This year’s edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup is pretty much what NASCAR hoped every one of them would have been since they created the format back in 2004. Some might say that it is the main reason for the huge amount of interest this year; that is to say, since the previous ones lacked for excitement, this one might SEEM more exciting than it actually is. Regardless of where your opinions stand on either side of that argument, there is no doubt that more attention is being drawn to the series, for a variety of reasons and not all of them generated by the on-track competition either. First of all, there is the quirkiness of how the series awards points in the “regular season”, complete with the justifiable ten bonus points for wining races (which at first glance appears to be a good thing) but it’s kinda hard to explain to the casual race fan or (even to those trying to get interested in the sport, for that matter) how Kevin Harvick leads the points from the first race of the year ALL the way to the last race before the Chase only to have his lead taken away by some strange seeding system for him to now have a shot at the Championship. I know the bonus points for the wins that Hamlin and Johnson earned earlier in the year makes sense to those who regularly follow the series but it’s a hard sell to anyone “on the outside looking in.” Yet, there already have been some compelling moments just in the first two races. Clint Bowyer, who barely clawed his way into the field the previous week and thus, was seeded in last place, won the first race in the Chase at Loudon NH, vaulting him into second place in the points, only to have his win tainted because his car failed post-race inspection; now, Bowyer was again back down in the basement. It touched off a firestorm of negative publicity which eventually turned into a mega-media circus but under this big top; sometimes it was difficult to distinguish the clowns from the ringleaders. One person who ended up being an unwilling “tightrope walker” in all this turned out to be Denny Hamlin—all because he uttered some ill-timed remarks at a press conference held just before the second race at Dover and right after NASCAR took the car to its R&D center for “further evaluation”. Hamlin pointed the finger at the whole RCR organization, pretty much labeling them a bunch of cheaters (and in the process probably set up a Hatfield-McCoy type feud between Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing which just might last a long time.) Hamlin then incurred the wrath of Bowyer’s teammate Kevin Harvick in a repeat performance, of sorts. (Flashback to Richmond VA 2003 when Harvick wore the black hat, went after Virginian “good guy” Ricky Rudd following the race? Now, we have Harvick doing it again, except no one could really blame him this time! The only difference here is the disagreement occurred north of the Mason-Dixon Line, which had no effect on things whatsoever.) Well, Harvick lines up in the first Dover practice session right behind Hamlin, goes out on the track, gives Hamlin a couple of car jabs to express his displeasure with Denny, then things spill over into the garage area where, whaddya know, the two find each other to exchange some heated words with some minor pushing and shoving. Say it isn’t so; a good old fashioned rivalry has been spawned, which is great for the sport, ticket sales and all that, right? So sorry, not this time! Apparently, some genius (probably a guy by the name of Joe Gibbs) decided these two needed to kiss and make up in the middle of the week so we’ll just have to wait for what comes next. So, who was the guy who kept putting his “head in the tiger’s mouth” in this little metaphor? That would be Richard Childress himself, the long-time, well-respected car owner, although no stranger to the glare of the spotlight in more celebrated times, was obviously more uncomfortable having to explain how this could happen in his organization. To help him with this, he hired the knowledgeable (but not too lovely!) assistant, Dr. Charles Manning, an accident reconstruction analyst who obviously conducted several scientific investigations of what he believed happened which, seemed to provide a plausible explanation to many—except the ones who counted most, the folks at NASCAR, who remained steadfast. All this made for great TV, there to provide live coverage and have the tape machines rolling, you know, in case you had to miss it because you (Perish the Thought!) had a real job or life or something like that! Then, the defending and four-consecutive-time champions #48 Lowes Racing Team rebounded from a lousy 25th place Loudon finish to put everyone back on notice that they’re still in this fight. Yes, their “drive for five is still alive”. But there’s more real competition to deal with this time around so it won’t be “cruise and collect”. If the final eight races continue the circus-like atmosphere of the first two, as the Emerson, Lake & Palmer song goes “Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends…See The Show!”

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