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?
Defending NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence is a proud Texan who hates to lose. But if there’s one person Torrence likely doesn’t mind seeing win if he can’t reach the winner’s circle – particularly if it’s on home turf – it’s father Billy.
Steve was cheering his father on as the latter boosted his own championship hopes Sunday by winning the Top Fuel category in the final eliminations of the 34th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in the Dallas suburb of Ennis, Texas.
Billy Torrence (3.775 seconds at 319.67 mph) defeated Jordan Vandergriff (4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph in his first career final round) for his fourth win of the season, including his second win in the first four races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. With the fifth Top Fuel triumph of his career, the elder Torrence moved into fourth in the Top Fuel standings, just 71 points behind his son with two races remaining in the Countdown.
Even though Billy’s son lost in the opening round Sunday, he still leads the Top Fuel standings, holding a 33-point lead over second-ranked Doug Kalitta and a 46-point lead over third-ranked and the weekend’s No. 1 qualifier, Brittany Force.
Sunday marked the third consecutive win in this year’s playoffs for the father-son combo and their second straight triumph at Dallas (Steve won there last year as part of an unprecedented sweep of the six-race Countdown en route to the championship).
“It’s home turf and we love to race here,” Billy Torrence said after visiting the winner’s circle. “We’ve raced here our whole career and we have a lot of fans here. There’s no better place to race than Dallas, Texas, and we did have the best car today.
“It has been very humbling, and we’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have the success we’ve had. We’ve got a great group of guys on both cars and our success is just a testament to the work these guys do. I think that we’re probably the second-best car in the country, with Steve having the best. We’ve had a stellar season.”
In Funny Car: Matt Hagan (3.909 seconds at 327.59 mph) roared to his third win of the season – as well as his third at the Motorplex – and the 32nd victory of his career, defeating Bob Tasca (3.928 seconds at 323.12 mph). Hagan also moved up to fourth in the standings.
“We had a great race car today,” Hagan said. “Qualifying was pretty tough, but to turn on four win lights was pretty huge. (Tasca) is a great driver and those guys are good, so I’m glad things turned out the way they did.
“We’re just trying to keep some momentum going, keep doing our job and control what we can control. It was a pretty special weekend. We’ve just got to keep digging and keep working. I love this sport and it’s been a big part of my life for 10 years. I knew (crew chief Dickie Venables) was tuned in and you could see he was confident, and that builds confidence in me.”
Robert Hight continues to lead the Funny Car standings, followed by Jack Beckman (70 points back) and No. 1 qualifier John Force (74 points back).
In Pro Stock: Greg Anderson (6.609 seconds at 209.75 mph) defeated longtime rival Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.610 seconds at 207.56 mph) to earn his third win of the season, fifth of his career at the Motorplex and 94th of his overall Pro Stock career.
It was the 102nd time Anderson and Coughlin, who qualified No. 1 for the weekend, have met each other in a race, including the 21st time in the final round.
“We’ve had so many titanic clashes with so much on the line, and I knew it would be close,” said Anderson, who is seventh in points. “It’s a total team effort and that’s what it takes to win a national event in Pro Stock right now. You’ve got to have perfection every time out there.
“We made a lot of changes this week and we hit on it. It showed it on Saturday and I knew coming into today we had a chance. Now it’s a matter of if I can drive the car well enough. I can’t tell you who’s going to win this thing because everybody right now can beat everybody else.”
Erica Enders held on to her lead in the category, but saw the margin over second-ranked Matt Hartford drop to only 28 points. Coughlin is third (-65 points) and Anderson is seventh (-99 points).
In Pro Stock Motorcycle: Jerry “Alligator Farmer” Savoie (6.881 seconds at 195.90 mph) took a big step towards potentially earning his second PSM championship in the last three seasons, defeating three-time champion Eddie Krawiec (6.901 seconds at 195.62 mph).
It was Savoie’s third win of the season and 12th of his career. It’s also his second win in the first four playoff races and fifth straight appearance in the final round at the Motorplex. He’s now third in the PSM standings, 94 points behind five-time champion Andrew Hines.
“It was a great day and we knew we had a good bike coming in,” Savoie said. “We said if we held our composure we could win this thing. For the most part, tracks favor certain riders and we’ve been blessed here. It’s a great place and today was great.
“Bottom line, I want a championship just as bad as anybody else, so whoever is in my way I’m going to do everything I can to try and beat them. I felt good and we’ve got a great team. To me, this win gives you more hope and means a lot. This gives you that window of opportunity where you could win a championship again.”
NOTES: Only two races remain this season: Las Vegas in two weeks (Oct. 31 – Nov. 3) and Pomona, California four weeks from now (Nov. 14 – 17).
TOP FUEL: 1. Billy Torrence; 2. Jordan Vandergriff; 3. Brittany Force; 4. Austin Prock; 5. Leah Pritchett; 6. Antron Brown; 7. Shawn Reed; 8. Lee Callaway; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Doug Kalitta; 12. Kebin Kinsley; 13. Mike Salinas; 14. Cameron Ferre; 15. Clay Millican; 16. Richie Crampton.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. John Force; 4. Robert Hight; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. J.R. Todd; 7. Jack Beckman; 8. Shawn Langdon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Ron Capps; 11. Paul Lee; 12. Blake Alexander; 13. Cruz Pedregon; 14. Jim Campbell; 15. Jeff Arend; 16. Jonnie Lindberg.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Deric Kramer; 4. Matt Hartford; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Chris McGaha; 7. Aaron Stanfield; 8. Bo Butner; 9. Jason Line; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Val Smeland; 12. Kenny Delco; 13. Shane Tucker; 14. Fernando Cuadra; 15. Alex Laughlin; 16. Richie Stevens.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Angelle Sampey; 4. Andrew Hines; 5. Steve Johnson; 6. Karen Stoffer; 7. Scotty Pollacheck; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Angie Smith; 12. Hector Arana Jr; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Michael Ray; 15. Jianna Salinas.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 2,437; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,367; 3. John Force, 2,363; 4. Matt Hagan, 2,325; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,315; 6. Ron Capps, 2,302; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,274; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,243; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,239; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,188.
PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 2,395; 2. Matt Hartford, 2,367; 3. Jeg Coughlin, 2,330; 4. Jason Line, 2,327; 5. Deric Kramer, 2,323; 6. Bo Butner, 2,321; 7. Greg Anderson, 2,296; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,239; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,217; 10. Val Smeland, 2,124.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,464; 2. Karen Stoffer, 2,383; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,370; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,365; 5. Matt Smith, 2,297; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,274; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,248; 8. Angie Smith, 2,181; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,159; 10. Hector Arana, 2,128.