All Sizzle

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The 2004 Cup season ended not with a bang but with a whimper. Despite a new championship format designed to create enough excitement that stock car racing could compete head on with the NFL, NASCAR racing remained a mere blip on the radar screen to the main stream press and most of the nation. Anyone comparing today's Homestead race broadcast to the Super Bowl was simply looking for a second annual excuse to drink a truly epic amount of beer while pretending to think they were watching history in the making.

The sad part is there was actually a pretty decent race run in Homestead on Sunday. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, both part of the elite ten drivers who had a chance at this year's title but both of whom had been eliminated from title contention before this weekend, staged an epic battle for the lead. Greg Biffle who clearly had the fastest car on Sunday attempted to get back to the front each time pit strategy shuffled the deck on him again. In the end he was able to pull off a pass for the lead on the final restart with two laps to go despite having to make a dramatic save when Jeff Gordon drove into the back of the 16 car on that restart. Race leader Tony Stewart may or may not have run out of gas on that final restart.

At least one group of folks bought into the Championship Chase with the zealotry of Moonies handing out flowers at the airport. The NBC crew apparently either decided the Chase was the greatest invention since pop-top beer or they were told by their dark overlords to hype the contrived "Made for TV" points machination for all it was worth. Anyone trying to watch the race on Sunday probably feels like they were hit repeatedly with a verbal sledgehammer as the network all but ignored the other 38 drivers on the track to the exclusion of the five drivers with a mathematical chance at the title. Frankly it was not only unprofessional but embarrassing. If there is indeed some sort of fan this entire Chase mess or today's broadcast appeals to it must be the bottom feeders that can't differentiate between a tie rod and tie-dye T shirt. Any attempts to compare Sunday's race to the epic Atlanta season finale in 1992 can only be made by the shameless network snake-oil salesmen rascals, the truly uninformed who weren't watching racing back in 1992, or those given to huffing model glue out of Wonder Bread bags at institutions for the criminally insane.

For folks like me Busch's championship is valid. All the drivers and teams knew what the rules were heading into this season. Busch and his team took advantage of those rules and Busch showed occasional flashes of brilliance sometimes offset by troubling inconsistency. But to the victor goes the spoils. What Busch's championship is not is fair. He had less wins than three other drivers. Five other drivers had more top 5 finishes than Busch. Four other drivers had as many top 10 finishes or more such finishes than the 97 team. What Busch did do was shine in the final ten races. He missed the top 10 only once. Had it not been for his blown engine at Atlanta that left Busch 42nd the title chase would have been a runaway most likely decided before the final race of the season. What NASCAR racing needs isn't convoluted points systems or other monkey math, it's more of a reward for winning races and less of a penalty for an occasional bad finish suffered when racing for a win such as the circumstances that befell Earnhardt Jr. at Phoenix. That would add a little salsa to the mainly tepid stew being served up as of late by Brian France and his henchmen.

But, some will argue, this is the way real sports crown a champion. Even a wild card team can be champion after a lackluster regular season. To that I'd remind proponents of the new points system in stick and ball sports all the teams don't compete against the rest of the league each weekend. And this weekend the NBA hit the headlines after an appalling and frightening brawl between players and fans. If this is what it takes to be considered a "legitimate sport" I want no parts of it.

Greg Biffle won the race with some nifty driving despite some questionably conservative pit strategy. Unfortunately his win will largely become a historic triviality beyond some folks remembering that a Jack Roush owned car won the race on the same day Kurt Busch won his championship in another Roush Ford. Truth be told Biffle did some incredible driving and showed the same brilliance on Sunday that he once did in the truck and Busch series on the way to titles of his own.

Jimmie Johnson started Sunday's race behind the 8 ball after an uncharacteristically poor qualifying effort on Friday. Because he was at the rear of the field where the "not the sharpest knife in the drawer contingent faces off early in a race Johnson had to duck several close calls dodging wrecks not of his own making. While Johnson eventually raced his way back up into the top 5 where he normally runs as if it is his birthright it was a case of too little too late. Had he made up one more position to win the race and thus gotten five bonus points for leading a lap Johnson would be celebrating a championship tonight.

Under the old points system his third place finish would easily have clinched Jeff Gordon's fifth championship for him today. But Gordon was one of several drivers to experience tire problems at Homestead and a flat Goodyear cost him valuable track position. While Gordon did an honest day's work fighting his way back up to third his efforts for a fifth title fell short. Perhaps he can find some solace in the realization that even winning the race wouldn't have won him the championship.

While Tony Stewart normally closes out the season strong his efforts in the ten race chase were less than stellar. NASCAR did tilt the level field of competition a bit on Stewart slapping him with an unprecedented penalty for veering to clean his tires too close to a restart. The penalty clearly incensed Stewart who drives faster when he's mad. He might very well have won the race were it not for running low on gas in the final laps of the race.

Most pundits predict that Brendan Gaughan will not be returning to the Penske 77 car next year. On Sunday he offered ample evidence why he should still be in that ride next season with a sixth place finish. Had Jeff Gordon's career been decided by his results in his 2003 rookie season he'd likely be selling real estate right now. Historically rookie drivers are expected to struggle in their first season on the tour but folks like Tony Stewart, Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson have changed that with their first year successes. And with sponsors increasingly demanding more of the teams they invest bushels of money into and with the new championship format making a top 10 points position heading into the playoffs essential Gaughan may never have his chance to shine.

Jamie McMurray was a real victim of the new points system. After an inconsistent start to the season McMurray came on strong in the final ten races of the season, the very races the new format was supposed to emphasis. But after a rare lackluster night at Richmond in September McMurray found himself excluded from title contention. Under the old points system he'd have finished seventh in the standing and earned himself a coveted prime time TV slot at the awards banquet.

Rusty Wallace's season started with great promise when he broke his long winless streak with a victory at Martinsville in the spring. But from that point onward Wallace's season derailed. An eighth place finish offered a little salve for the wounds of a season gone terribly wrong as Rusty prepares to ride off into the sunset next year.

Ricky Rudd's season took a promising turn when he reunited with his former crew chief Michael McSwain after McSwain got the boot at Joe Gibbs Racing. Rudd finished the season on a strong note and the 21 team might be a contender next year after a long absence from the roles of respectability for the once proud 21 Wood Brothers team.

If the Wood Brothers team is showing promise Richard Childress Racing is showing signs of imploding under the weight of its own legacy. The team is still reeling from the tragic blow they suffered in 2001 and this year has given the organization little to celebrate. The three car team managed no wins and only seven combined top 5 finishes all year. Harvick's tenth place finish Sunday could be seen as a gasping plea not to throw dirt on the organization because they aren't quite dead yet.

For better or worse the 2004 Cup season is over. It's been a year of major change with a new series sponsor, a new points system and three long term drivers announcing their imminent retirement plans. It's been a year of controversy with penalties against championship contenders for profanities, rough driving that went un-penalized, and horribly blown officiating calls. The cynical mind reels with analogies for the new playoff system often seen scribbled on the stall walls in men's rooms nationwide but because of my well noted level of couth I'll refer to the Biblical quotation of a woman in labor bringing forth only wind. The new playoff system did not bring the sort of TV ratings, media exposure or public interest that it was supposed to no matter what some media prostitutes and PR flaks might try to tell you. It produced Kurt Busch as a champion. Busch has shown brilliance at the wheel of a race car. He's also shown an unfortunate tendency to shoot himself in the foot. I don't know Kurt Busch. He might be the nicest young man you could ever hope to meet. He might call his mother every day, feed stray kittens, donate to the Red Cross and vote straight Republican every election.

It's heartening to see a champion who looks like Ichabod Crane swallowing a pumpkin rather than the typical pretty boy "young gun" driver. But based on the reaction he gets during driver introductions at most tracks the NASCAR fan base hasn't exactly embraced Busch. Winning the championship might pale by comparison when Busch tries to discharged the media obligations that go with being the top dog in our sport. And come February we'll get our first hint as to whether the new points system attracted as many new fans as the silly idea alienated once loyal fans. NASCAR officials are pretty straightforward in saying that the new championship format is geared more towards entertainment than sport. If that's the case it would be nice if the races in general were a lot more entertaining, a little less sizzle and a whole lot more steak.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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