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Thursday, September 27, 2012
Feel-good Chase potential is there

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

We have point standings and power rankings, but there's something missing in those. NASCAR Nation is a place that loves to wish and dream and hope beyond rationality.

So let's do the Feel-Good Rankings -- where the drivers stand in their capacity to make people happy, make the common folk relate, by winning the Chase.

Disclaimer: I wrote just before the Chase started that the No. 1 feel-good story would be a championship by either Martin Truex Jr. or Clint Bowyer of underdog Michael Waltrip Racing.

They're still close. But I reserve the right to flip-flop as circumstances warrant. As the late road-racing great Peter Gregg once told me, "You have to understand that I don't feel the same way about all things all the time."

Let's do this in countdown order, with each driver's actual place in the standings in parentheses.

12. Jimmie Johnson (1): A sixth championship in seven years might make the general public, and those who follow overall sports achievement, feel good. But JJ on the mobile stage at Homestead-Miami might send an "Oh, no, the coffee break's over" malaise through NASCAR Nation, not to mention a growing anxiety: "Will this ever end?"

11. Tony Stewart (4): A repeat champion, winning a fourth one, wouldn't exactly come out of nowhere, either. So there'd be another vague sense of sameness here. The greatest Chase performance thus far, five wins in 10 races by Stewart last year, assures there's little else he could do to surprise.

10. Kevin Harvick (8): It would take a magnificent run, including a couple of wins, for him to pull this off, and that would command some admiration. But Happy's just not the type to be a sympathetic character for the public. Bringing Richard Childress his first Cup since Dale Earnhardt in 1994 would resonate a little, but fans have long since separated Harvick from Earnhardt.

9. Matt Kenseth (11): Again, a spectacular breakout through the Chase is necessary here. And answering the lame-duck questions would be nice. But Ford Nation has long been the most militant subset of NASCAR Nation, and they might cheer for a while, but would walk away grumbling and grousing about his taking off to Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing next year.

8. Greg Biffle (9): A little Rodney Dangerfield syndrome doesn't hurt, I guess. Biffle consistently insinuates he feels overlooked and under-respected. He's even shown sensitivity to the fan and media nickname "the Biff," when it is meant well. He's an Everyman driver, not Mr. Charisma, and people are for him in that way. No doubt he'd get a ton of good will as a breakthrough champion. But would he absorb it? A chip on the shoulder might detract a bit from the warmth.

7. Kasey Kahne (5): He has his following, to be sure -- largely among the young, from kids to college students. He once told me the alliterative name must have something to do with it. But he'd need more than that to be a universally popular champion. He's by nature a soft-spoken guy, and you see where that's gotten Jimmie Johnson, for all his spectacular driving, winning and championships, over the years. Plus, Kahne would suffer from the same "Hendrick handed it to him" resentment.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7): What? He's not slam-dunk No. 1 for feel-good? Sure he is, for Junior Nation. And yes, let's reiterate how good it would be for NASCAR. For those who really know him, know the burdens he has carried and suffered, it would be the deepest kind of satisfaction and relief. Trouble is, that equal but opposite reaction I call Anti-Junior Nation would do enough sniping and grousing to scuff up the whole thing.

5. Denny Hamlin (3): Finally closing the deal on a championship would be a hit with fans, due to his near-misses, especially in 2010. Thing is, the public has just grown too accustomed to his being too good, too dominant in too many races, to view him as anything like an underdog. So, like Johnson and Stewart, Hamlin would by no means be coming out of nowhere to the title.

Jeff Gordon
It's been a long time since we've seen Jeff Gordon this happy at the end of a season.

4. Brad Keselowski (2): I almost made this guy No. 1, because it would make me feel so good, because I picked him in January to win the championship and drew much snickering feedback from fans. Brad K as champion would be spectacular for NASCAR, with his wide-open styles behind the wheel and in front of microphones. He'd be a fabulous ambassador for the sport. Trouble is, I would crow "I told you so" enough to annoy you so much that you might not feel as good about Kes as you should.

3. Martin Truex Jr. (9): He'd certainly need a couple of wins to make a run at the top, and no one in NASCAR deserves to win right now more than Truex. Often as you see that No. 56 up front, he has but one Cup win, and that was on a rainout date at Dover, on the same day NASCAR czar Bill France Jr. died, June 4, 2007. So no one's efforts have been more overshadowed than Truex's.

2. Clint Bowyer (6): This is the persona NASCAR Nation has been yearning for -- or at least claims to have been -- for a decade or so. He is Everyman, off the dirt tracks, plainspoken yet colorful, arguably more like the people in the grandstands than any other driver. Not since Dale Earnhardt himself has there been a better way for fans to live vicariously through a champion, with the feeling that -- to paraphrase what we used to say about Earnhardt -- "If ol' Clint can slug his way up and make it, there's hope for me in my life."

1. Jeff Gordon (12): It's precisely because he has virtually no chance now that Gordon is at the pinnacle of feel-good potential. Absolutely no one has questioned his desire since his sheer-will run at Richmond that got him into the Chase. The wreck that made him stumble so far behind, right out of the Chase gate, at Chicagoland, was by no means his fault. But he hasn't quit -- not even close. He kept on coming at New Hampshire and finished third. He clings by a thread, but the sheer will is far more evident now than in the Wonder Boy years. Who, anywhere, could refuse to admire that?