Watering The Grass In The Rain

Ryan Newman led 325 laps of a possible four hundred laps on his way to a seven plus second win over Mark Martin. That comes a week after Kurt Busch led 155 of a possible 300 laps at New Hampshire beating second place Matt Kenseth by two and a half seconds. NASCAR is promoting their chase for the championship with the promise of an exciting points battle and that damn well better happen because there's no getting around the fact the first two races of the much-hyped Chase for the Championship have been beyond sedate. I've seen more exciting lawn croquet tournaments to be honest.

In the topsy-turvy world of Daytona Beach an urgent call went out last winter to find a way to add some excitement to the points race to keep fans from drifting off to the 600 pound gorilla of professional sports, the NFL, during the fall. The points system wasn't broken. It just needed a little tweaking not an Extreme Makeover. A more pressing issue that should have been addressed instead is making the actual races themselves more exciting again. Over the last four or five years the quality of the spectacle, with a few notable exceptions, has been in serious decline. And that's a problem that needs fixing and fast. Right now NASCAR needs to stop worrying about drawing new fans (which based on the NHIS ratings they are not doing anyway) and start worrying about keeping the long-suffering fans they already have in the fold who might be looking for greener pastures.

Before I'm accused of historical revisionism for the umpteen thousandth time I admit that I have been watching NASCAR racing for over three decades now. And yes even back in what we now consider "The Golden Age of Racing" from the mid-80s to the mid-90s there was occasionally a very boring race that one driver dominated. But back then fans considered that a fact of life and looked towards the next weekends race with eager anticipation knowing there were very rarely two boring races in a row, and if there were it was highly improbable the series would string together three stinkers. As of late the ratio of classics to clinkers is badly askew and there just aren't enough races that get the fans up on their feet, stomachs tied in knots screaming themselves hoarse for the final twenty laps. I don't know whether the problem is an overemphasis on yearend points, an over-dependence on aerodynamics, race track design issues or a lack of grip in the tires, but then I am not getting paid the big bucks to solve the problem. If I were right now I'd be moving Heaven and earth to find a solution not patting myself on the back for a dog and pony show revision to the points system half the sport's fans despise.

After a rough weekend at NHIS when Ryan Newman had a strong run go by the wayside with a mechanical failure there had to be a measure of redemption for the team with a dominating performance at Dover. Newman is normally a threat at almost every track though he's been off a pace a little this year. But at Dover he remains stout with three wins in the last four Cup races run here.

Mark Martin's second place trophy probably should bear the added inscription "Best In Class." While Martin is probably the most physically fit driver on the tour he was clearly exhausted after the race having pedaled his heart out just trying to keep Newman in sight. The hard fought second place finish moves Martin into a fourth place tie in the points just 57 points out of the lead.

Early in the race Jeff Gordon was having severe handling difficulties with the 24 car but as has been the nature of the 24 team under the reigns of various crew chiefs the 24 bunch never gave up. Through a constant series of adjustments on each stop the team was able to get the Dupont Chevy to the point Gordon could work with it and drive it home to a third place finish. Nevertheless a poor qualifying run on Friday and cars that just haven't been competitive from the outset in the last two races have got to be worrisome signs for the 24 team.

Dale Jarrett not only missed the Playoffs he's frankly been struggling to keep his head above water for the last couple months. While he never led a lap Jarrett did manage to finish fourth to score his first top 5 finish in five races. Jarrett currently has led just two laps in the last twelve Cup points races.

Before the midway point in the race Kurt Busch had the one car on the track that appeared to be able to keep Ryan Newman honest. But in contrast to the 24 team the 97 outfit kept making the wrong call on adjustments and basically adjusted themselves out of contention. Busch gives up his hold on the points lead but is just one point behind new leader Jeff Gordon.

Tony Stewart's Chevy was clearly not handling well in the early parts of the race. His frustration might have been evident in another on-track pushing and shoving match with Robby Gordon on Sunday. Towards the end of the race Stewart's team got the car dialed in and Stewart made good progress forward finishing sixth but he was not appeased. One has to wonder if Stewart's temperament is the biggest obstacle he faces trying to claim this year's title. It's ironic Stewart is so teed off at Gordon right now. Stewart himself had been wearing the sport's "Bad Boy Mantle" this season before Gordon wrested it from him at NHIS.

Jeremy Mayfield managed a credible seventh place finish but that didn't undo the damage inflicted on his title hopes at New Hampshire last week. He's still mired in tenth in the points and is now more than a full race's worth of points out of the lead. It's not unusual that eight of the ten drivers chasing the championship all finished inside the top 10. Strings of top 10 finishes are what got those drivers into the championship chase to begin with.

Part of the problem with the new points system is evident looking at Jamie McMurray's season of late. He has scored six straight top 10 finishes but is locked out of the top 10 in points by the new format. (Otherwise he'd now be comfortably in ninth in the standings.) Could McMurray have won the championship under the old points system? That's highly unlikely but he'd have had a valid shot at a top 5 points finish if things had been left as they were.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. appeared to have a stronger car than his ninth place finish indicates. For much of the race he was running in the top 5 but a set of tires that didn't suit the car caused Junior to fall back during one stint of the race. The crew communicated to Earnhardt that that set of tires "should never have been on the car." If that's an after-the-fact realization that's one thing, but if the team selected the wrong set of tires inadvertently that's an entirely different issue. Either way a lengthy green flag pit stop didn't help the team's day.

Jimmie Johnson and his team selected the first pit stall on pit lane as they have done many times this year. In the past other teams have complained that Johnson has sped off pit road without getting caught but Sunday NASCAR nailed him for that infraction. It would seem NASCAR officials are indeed being hyper-vigilant policing the title contenders in these final ten races.

Matt Kenseth had the worst day of the ten title contenders. Entering Dover's notoriously tricky pit road Kenseth let the back end of the car step out from underneath him. The 17 car made heavy contact with the tires that guard the end of pit road and the car was extensively damaged. While the team was able to repair the car well enough to get it back on track Kenseth still had to settle for a 32nd place finish 81 laps behind the leaders.

TV ratings are fickle things so perhaps NASCAR will receive a pleasant surprise later this week but if ratings are in any way tied to the quality of the event we're likely to see another Nielsen disaster. Under the regime of Brian X. France NASCAR has proven willing to adopt radical solutions to problems that don't exist. Maybe they can spend this winter addressing the problem of boring races a problem that threatens the long term health and even survival of this sport. Mediocrity may reign supreme in politics and television but not in sports.

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