One of the tasks my wife and I assign to our kids is to set the table before dinner. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s important. The same could be said for the final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup last Saturday night — it was anticlimactic as hell, but it set the table for what could be a very interesting Chase.
Denny Hamlin won the race before a hometown crowd, earned his sixth victory of the season and the top seed in the Chase. Some media members and fans played the momentum card and christened Denny as the title favorite heading into the 10-race stretch run. And some rivals already think the trophy engraver should learn how to spell Denny’s name, even though I think that’s a coy ploy to deflect pressure and attention from them.
But as Monte Dutton pointed out, there’s that Johnson kid with whom to contend.
I’m with Monte: Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s team have won four straight Cups, and they’re the favorite to complete the drive for five. Momentum, schmo-mentum. Someone else seemingly has been named as the contender to Jimmie’s throne each of the last three years, and they’ve ended up being pretenders.
And before the Chase starts this Sunday at New Hampshire, expect all sorts of analysis and permutations, dissecting this auto race as if it was the Federal budget proposal. If Hamlin wins the Cup, can he thank his teammate Rowdy Busch for pushing him to new heights this season and in the Chase? Then again, Shrub doesn’t plan on helping Denny much if both have a mathematical chance Nov. 21 in Homestead. Or can a driver without a teammate in the Chase win the whole enchilada, such as the steady Kurt Busch?
Of all the Chase analysis and crystal ball polishing I read over the weekend, I think Mike Mulhern sums it up the best. This Chase could be good, but don’t expect a 12-man battle to the end. It never has happened historically, and Hamlin, Johnson and Kevin Harvick have been too good and too steady all season to let too many other guys play consistently in their world.
There is one famous guy who’s not in the Chase, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and after a horrible race Saturday night at Richmond, Junior was left to pick up the pieces of another tattered year. This team’s lack of success — only making the Chase once in three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the most powerful team in NASCAR — is a riddle wrapped in an enigma trapped in a mystery.
NASCAR already expanded the Chase from 10 to 12 drivers in an attempt to ensure megastars like Jeff Gordon and Junior make the postseason. Now there are rumors the Chase field could grow to 15, and Junior is feeling the pressure. He knows an expansion could basically be called “The Junior Rule.” I feel for the dude, as the margin between swimming and treading water is so thin in any form of motorsport. But right now, that cat needs some serious Red Cross swimming lessons or a life jacket.
With all the Chase talk, it’s interesting to see that Formula One — which often is criticized for processional, parade-like racing — has a very tight points battle brewing without a reset of the standings to tighten the field for the “postseason.” Fernando Alonso’s victory Sunday at Monza — in a Ferrari in front of the adoring homeland Tifosi, no less — put the top five drivers in the standings within 24 points of each other with five races left. Leader Mark Webber is just five points ahead of second place Lewis Hamilton.
Sure, the winning pass by Alonso over Jenson Button took place in the pits. But this was still a very good race since both Button and Alonso were at 10/10ths until their pit stops two-thirds of the way through the race. Button’s gap ahead of Alonso never wavered from six- to eight-tenths of a second, and it was captivating. One mistake, one bobble, and either Button was gone or Alonso was ahead.
But it never happened until the quick work of the Prancing Horses in the pits leapfrogged Alonso past Button. Still, it was fantastic, precise, on-the-edge driving between two cars with completely different aero packages. It was damn good motorsports theater, summed up well here by the brilliant Nigel Roebuck.
The race also was refreshing because Hamilton took full blame for an ill-timed attempt to pass Felipe Massa on the first lap. The resulting contact damaged the front right wheel of Hamilton’s McLaren and left him beached in the gravel before the end of Lap 1, his title hopes starting to smolder like touch paper in an ashtray. I can’t imagine the petulant, arrogant Alonso accepting blame for anything.
Speaking of Formula One and miscues, it’s time for six degrees of separation by shining the spotlight on Kimi Raikkonen. Remember him? The vodka-swilling, monosyllabic Finn who won the 2007 World Championship for Ferrari and then bolted for the World Rally Championship last year.
Kimi is still tearing it up on the stages. Well, tearing up some perfectly good Citroens, as seen in this video at WRC.com. Kimi crashed out of the rally Sunday. He seems to be having more fun in the more carefree, laid-back world of rallying, where there are no Ron Dennis sightings to torture him. Still, Kimi isn’t exactly gaining a ton of traction on the stages and was an immense talent in an F1 car when motivated. I’d love to see him back in Formula One, challenging Webber, Alonso, Button, Hamilton and Vettel every race.
MotoGP will be back this Friday at the new Grand Prix of Aragon in Spain after a weekend off. The big wrinkle this event will be a change to the time schedule which sees riders participating in four 45-minute sessions Friday and Saturday — two practices Friday, a practice and qualifying Saturday — instead of the three one-hour sessions.
I like the idea, as fans will get two sessions of MotoGP practice on Friday, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The shorter sessions also will compress more action into a tighter timeframe. That’s never a bad thing.
Loris Capirossi will not race this weekend on his Suzuki, recovering from surgery to rebuild a bone and attach a severed tendon in his finger after a crash with Nicky Hayden at Misano. No replacement rider was named, so Suzuki will field just one factory bike for rookie Alvaro Bautista at Aragon. I doubt there was a big line of riders banging on the factory door wanting to ride the worst factory bike on the grid.
A provisional 2011 MotoGP schedule has leaked, with the event lineup rumored to be confirmed this weekend at Aragon. No major shakeups other than Portugal moving to the spring and the season-opening night race in Qatar moving up a few weeks so the season begins in March. Plus, the only date you really need to memorize now on that schedule is Aug. 26-28 — the dates for the Red Bull Indianapolis GP at IMS!
One key aspect of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule announcement last Friday that may have been overlooked was significant — CEO Randy Bernard’s decision to eliminate Indy Racing League as the sanctioning body name and switch to IndyCar. It’s a VERY smart move, as the acronym IRL still is a symbol of 12 seasons of open-wheel strife in the U.S.
IndyCar is easier to market, easier to remember and creates a great image in everyone’s mind. Smart move.
People are still talking about the ramifications of the 2011 schedule, and Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star does a good job of answering fan questions in his daily Q&A.