Har­vick vic­tory — and no shock­ing elim­i­na­tion. Ev­ery­one prob­a­bly wanted Tony Stew­art to make it out of the first round, but no­body thought he was run­ning well enough to do it. Stew­art get­ting knocked out was hardly the same level of stun­ner as Jim­mie Johnson’s firstround elim­i­na­tion a year ago.

But af­ter Sun­day’s opener , this round has the po­ten­tial for some se­ri­ous nail-bit­ing over the next two weeks. Some re­ally big names are go­ing to be elim­i­nated at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way, where the Chase field will be trimmed from 12 to eight driv­ers.

Free from worry is Johnson, the some­what sur­prise win­ner on Sun­day. It was his eighth vic­tory at the Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports home track, but Johnson has been a bit over­looked the last three years. He’d failed in the first two years of the elim­i­na­tion for­mat to get past the sec­ond round, and there’s been no rea­son to think that Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports can com­pete with the four Toy­ota driv­ers or Har­vick.

But a sum­mer of hard work has sud­denly put Hen­drick on the radar , and both Johnson and team­mate El­liott have turned it up in the Chase. Now, Johnson has a spot in the round of eight, and his sights squarely on a sev­enth cham­pi­onship.

His­tory has shown that Johnson dom­i­nance does lit­tle for the NASCAR fan base, and there’s been a to­tal lack of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for his five con­sec­u­tive cham­pi­onships and six over­all. But his win at Char­lotte felt dif­fer­ent. There was a sense that seven might ac­tu­ally be doable, and Johnson’s pur­suit of Richard Petty and Dale Earn­hardt in the record books could be em­braced this year.

Whether Johnson moves your me­ter, his hunt for that sev­enth ti­tle is surely more en­ter­tain­ing that which driver fails the laser in­spec­tion each week.

So thank you, NASCAR. Thank you, Chase teams. Thank you, Char­lotte Mo­tor Speed­way. Thank you, Jim­mie Johnson.

Fi­nally, there’s some­thing to talk about in NASCAR.

MIKE MCCARN — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jim­mie Johnson cel­e­brates in Vic­tory Lane with his wife, Chandra, and daugh­ters Ly­dia and Genevieve, af­ter win­ning Sun­day at Char­lotte Mo­tor Speed­way in Con­cord, N.C.

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