The Associated Press
Peter Casey / USA TODAY Sports
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When it’s all said and done at the end of this season, NASCAR just might have to thank Hurricane Matthew for saving its Chase.
It sure didn’t seem like that when rain was trying to swamp the weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. No track activity Friday, nothing again on Saturday and no buzz about the opening race of the second round of the playoffs.
Forced to run two races on Sunday, both NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway somehow managed to pull off a miracle. They got a pair of decent races on a perfect North Carolina fall afternoon – not great races, but good enough that the Chase now warrants some chatter.
Even better, conversation will be about drivers and the standings and how teams are going to react after a race of attrition at Charlotte caused five championship drivers to finish 30th or worse. Now, only eight points separate Denny Hamlin in the transfer position from last-place Kevin Harvick.
Do you know what that means? A reprieve from talking about laser inspection, changing rules and encumbered finishes.
Finally, a chance to focus on what should really matter: the racing!
The word ”drama” was bandied about often Sunday as contender after contender went to the garage. First up was Joey Logano , who had a wrecked car because of a tire issue. Then Harvick pulled into his stall with a mechanical problem. Austin Dillon was spun by Martin Truex Jr. on a restart. Chase Elliott was collected in that accident. Then Hamlin had an engine failure while running second late in the race.
None of that is the kind of ”drama” that has driven the Chase the last two years. That excitement centered around Brad Keselowski getting tackled, Keselowski getting punched and Matt Kenseth’s running feud with Logano. Yes, those are the instances that make NASCAR a watercooler conversation on Monday mornings, but the drivers absolutely abhor the sensationalism and scrutiny that comes with such displays of emotion or personality.
So now they’ve provided an opportunity to really look at the racing and wonder how each team will react in this suddenly intense Chase.
The first round didn’t knock anyone’s socks off – two Truex wins and a Harvick victory – and no shocking elimination. Everyone probably wanted Tony Stewart to make it out of the first round, but nobody thought he was running well enough to do it. Stewart getting knocked out was hardly the same level of stunner as Jimmie Johnson’s first-round elimination a year ago.
But after Sunday’s opener , this round has the potential for some serious nail-biting over the next two weeks. Some really big names are going to be eliminated at Talladega Superspeedway, where the Chase field will be trimmed from 12 to eight drivers.
Free from worry is Johnson, the somewhat surprise winner on Sunday. It was his eighth victory at the Hendrick Motorsports home track, but Johnson has been a bit overlooked the last three years. He’d failed in the first two years of the elimination format to get past the second round, and there’s been no reason to think that Hendrick Motorsports can compete with the four Toyota drivers or Harvick.
But a summer of hard work has suddenly put Hendrick on the radar , and both Johnson and teammate Elliott have turned it up in the Chase. Now, Johnson has a spot in the round of eight, and his sights squarely on a seventh championship.
History has shown that Johnson dominance does little for the NASCAR fan base, and there’s been a total lack of appreciation for his five consecutive championships and six overall. But his win at Charlotte felt different. There was a sense that seven might actually be doable, and Johnson’s pursuit of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in the record books could be embraced this year.
Whether Johnson moves your meter, his hunt for that seventh title is surely more entertaining that which driver fails the laser inspection each week.
So thank you, NASCAR. Thank you, Chase teams. Thank you, Charlotte Motor Speedway. Thank you, Jimmie Johnson.
Finally, there’s something to talk about in NASCAR.