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Woody: The Thrill Of The Chase

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 22 2010

Jamie McMurray may not be in the Chase, but he sure is continuing to race. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR) (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

It is, as they say, a whole new ballgame.

Darkhorse Clint Bowyer scrambled NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship like a platter of Waffle House eggs with last Sunday’s victory at New Hampshire Speedway.

Bowyer, who squeezed into to 12-driver field in last past, soared all the way up to second.

That’s the thrill of the Chase: it offers new life to good teams that had bad luck during the regular season. Bowyer had not won a race all year until last Sunday’s stunning upset.

The Chase forces drivers to keep the peddle down to the finish. Gone are the days when someone could build a fat, comfortable points lead and nurse it through the final races.

I continue to be amazed (and amused) by Chase-haters who claim that NASCAR’s playoff renders the first 26 races meaningless. Just the opposite – the Chase makes each of those 26 races absolutely critical.

Ask Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, David Reutimann or any of the others who narrowly missed cracking the top 12. A better finish in just one or two races would have got them in.

By the same token, had Bowyer faltered in a race or two, he wouldn’t have made it. He’d have been a championship spectator. Instead, because of his performance in the first 26 races, he’s now a championship contender.

How could anybody consider those races are meaningless? They determine who gets to play for the championship and who doesn’t.

Lots of observers said that this could be the most wide-open Chase in history. Of course they say that every year. But this time it could actually true when, after just one race, the 12th-place driver is suddenly second in the standings.

The amazing Bowyer bounce is not the only intriguing story line:

– Where’s Jimmie? Four-time champ Jimmie Johnson had trouble on the track, stumbled home 25th, and sunk to 7th in the standings. He may still win it all, but he’s going to have to do some hard digging.

– Is Tony gassed? Tony Stewart had last Sunday’s race in hand until he ran out of fuel just before the finish. Instead of being on or near the top of the standings he’s now 11th and in big trouble.

– Could this be Jeff’s year? I picked Jeff Gordon to win the championship and although he’s still winless, his 6th-place finish jumped him three spots in the standings to 5th. He’s going to hit his stride eventually — and when he does, look out.

– Can Harvick get his groove back? Kevin won the “regular season” marathon but his team’s performance was wobbly down the stretch. Harvick’s snapping at his crew during Sunday’s race indicates the pressure is growing.

– Will Kyle blow? And I don’t mean his engine. Kyle Busch, the most volatile driver on the track, maintained his No. 4 spot with a lackluster 9th-place finish but that won’t cut it. Does he have the patience and discipline to handle the bumps?

– Will Denny hang on? Denny Hamlin retained the points lead with a second-place finish but it’s not nearly as big as it was a week ago. There’ll be a lot of restless racers glued to his bumper this weekend at Dover.

Like it or not, the Chase is here to stay. I suspect that even critics will be sitting up a little straighter in the Lazy-Boys this weekend as pressure builds and tension increases. If their recliners have a seat belt, they might want to tighten it a notch.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 22 2010
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