Regardless of what happens in next weekend’s Contender Round finale at Talladega Superspeedway, there will be good stories among the remaining eight competitors in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Whoever they may be.
But how many people won’t bother to see these stories develop if three of the Chase’s biggest names – Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jimmie Johnson – all fail to make the cut at ‘Dega and fall out of the championship picture?
The diehards will stick around. But one could argue this new Chase wasn’t crafted for them.
No, this new Chase was made for the mainstream – or rather, a return to it after the sport’s white-hot run in the early 2000s fizzled out.
But in order to get Mr. and Mrs. Casual Fan to be interested, you need hooks. You need star power. NASCAR certainly has that. It’s largely how it became America’s No. 1 motorsport in the first place.
Keselowski, Earnhardt, and Johnson represents a major portion of the star power in this year’s Chase. But all three of them have suffered through two sub-par races in the Contender Round, and all three of them are now in the soup.
They are occupying the bottom three spots of the Chase Grid: Keselowski in 10th, 19 points behind eighth-place Kasey Kahne; Johnson in 11th, 26 points back; and Earnhardt in 12th, also 26 points arrears.
Only a victory in the GEICO 500 at ‘Dega may be enough to save them. And if they can’t get one, they’ll likely be done.
In turn, their elimination may have an adverse effect on the Chase’s standing on the American sports scene, which is currently crowded with the NFL, college football, post-season baseball, and hockey. Oh yeah, the NBA’s around the corner, too.
Take Keselowski, Earnhardt, and Johnson out of the Chase and there’s probably one driver left with a strong link to the mainstream.
Jeff Gordon’s “Drive For Five” has become a compelling story again thanks to his renaissance this year. But even if he advances to the Eliminator Round, that story may not be enough on its own to draw a sizable amount of attention beyond the base and counter fans of Keselowski, Earnhardt and Johnson possibly tuning out en masse.
(Side note: This is where Tony Stewart and his army of fans would be a big help. But Stewart did not make the Chase, and to be blunt, he has more important things to worry about right now. Danica Patrick? That would be surefire, but while she’s improved in 2014, she’s not Chase material yet.)
And if the fans of Kes, JJ and Jr. ultimately do tune out because their drivers moved out instead of moved on, it could wind up being a loss for those fans if they truly appreciate the overall sport as well. Again, good stories will still be found no matter what.
For instance, take Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, the two drivers that have advanced to the Eliminator Round via wins: Logano, the boy that’s grown up into a world-beater with Team Penske, and Harvick, the wily veteran seeking his first title after leaving the lone Sprint Cup team he’d ever known.
Or what about Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth possibly entering the Eliminator Round with no wins? Considering the emphasis that the new Chase has put on victories, wouldn’t that be interesting?
Still, the negative impact of Keselowski, Earnhardt and Johnson all being eliminated would not be denied. Time will tell if such a situation comes to pass.