The Lazarus Principal

Saturday night’s race was a surprisingly well-mannered and sedate affair at least by the lofty standards of the Bristol night race. Oh, nine caution flags did slow the proceedings and some cars got torn up but there wasn’t wholesale carnage. And there were more displays of bad temper, nasty comments made and feelings hurt in the rough and tumble world of Olympic gymnastics in Athens then there were at Bristol Saturday night. Two hundred laps without a caution is almost unheard of at Bristol and the caution that did disrupt the gentlemanly display of driving was caused by one of those “debris” yellow flags NASCAR sometimes uses to throw an Ozark in the cesspool to stir up TV ratings. But Earnhardt’s win will be extremely popular with his highly partisan fans and it comes five years to the day after the senior Dale Earnhardt won the now infamous 1999 Bristol night race by rattling Terry Labonte’s cage. Nobody’s cage got rattled too badly on Saturday night though Carl Edwards did act like someone tapped too loudly on his aquarium.

But for the top four finishing teams Saturday night’s race added a dash of redemption that will be important as Billy France’s Magical Mystery Tour gears up to decide the chase for that phone company’s Championship.

For Dale Earnhardt Jr. it was his first victory since Richmond early this summer. As hot as Earnhardt was running in the early parts of this season and as tepid as he’s been lately many fans will be surprised to learn he’s now won as many races as Jimmie Johnson. (Johnson has won three times since Junior’s last victory prior to Saturday night.) Certainly Earnhardt’s season has been hampered by the severe burns he suffered July 18th warming up for a sports car for a race at Sonoma. But prior to Saturday night Junior had cracked the top 20 just once in the last six races. He’d led just one lap since Daytona in July. He’d fallen from the points lead to third in the points. But after Saturday night Earnhardt is just 75 points out of the lead. In fact race fans would be gearing up for an intense three man battle between three of the sport’s biggest stars were it not for this Chase to the Championship nonsense, with fourth place Tony Stewart and fifth place Matt Kenseth lurking in the shadows as wild cards. It would seem under the old points system things would be so tight that the champion would be whichever driver Robby Gordon wrecked the least often in this final twelve races. Saturday night’s victory offers a nervous glance at NASCAR’s worst nightmare. What if Earnhardt would have won his first title under the old points system but is denied a title by the new system? I’d suggest the Daytona Beach police start preparing their riot squad now.

One of the justifications for the new points system is last year Matt Kenseth won the title with just one victory while Ryan Newman won eight races and never even had a shot at the title. (Newman finished sixth in the points in 2003.) Well the “new and improved” points system might cost Newman any chance to compete for a championship again this year though his second place finish did move him back into the top 10 in points. Newman’s problem has been inconsistency and nowhere has that been more evident than this summer. In the eight races prior to Bristol Newman had cracked the top 10 just once. (And oddly enough he’d also failed to score a pole.) His second place finish at Bristol may have been enough to propel Newman into the top 10 for the finals after all especially since he typically runs very well at Richmond. But the irony is, while last year some folks say Newman was robbed of a title, this year if he does win the championship others will say he backed into it considering his long dry spell this summer and he isn’t a worthy champion.

Jimmie Johnson has clearly been one of the hottest drivers on the circuit this season and he’s been favorably compared to his team-owner and friend Jeff Gordon. But the last three races prior to Bristol hadn’t been kind to Johnson to say the least. He’d failed to finish all three and had been averaging a 39th place finish. His third place finish at Bristol seemed to restore some sense of order to the universe as hot as Johnson had been prior to August. But the dry spell serves as clear evidence Johnson and the 48 team are human. They are capable of ripping off a string of incredible finishes at any time but they are also capable of falling completely apart for a month. That problem is only going to be highlighted by the contrived excitement of the ten race playoffs.

Jeff Burton was another driver badly in need of a Lazarus moment. Once a title contender and a driver who racked up multiple wins a year Burton hasn’t even managed a win Phoenix in 2001. Likewise Richard Childress Racing used to enter every Cup season as the presumptive favorite to win the title but they’ve fallen upon hard times as of late. The pairing of Burton with the 30 team will be proven over time but after two weeks it’s hard to argue with success.

If the standings remain as they are after Richmond Elliott Sadler will clearly be the surprise driver to make the Chase. But since his breakthrough win at Texas with Yates Sadler has been quietly solidifying his bona fides to be in the playoffs with top 10 finishes in three of the last five Cup races and six top 5 finishes this season. There was a time when a single top 5 finish by Sadler was sufficient reason to crank up the fire sirens in Emporia VA to celebrate the success of a local boy made good. If Sadler were to win a dark horse championship this season the racket would likely be sufficient to drive a deaf raccoon out of a field full of fallen ears of corn.

It’s been a tough season for Sterling Marlin. To date he’s still winless and he has just two top 5 finishes in the 24 points races run in 2004. But he did manage a credible sixth at Bristol Saturday night despite getting spun out during the melee that followed the seventh restart of the evening.

The rumors swirling around Jamie McMurray’s future and whether he will remain with Chip Ganassi or move onto another high profile team have been a bit of distraction to the 42 outfit this summer. But McMurray is quietly getting it back in gear with top 10 finishes in four of the last six races. (Oddly enough three of those finishes were seventh place results.) McMurray finds himself just 45 points out of the tenth and final transfer spot with two races left to run before the playoffs. That despite the fact he’s been within the top 10 in points just one week this season.

Kurt Busch arrived at Bristol as the prohibitive favorite having won the last three Busch Cup events and four of the last five. While the car was said to be the same one that won those last three races the handling was not to Busch’s liking for much of the early portions of the race and he went a lap down at one point. The perfect setup is a moving target in the highly competitive world of Cup racing and this week the 97 team missed. But a lot of drivers would be well content to finish six straight Cup races at Bristol much less finish in the top 10 in all six.

Matt Kenseth quietly chugged his way along to another top 10 finish, largely unnoticed but still running in the top 5 in points. In fact Kenseth has been outside the top 5 in points only one week since he won at Las Vegas last March. (Kenseth was ninth in the points after this year’s Daytona 500.) The new championship format still stresses consistency. It just stresses consistency over a shorter number of races than the previous system. Kenseth is in good shape as far as a repeat championship.

Dale Jarrett’s 88 car was showing its battle scars after Saturday nights race. On a restart Jarrett was running second when the lapped car of Robby Gordon sent him spinning. (Gordon’s driving was once again so lurid at one point NASCAR officials issued an ultimatum if he hit one more car he’d be parked for the evening.) Despite the extensive damage the car suffered in that incident Jarrett was able to soldier on to a tenth place finish.

It was a tough night for Jeff Gordon. After a pit road miscue cost him a lap Gordon was the beneficiary of one of those free passes he claims to despise. But Gordon was then black flagged for not dropping to the rear of the lead lap car line for the subsequent restart. But when the driver of a damaged car waves you past him as a courtesy what is a Wonder Boy to do? Gordon finished fourteenth and in quite a huff. Gordon was clearly peeved but if he’d punched an ambulance or thrown his booties at someone it would have added a little excitement to the evening.

Despite some pundits guessing the new championship format would turn Bristol into blood-sport Saturday night’s race was practically English in its decorum but for those fans gathered in their Budweiser Red garb it mattered not one whit. The Earnhardt Nation is probably still partying after what is inarguably this sport’s biggest spectacle of the season. But next week we’ll be forced to deal with the sobering tragedy of Darlington laying silent on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. By all accounts NASCAR’s top officialdom is ready to dive into the uncharted waters that lay ahead, but for my part I’ll remain on deck. There’s too many dorsal fins circling this sinking ship of fools.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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