[media-credit name=”Barry Albert” align=”alignleft” width=”300″][/media-credit]Before today’s Kobalt Tools 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race, I had just about made up my mind that Denny Hamlin was going to win the Sprint Cup championship. They had momentum and the psychological edge. About Lap 250, I still believed that. Hamlin was leading, as he had all day, and only Carl Edwards seemed to have anything for him. When Edwards passed Hamlin at Lap 266, I thought Hamlin was going to finish first or second and gain lots of points and then came that dreaded problem at flat tracks—gas mileage.
We all struggle with gas mileage whatever we drive. Some of us live with SUV’s and pickup trucks that get minimal mileage. Some of us drive hybrids or small cars that get better, but you can bet we all watch it. And it’s only a few tracks where it’s a problem. Phoenix was one of those tracks today. Usually you can bet on a late caution so the drivers and crews can get fuel and tires for a final run, but not today. With only five cautions in the whole race, that wasn’t going to happen, so people gambled. Among the drivers who gambled were winner Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, and others. Johnson, who was second in the championship struggle, was short on gas, but Harvick, the guy in third place, had the good fortune of having a lug nut missing on his car. The pit stop to correct that allowed him to get enough fuel to comfortably finish the race. Not so for a dominant Denny Hamlin.
Just when it looked like Hamlin was going to gain needed points on both Johnson and Hamlin, no caution flag was in sight. Though Hamlin led 190 of the 312 laps, he finished 12th and lost 18 valuable points to Johnson. Johnson took a tremendous gamble, but credit crew chief Chad Knaus for rolling the dice. What could have been a disaster turned into a win in the points battle. I do not expect anything less next week at Homestead. I guess when you’ve won that many in a row, you can gamble. And when you know that you are that good, why not take the chance.
This is why I believe that Johnson will win his fifth championship at Ford Championship weekend in Homestead. When you have four trophies, why not gamble for five? You’ve been there so you don’t sweat the small stuff. Hamlin’s crew will sulk on what happened this week and make mistakes just like they did today. What would have happened if Hamlin, with a very fast car, had pitted at Lap 235? We’ll never know, but you can bet it’s eating at Hamlin, the Gibbs racing team, and crew chief Mike Ford right now. How much of hangover on this lost opportunity will carry over into next week? I’ll bet it will be on their minds for a long time. Strange things happen in this sport, but my money’s on the No. 48, and that’s a shame. It doesn’t do NASCAR any good to have the same song every year. It should be an exciting weekend.
Of course you have to admire what Carl Edwards did this weekend. He won the pole for the Sprint Cup race, qualified second for the Nationwide race, race circles around everyone in Sprint Cup practice, and won the Sprint Cup race. If there ever was a sign that the boys at Roush-Fenway had finally figured things out, this weekend was it. Whatever the problem was is probably solved. And next week they head for Homestead where the Roush Fords have dominated for years. Seeing Jack Roush, who cheated death twice in the last few years, celebrating, was a wonderful sight, but that doesn’t help Denny, Jimmie and Kevin. They are in a fight for a championship while the Fords are only looking for a win. And that’s a large part of the problem with today’s format.
I’m not saying that Hamlin, Harvick, and Johnson were trying to win on Sunday. They were, but so much emphasis is placed on the championship that it was hardly mentioned throughout the race broadcast that there was a race outside of the championship struggle. The whole emphasis was on the three drivers who had a chance to win a championship that who would have thought that Greg Biffle pulled off another top five finish or that Ryan Newman, who had won at Phoenix earlier in the year, was second. In fact, we didn’t get that information until Jimmie and Chad were interviewed. As I’ve said many times, in my youth, it was more about who won on Sunday than who won the championship. I guess it’s the lust of the ownership of the series to make NASCAR more like the stick and ball sports where the championship (they think) is all that matters. With this “closest Chase in history” propaganda we’re going to hear all week, we’ll get the same kind of broadcast next week where guys like Biffle and Newman will do great things, but only be afterthoughts. David Pearson won his last championship in 1969 and no one remembers that, but can remember his magic in the No. 21 for a lot of years. Now, so much emphasis is placed on the championship that no one will remember that Carl Edwards broke a 70-race losing streak Sunday. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is who is the champion, something that has been artificially created to compete with sports that cannot be competed with. It boggles my mind.
So, my money’s on Johnson. Hamlin’s team will make mistakes and Harvick will be his steady self. Knaus will pull a rabbit out of his hat and win the almighty championship by a point. When 2011 comes around, many will try to dethrone the magical No. 48 team, but will fail as usual, but until folks realize that it’s the winner who should get the spoils, it won’t make any difference. I’m glad great drivers like Biffle, Bowyer, Stewart, McMurray, and Edwards won races during these last ten events. It’s as if they didn’t even show up in the media’s eyes. I guess there’s always next year. Where we will repeat the same mistake again as ratings fall and attendance goes in the dumpster. And we will wonder why.