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Ingram: Chase Coughs To Life In New Hampshire

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 20 2010

Clint Bowyer smoked the field in the opening round of what may shape up to be a Chase that lives up to the hype. (Photo by Gregg Ellman-Pool/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From The Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Well, I guess it’s better to have a cough rather than to run stone cold and out of gas.

Clint Bowyer’s carburetor got a catch in its throat during the opening round of NASCAR’s championship playoffs and ended up winning as a result of bogged down re-starts that saved fuel. Tony Stewart, whose Chevy roared away on re-starts just fine, used up just enough gas to run out approaching the checkers, allowing second-placed Bowyer a free pass to the checkers.

And so the first race of what is characterized as THE CHASE by the TV folks lived up to its billing for the first time in the history of NASCAR’s version of the post-season. It is tempting say, in fact, that it was a FINE CHASE RACE.

Jimmie Johnson had a wacky up-and-down run with his Chevy’s front bumper occasionally chasing its tail as a result of traffic issues. Runner-up Denny Hamlin, the other favorite, had to come from the back of the pack – no mean feat in the days of the COT – to keep the pressure on Stewart and Bowyer at the finish. Kurt Busch appeared to be contesting a Formula Drift event on several occasions.

All Chase contenders. Each letting it all hang out.

Does this mean the format, now under re-examination by the powers that be at NASCAR, and presumably a new marketing team, will remain the same? The answer is no, because despite the splendid setting for the opening race of the Chase at the Golden Mile of New Hampshire, just the right sort of track for close racing and tight finishes, it’s already been decided to move the opener next year to the Chicagoland Speedway, not nearly as well known for such antics.

Marketing trumps actual racing once again.

Perhaps lightning – as in further lightening what is already a good format – will not strike twice. The top teams now have all the tools they need with the COT to sustain suspense in the races and the driving talent has been there all along. Because anybody can win on any given

Tony Stewart had to call a tow truck to get back to the garages after Sunday's race at New Hampshire. Clint Bowyer ran out of fuel, too, but not until his victory burnouts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Sunday – the winless 12th-place guy won this one for crying out loud – this year’s Chase is expected to be the best since the first one in 2004, when three drivers entered the last lap at the Miami-Homestead track with a chance to win it.

At the risk of tempting fate, I have a suggestion. Give more points to the race winner all year long. I’m not suggesting a bump or push, but rather a shift of large magnitude.

If the winner of any Sprint Cup race got 25 more points than given at present, it would improve a winning driver’s chance of making The Chase, which should always rhyme with haste. There would also be more incentive to win during The Chase. The race at New Hampshire was compelling in large part because two drivers looking to jump up the rankings were willing to risk running out of fuel in order to win it. Such incentive should always be in place and should pay dividends.

Presently, NASCAR is considering a format that would eliminate teams as The Chase progresses, so that the final race would have only four  – possibly even just two – contenders.

If they want to be like football, why not find a way to introduce an actual oblate spheroid made of pigskin into the racing format itself? Or, they could drop the yellow flags onto the track for cautions and blow whistles. Why not just make all the NASCAR officials wear striped shirts?

The idea of eliminating, say, four teams from The Chase after several opening rounds is almost artificial. Teams that are mired with poor luck and performance aren’t likely to bounce back from ninth to first (unless there’s a bigger points bonus for winning), so where’s the excitement in dropping them from The Chase or the tension in trying to make the cut?

The only way this system makes sense is to have more incentive to win races in the form of additional points. That way a driver such as Stewart could bounce back from a goofed up bid to win before getting eliminated. Without the additional points incentive for winning, we’d be right back to points racing as soon as The Chase began. It would struggle to live up to its capital letters.

If a team could gain 40 more points than the runner-up, we would be more likely to see teams focusing on winning and not just maintaining momentum with a Top Five finish before moving on to the next track. If the goal is to keep the championship artificially close (as opposed to the winner being a representiative champion), then yes, eliminate some of the teams as The Chase goes along and re-set the points yet again.

With additional points for winning, a driver like Stewart could well bounce back from his present position deep in the points – with or without a mid-Chase cutoff – by winning in the second or third rounds even if he lost big time by going for broke in the first one.

This is the only method by which it seems possible to introduce the concept of win – or else. Add a lot of points for winning. This would be the case during the “regular season,” when teams are trying to get into The Chase, and during the “post season” itself.

Quotes of the Week: This week’s first quote comes from Jeff Gordon, who remains the leading contender to win The Chase without having yet scored a victory this season. He finished sixth at New Hampshire and did not lead a lap.

“Well, I don’t think we played it cautious today. I just feel like (Crew Chief) Steve (Letarte) looked at whether or not it was worth gambling. That’s what we do every weekend, you know? We came into this race this weekend saying we can certainly lose this championship this weekend; we can’t necessarily win it. We’ve got to go and grind it out and work hard and put out that kind of effort for 10 weeks. That’s what’s going to win the championship for us. I feel like that’s the race that we really played today.”

The second quote comes from Andy Petree, a color commentator and former championship-winning crew chief, who made the following comment after some outrageously aggressive racing in the opening laps at New Hampshire by some of the Chase contenders.

“Did we wake up in Talladega this morning?”

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 20 2010
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