If you’re a hardcore NASCAR fan, even if your favorite driver won’t advance to the third or fourth and final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, there has to be one question burning in your mind regardless:
Contrary to what many may have thought, Sunday’s race at Talladega arguably wasn’t the biggest test of the new Chase format at all.
Rather, how the four remaining Chase races play out will be the true benchmark if NASCAR’s new-fangled elimination playoff ultimately plays with the fans as the sanctioning body hoped it would.
Will fans of Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne – who accounted for eight wins in the first 32 races – return in front of their TVs or attend in-person the four remaining races in the same fashion as they would have if their favorite drivers were still in the Chase?
Or will the high expectations going into the Chase result in a flop of seismic proportions, with potentially record-low attendance numbers and TV ratings?
After all, even though your favorite now-eliminated driver will be racing in the last four races, realistically, even if he wins a race or two, will it really matter in the whole big scheme of things?
No matter how much fans hope and pray, the highest Johnson, Earnhardt, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola and Greg Biffle can finish this season is fifth place.
If I’m a Johnson fan who was anticipating him tying the championships won record of Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt this season, really, what do I have to look forward to now?
That JJ will finish fifth for the third time in his career?
Or if you’re a diehard Junior fan, will there be anything left in your personal cheering gas tank? Not only did Earnhardt fall short of advancing into the Eliminator Round, Steve Letarte will leave the team at season’s end without ever earning a championship as a Sprint Cup crew chief.
(Letarte will be joining NBC Sports next season as an analyst for its NASCAR coverage.)
Kahne gave it a great try and had the potential to be a Cinderella story, but he fell short.
Ditto Kyle Busch, whose haters must be jumping for joy right now that – once again – he’ll fail to win a championship.
Yep, doesn’t seem like there’s much to cheer about or look forward to at all.
You could not be more wrong.
In fact, there’s plenty to cheer for and to remain engaged in the four upcoming races.
What about the potential that a driver who has yet to win a race in 2014 – and there are two right now (Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman) – goes on to win the championship without ever reaching Victory Lane?
What about underdogs like Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, who’ve essentially both been flying well under the radar? They have the chance to right some past wrongs.
Hamlin can avenge the 2010 season, when it looked like he’d win it all, only to essentially fall apart in the last three races, allowing Johnson to go on and win his then-fifth championship.
Edwards can essentially have a do-over of 2011, when he tied Tony Stewart for the Sprint Cup championship, only to lose by one point on the first tiebreaker (most wins in the season).
Who knows, maybe a non-Chaser will get his chance to shine in the sun. Will Tony Stewart be able to extend his streak of having earned at least one win in each of his 15 Sprint Cup seasons?
What about dark horses like David Gilliland, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr., Casey Mears and so many others? Don’t they deserve their time in the spotlight?
And just because JJ, Jr. and company won’t be able to hoist the championship trophy at Homestead, how can you – if you’re truly the diehard NASCAR fan you claim to be – not be interested in how the Chase winds up and who emerges as the champ?
Can you look yourself in the mirror and say you don’t care if Brad Keselowski can win his second crown in three years? Can you say you could care less if Joey Logano or Kevin Harvick wins their first?
And can you REALLY say you wouldn’t give a darn if Jeff Gordon, after 13 years of trying, finally wins his fifth Sprint Cup championship.
Sure, your favorite driver may not have a chance to win the title this year, but if you’re really, TRULY a NASCAR fan, you owe it to yourself – and yes, even to your favorite driver, even if he’s been eliminated – to pay attention to how the next four weeks play out.
Because if you don’t, you’re going to miss a heck of a lot still to come in these last four races, not to mention one hell of a championship battle to the end.
30 Seconds to Know: How does the Chase Eliminator round work?
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