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The Way It Is/ NASCAR's championship chase begins as NASCAR Canada arrives

by Gordon Kirby
Few people seem to have noticed--after all, who cares about Canada?--but the big news in auto racing last week was the announcement in Toronto that NASCAR has bought CASCAR, Canada's leading stock car league, resulting in the creation of NASCAR Canada. NASCAR's takeover of CASCAR has been brewing for a few years and with the deal finally done the great white north will become NASCAR's biggest region for growth. And it could be spectacular growth too, with Canadian Tire Corporation signed on as NASCAR's first Canadian sponsor.

Canadian Tire is a purveyor of all things automotive as well as hardware, home improvement, etc, and is one of Canada's most well-known brands. The company will promote NASCAR in its stores nationwide and as time goes by I'm sure some of the products sold in Canadian Tire stores will become sponsors of NASCAR Canada. Some of those sponsors no doubt will be persuaded to leverage their American division or parent to become sponsors of NASCAR at home in the USA.

Twenty years ago, Canadian Tire sponsored Jacques Villeneuve Sr's car in the two years he raced in CART. After a few years both Jacques Sr and Canadian Tire faded from the CART scene. So this cornerstone new sponsor for NASCAR in Canada can be counted as another opportunity lost for open-wheel racing.

Canada is ripe for NASCAR's arrival. A solid fan base is already in place and will expand rapidly in company with ramped-up Canadian TV and overall media coverage. A prime example concerns ´le journal de Montreal', a French-language daily in Montreal which over the years has given Champ Car and IRL much more coverage than most dailies south of the border, often sending staff writers to cover Champ Car or IRL races because of the presence of French-Canadian drivers in the field. But last week 'le journal de Montreal' published the first of ten special sections previewing each round of this year's Chase for the Cup! The stage is now set, dare I say, for the formal announcement of the first Busch race in Montreal next year at le circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

© Paul Webb
Meanwhile, before last weekend's Chase for the Cup got underway at New Hampshire Int'l Speeday, I talked over breakfast with New Jersey race fans Tim Moran and Brad Webb about who their picks are to win this year's Nextel Cup title. Moran and Webb regularly drive up to New Hampshire for the Cup races and also take in races near home at Pocono and Dover.

"We were discussing it on the drive up," Moran said, munching on his sausages. "And we came to the conclusion that there's too much luck involved, although don't get us wrong, the Chase is good for the sport. I love the concept that now you've got ten guys within a gnat's breathe of each other and you've got ten races to decide the winner."

Added Webb: "It really is a play-off format and it has made the last month of the season really good to watch, but it's too unpredictable.

"The genius of it," Webb went on, "is they've got Talladega which is a wild card race. Three of the contenders who are right in there can get whacked all at the same time through no fault of their own. Then there's Martinsville and Phoenix, so there's a lot of different types of tracks. I wouldn't pick Kasey Kahne to win because he only runs strong on the D-shaped, mile and a half tracks."

Interjected Moran: "But let's talk marketing with Kasey Kahne. He's another Danica. I think it's great! He's brought in a new group of young kids as fans. Anytime you can get new groups of fans involved, I think it's wonderful." I asked Moran and Webb what they thought about the two championship leaders, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.

"The 48 car, Johnson, is strong and steady, but I'm not really sure what he's been doing over the last five races," Moran opined. "This team prides itself on taking the bar up to as high as possible. If they're not first, second or third, everything after that, they shoot everyone. But where have they been the last few races?"

Webb was even more critical. "I haven't been a Jimmie Johnson fan since he came out and said their goal for the next ten races is to make it so that only ten teams can make the Chase," Webb said. "Basically, he said we just want to run well enough to screw the eleventh-placed guy, and he hasn't won anything since. I thought it was an unbelievable statement and I think that attitude pervaded the team. I don't think they set out at each race to come in fifth instead of first, but they haven't run good since."

Added Moran: "I don't believe any team of that caliber is going to put their heads back to do that. That doesn't make any sense, does it?"

I asked them about the guy I call the stealth candidate for the championship, Matt Kenseth. He's won a championship, I pointed out, and he's always there, a very cool race driver who understands what he's got to do. He's also Jack Roush and Ford's best chance to win the title.

"And where's he starting on the grid today?" Moran retorted. "He's in the thirties and he'll have to work his way through the field, which is great if he can do that. But New Hampshire is not a place to be working your way through the field.

"He's a hell of a race car driver, there's no question about it. But you don't see the fervor and enthusiasm burning in him and that makes you say well, maybe he's not the guy. Johnson's definitely got something burning inside him. I'm just not sure what it is, but you can see it. And Jeff Gordon is out there talking it up and you can see the intensity and desire in him. It's physical. But you don't see it in Kenseth, although I agree as a driver he's got to be at the top of your list."

Moran is a bit of a Jeff Gordon fan. "Jeff Gordon is fast, he's on the front row. If he can get a good start in the first two races that gives him a big boost," Moran remarked.

"Personally," he went on, "I think Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne all have hot, new blood that's really good for the sport. I think Hamlin is definitely the real deal and is gonna do real well. The first two guys I picked in my fantasy team for today's race were the 24 and the 11.

"And Kyle Busch can do it," Moran added. "He's good on all types of racetracks. He's fast and he's smart. He seems to learn from his mistakes. I think he's a much better race driver than his brother. But it's like we were saying before. There's too much luck involved in the Chase. The only reason Kurt Busch won the championship was because of luck."

I asked Moran and Webb about how they rated Mark Martin's chances. "I love Mark Martin," Moran grinned. "Of the old guard, even when he was a young guy among that group, he was the guy I wanted to see win. But Mark is the most gentlemanly racer there is in NASCAR. He will not take somebody out, even in the slightest degree. I don't believe in putting a guy in the wall to win a race, but there are tracks that are designed so that bump and run is an integral part of the game, but Mark won't do it. I don't think it's a detriment to him. But that's the way he is, and I respect him a great deal for that. He's got to put together some good races early in the Chase and not get screwed in the Talladega wreck when it happens.

"Some of the younger guys don't have the respect for Mark that he deserves. Although respect in racing is one thing, you're out there to win, so you can put respect in your pocket. You can always apologize later, although I think there's too much apologizing going on in stock car racing these days. What happened to the rough and tumble days? There's nothing wrong with a little laying it on the other guy. Where is the intensity?"

We were beginning to clean our plates so I decided to ask Moran and Webb their thoughts on the concurrent arrival next year of the Car of Tomorrow and Toyota in Nextel Cup racing.

"Right now," Webb observed, "the general public doesn't care if Ford beats Chevy, or Chevy beats Ford, or Dodge beats the other two, because they're all American. But if Toyota out-engineers Ford, Chevy and Dodge and wins everything, people are going to hate it.

"NASCAR has always tried to make it a level playing field so that if Chevy has a better car and starts to win all the races NASCAR does something to slow it down, and if Ford has a better car, NASCAR do the same thing. So if Toyota starts to dominate NASCAR can do whatever they have to do to make it so that Toyota doesn't win everything. And if they don't do that, NASCAR will suffer greatly from having Toyota win all the races."

Added Moran: "But maybe America will get behind it because whether it was their intent or not, Toyota is promoting racing and bringing racing to the people."

Despite Webb's dire prediction that Toyota domination would hurt NASCAR he made the point that Toyota's cars and trucks aren't viewed by many Americans as foreign products.

"Remember that down in the South," Webb remarked, "the same number of people drive Toyotas as drive Fords. In their personal lives they don't mind driving a Toyota. It's not a Japanese car. It's the Toyota store over in Walterboro, or wherever it is. I have a Ford pick-up truck, but we have a Honda hybrid car and a Honda CRV. I bought the CRV because it was $4,000 less than a Ford Escape."

Moran is an ardent supporter of American cars and products but is beginning to question his commitment. "My wife refuses to buy American cars and I only buy American cars," Moran asserted. "But I'm starting to get a little upset because I bought an American truck that I planned putting 250,000 or 350,000 miles on it and it's approaching 100,000 miles after two and a half years and I'm already having major electrical glitches that are driving me crazy. So I'm considering tossing the car and I'm going to look at a Honda or Toyota."

And the Car of Tomorrow? It arrives on the short tracks next year and will be phased-in completely by 2009. Will the fact that all brands will have to conform to the same shape be good or bad for the fans?

"It doesn't matter," Webb commented. "You can't tell the difference in a Ford or a Chevy from the grandstands. To me, it's not that critical. You identify the cars by the number and the paint job and its colors, not by the brand name. Out on the racetrack you can tell the Home Depot car from the Lowe's car from the Dupont car, and you root for the guy, not the type of car he's driving."

"I agree," Moran nodded. "It's not a win on Sunday, sell on Monday thing anymore.

"I like the Car of Tomorrow," Moran continued. "If it's going to be safer for the drivers, I like that. If it makes it safer for the driver, it's good. If it brings them closer together, it's good. If it allows them to compete more on driver ability than on the differences in the cars, I'm all for it. I like the wings. I think it'll keep the cars stable, which is good.

"I like to see aggressiveness in racing, but are they going to make the cars so safe that these new young drivers will say these things are so safe that I can drive in the middle of anything and not get killed? If they do that, is that going to be good or bad?"

Moran wonders whether Toyota will take advantage of the Car of Tomorrow with money and technology for its teams. "If it's going to open it up where they start a huge influx of technology to give different teams the advantage because they've been fed eighteen million dollars instead of five million, then it won't be a good thing," he observed.

Breakfast complete, Moran and Webb headed for the grandstands and the start of this year's Chase. It turned out that the race was dominated by polesitter Kevin Harvick and his Richard Childress Chevy. Harvick was the man to beat all weekend in New Hampshire and scored an impressive victory, his third of the year, and took the Nextel Cup point lead for the first time in his career. Teammate Jeff Burton also enjoyed a strong race, running near the front all the way and finishing seventh. And too, here are two drivers and a team that Moran, Webb and I had failed to discuss at breakfast. Some experts!

Jimmie Johnson had a disastrous race, first losing a cylinder, then getting knocked into the wall. After spending most of the race in the garage with the Hendrick team effecting repairs, Johnson limped home thirty-eighth and fell to ninth in points. The race was a big blow to Johnson's championship hopes.

Kyle Busch had an equally miserable race after getting knocked into the wall early in the race in a multi-car accordian. Young Busch carried on with a badly damaged car and then crashed again after colliding with Clint Bowyer. He eventually finished thirty-ninth and fell to last in points among the Chase contenders.

Rookie Denny Hamlin again showed his stuff, finishing fourth behind Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, and emerging second in points, thirty-five behind leader Harvick. Matt Kenseth came from the back of the field to finish tenth despite serious brake problems that dogged him all weekend. Kenseth left New Hampshire third in points, six behind Hamlin and nine ahead of fourth-placed Gordon. Jeff Burton's seventh place at Loudon moves him up to fifth in points ahead of Mark Martin who finished eleventh in New Hampshire directly ahead of Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kasey Kahne had a tough race and made it home sixteenth, so he's eighth in points ahead of Johnson and Busch.

So prior to Dover next weekend, the big question is can Harvick and Richard Childress's revitalized team pull it off and win the championship? Childress hasn't won a championship in twelve years since the last of his six with the legend, Dale Earnhardt, in 1994. And Harvick, Earnhardt's replacement, hasn't finished better than fifth in points (in 2003). If the thirty-year old California native bags the title, he will enjoy a very big year having already more or less wrapped up the Busch Grand National title.

And of course, there's 25-year old rookie Hamlin with Joe Gibbs's team. He's shown he's a cool customer, able to hang it out with the best of them, and he's fast on most tracks. Can a rookie win the Nextel Cup?

Don't let anyone tell you that NASCAR is in anything other than rugged, good health.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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