Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Updated: November 4, 11:01 AM ET
Still plenty of drama left in the season, just not for the top prize
By Terry Blount
Forget the Chase and enjoy the race, each of the three left on the 2008 schedule.
The championship battle is over. Barring a collapse of historic proportions, Jimmie Johnson will win his third consecutive title and join Cale Yarborough in three-peat greatness.
The Chase playoff didn't work this year. Stuff happens. You can't guarantee a tie game in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
But that doesn't mean the fun has ended. It's old school now. Just enjoy the moment. Drivers and teams are trying to win races and finish the season on a high note.
Three good tracks remain -- Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami Speedway -- that have produced some exciting events in recent years.
The race at Texas Motor Speedway one year ago had one of the best battles of the season in the closing laps. Johnson and Matt Kenseth raced side by side for several laps before Johnson prevailed to win it.
Phoenix is a flat, 1-mile oval that usually provides a lot of close action and frequent passing. And Homestead has been the best 1.5-mile oval for competitive racing since the track was reconfigured with progressive banking.
So instead of complaining that the championship drama has ended, focus on watching three remaining races that can provide a wow factor or two.
It isn't just about who wins the title. It's about who wins each week. Isn't that what all you Chase haters say?
A non-Chase for the Sprint Cup isn't the only story line with three weeks to go. For example:
A Cup driver's best friend
- Will Jeff Gordon win a race this year? He hasn't gone winless since his rookie season in 1993. That's 14 consecutive seasons with a victory during his remarkable career.
The odds are against him because Texas and Homestead are the only two tracks where he hasn't won during his career. But winning one of these three races is all the No. 24 team has to play for now, so don't count it out.
- Kenseth needs a victory to keep a six-year winning streak alive. Kevin Harvick, Kenseth or Gordon could become the first driver to finish in the top five in the Chase without winning a race all season.
- Will Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards win 10 races? Both men still have a shot. Edwards would have to run the table. Busch needs to win two out of three.
If either of them does it, he would become the first driver since Gordon in 1996 to win 10 events yet not win the championship.
- And finally, watch Johnson make history. Winning three consecutive Cup titles hasn't happened in 30 years. No one has done it in the Chase format.
Getting there won't be dramatic, but it will be an enormous accomplishment to witness. You'll get to see it happen, and you can tell the grandkids later.
Along with having Chad Knaus on the pit box, Jimmie Johnson has another thing going for him in the Chase: the Lucky Dog rule.
As the first car a lap down, Johnson has gotten a free pass back on the lead lap at two Chase events in which he finished in the top 10: Talladega and Atlanta.
Whether he would have earned his way back on the lead lap the hard way is impossible to say, but let's assume the Lucky Dog rule wasn't in place and Johnson didn't get back on the lead lap at those races.
Even if he'd been the first car a lap down, he would have finished 19th at both races instead of ninth and second.
That would have cost him 96 points and placed Carl Edwards only 87 points behind him. Edwards hasn't used a Lucky Dog free pass in the Chase.
Drivers have used a Lucky Dog free pass 244 times in 33 Cup events this season, per Jayski.com. That's an average of 7.4 times per race.
The rule was added after NASCAR eliminated racing back to the yellow flag on a caution, a wise decision for safety reasons.
Before the rule was changed to freeze the field on a caution, leaders often let lapped cars pass them before reaching the line so those drivers could get back on the lead lap. That depended on who needed the lap back.
No one, other than a Hendrick Motorsports teammate, would have let Johnson get a lap back in the Chase.
Give AJ a chance
What does AJ Allmendinger have to do to prove he deserves a Cup ride for 2009? He has finished 15th and 14th in his two starts for Gillett Evernham Motorsports in the No. 10 Dodge.
He finished better than teammates Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler in both events. His 14th-place showing equaled Patrick Carpentier's best finish in the No. 10 car in 24 starts.
And Allmendinger finished ninth at Kansas in his last start for Red Bull Racing. Clearly, Allmendinger has figured it out. Why haven't the Cup team owners?
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.