Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Race for The Chase




That's my guy, Jimmie Johnson, the one in the middle. The 10-race Chase, which is NASCAR's version of the season play-offs is in full swing. Three races down and seven to go. Brad Keselowski, driver of the iconic Blue Deuce #2 Miller Lite Dodge, is leading the points standings. Jimmie is second, five points behind (Go Lowe's 48 Chevy!) Denny Hamlin, the #11 FedEx Toyota driver, is 16 points behind the leader. Part of the fun of NASCAR is that it is totally unpredictable. It isn't like stick and ball sports where you know its going to come down to two teams in the end. The top twelve teams after the end of the 26-race regular season are competing for the championship but they have to continue to race the entire field of 43 on every track. By the time we get to the last race at Homestead Miami Speedway, it could be one driver so far ahead no one can catch him or it could be five and whichever one gets the best finish that day wins it all.

The three pictured above have been the class of the field all year so it's no surprise that they seem to be separating themselves from the rest but wait, Talladega looms this week. Talladega is called a crap shoot for good reason. It is a 2 1/2 mile high-banked super-speedway. Speeds average roughly 200 mph. The cars race in packs, three rows of speeding vehicles inches from one another - in front, in back and on each side. You can see there isn't much room for error. If a driver makes a small mistake and nudges the car ahead of him, causing it to spin, the resulting wreck can easily take out 20 race cars. That's why it's called "the big one", a chaos of screaming engines, shearing sheet metal, burning rubber, and twisted cars skidding in all directions, hitting walls, tumbling down the track end over end. Fans are kept in suspense waiting for the big one, then holding their breath until the smoke clears, hoping their driver wasn't in it and hoping his competition was.

The three drivers who lead the points right now are as different as men can possibly be. Jimmie Johnson is the old hand. He's won the Sprint Cup 5 times in a row - 2006 through 2010. He cool, calculating and generally, unflappable. His crew chief, Chad Knaus, is called the NASCAR garage's evil genius. Jimmie never brags or complains much. He's a master at making "chicken salad out of chicken shit." If he qualifies poorly, he calmly slices and dices his way through the field to get to the front. If the car isn't handling well, he deals with it until Chad can make it better. Lots of fans call Jimmie too vanilla. They don't like him for that bland exterior. NASCAR fans get off on passion and they don't think Jimmie has enough. As a driver, he uses his car as a scalpel rather than a blunt instrument.

Brad Keselowski is the new kid. He's brash and bold and smart and aggressive. He made the Chase in only his second year in Cup. In 2012, he's leading the points, a feat few would have predicted when he first moved up to the top series. Back then, fans nicknamed him Crashalotski. He's excelling despite the fact that he only has one teammate to rely on for information and assistance. And that his owner, Roger Penske, has already announced that he's leaving his current manufacturer, Dodge, to go with Ford next year so he's racing for what is, in effect, a lame duck team. One of the main things he has going for him is his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, who is starting to be called the "new Chad Knaus". Like Brad himself, Paul figures all the angles and when he makes a decision, it is more often than not the right one.

Brad was the first to Tweet from the track when the Daytona 500 was under a red flag for a safety vehicle on fire. He gained 100,000 Twitter followers during that event. Brad is outspoken, you might even call him mouthy, but he generally doesn't make statements he can't back up. Like Jimmie, Brad is the very definition of "clutch". He doesn't blow his cool, regardless of what circumstances befall him.

And that is the concern about our third guy, Denny Hamlin. He is an exceptionally talented driver with an extremely talented team but Denny seems, so far, to be unable to level out his emotions, or at least, not to show them. When he is on a high, it is plain for all the world to see. He can be supremely confident. The week before last he called his shot, predicting that he would win the race at New Hampshire, which he then proceeded to do. When the race was over, he made a motion like hitting a home run, aping Babe Ruth. Denny has had, arguably, the fastest cars on the track toward the end of the regular season. He has a lot to be confident about.

But last week was Dover, the Monster Mile, one of Denny's worse tracks. He had a rocket ship of a race car. He and his teammate, Kyle Busch, led the most laps. It looked like he was going to end up second, if not first. Then it turned into a fuel mileage gamble and the Fed Ex Toyota placed the wrong bet. They had to come in for quick pit stop to top off on gas. In doing so, they fell out of the top five and came home 8th. It was a great finish for Denny compared to his previous performances on The Monster Mile, but instead of being thrilled to have out-achieved his expectation, he seemed devastated, falling to the wrong end of the emotional scale.

In 2010, Denny was leading the points with two races to left. The next to the last race turned out to be a fuel strategy race. Denny had to make a pit stop when Jimmie didn't, allowing the 48 to cut his lead in half. He came out Phoenix demoralized and never found his way back to an even keel. Going into Homestead, he still had a fairly substantial 15 point lead but he lost his focus and ended up losing the championship as a result. In 2011, he gave the appearance of a beaten man.  He swore he'd found his way back in 2012. He wasn't going to be so up-tight. He was going to have fun. He was working with a sports psychologist to to find the mental toughness needed to win a championship. And until Dover, it appeared he'd done just that but then we saw his emotional balloon pop again.

We'll see where things stand after Talladega, where one twist of the  kaleidoscope has the potential of turning the pattern we see completely upside down.

Will it still be the experienced Zen Master, the cocky Kid or the Drama King? Or will someone new rise from the carnage....like Smoke?