Friday, November 8, 2013

An Unexpected Cataclysm: Five Questions for Phoenix

Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
I’m going to start this week’s Five Questions with a Flashback Friday: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQjk1KPDFAE

Remember that day? The Sprint Cup Series Dash? When Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer’s “disagreement” resulted in the authorities being called? Yes, that was a great day.

And by “great,” I mean “well-needed.”

By no means am I encouraging violence; I just like seeing a bit of passion every now and then. What happened a year ago at Phoenix International Raceway was an unexpected cataclysm that spurred a lot of talk - both positive and negative.

After the year NASCAR has had, a revival of the Gordon/Bowyer feud would be borderline heavenly.

True racing results in arguments and the occasional fistfight. Cars crumpling into scrap after a long-fought battle with a competitor is its own trophy . . . or it use to be.

Can that change this weekend? NASCAR heads to the one-mile ring in the middle of the desert, where a spark turns into a full-blown wildfire if one is not careful. I talk Johnson, Kenseth, Crafton and putting on a show in this week’s column.

Does the No. 48 team flourish or flounder? The good news for Jimmie Johnson is that he’s leading the points with two races left in the Chase. The bad news for Jimmie Johnson is that this same thing happened last year. Back then, he went into Phoenix with a seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski, not knowing he would blow a tire and forfeit that control. The rest is history, but is it set to repeat itself? It’s been a staple that the driver to lead the points going into the final two races does NOT win the championship. I have a feeling that something big will happen, yet who knows if it will help or hinder the No. 48 team.

Are we seeing a new Matt Kenseth? Texas Motor Speedway brought out something different in Kenseth. When he was nabbed for speeding on pit road, his response on the radio included an apology, citing he was “too aggressive.” That’s something we only see from the mild-mannered Toyota driver in very stressful situations. However, this could be the best thing to happen to the 2003 champion. He needs to play offense, and getting more bold is a great way to get his point across.

Will Matt Crafton clinch the title? Before any of the Sprint Cup questions are answered on Sunday, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ own battle takes place Friday. Crafton leads James Buescher by 46 points, a deficit that rings melodically in his ears. All he has to do is race that No. 88 into victory lane to secure the title. Sounds easy, right? How about this: if his lead extends to 49 points or more by the end of the Phoenix race, he’s the champion instantly. If he’s ahead by a minimum of 41, simply starting the race at Homestead-Miami ties it all up. With his consistency, there’s no doubt in my mind that Crafton is a shoe-in for the trophy.

Why do the lower series provide a better show? Speaking of the NCWTS, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll put on an insane scene in the West. They bring a beautiful zing to the somewhat monotonous race weekends we’ve been experiencing lately. The difference is so drastic that fans are beginning to wonder what separates the Sprint Cup Series’ quality of racing from the others. The vehicles have a huge effect on it; the trucks are lighter and slower, forcing the drivers to stay close and race. I feel that another factor is the talent in the seats. Many of these wheelmen are young, hungry, and a bit stupid at times. However, the main thing is the glory of a win. That concept is clouded in the top-tier by hundreds of thousands of dollars being offered as the purse, and the sponsorship money is a constant river flowing in. The lower series is more raw and grounded, and that’s why it’s more exciting.

Have rivalries died off? We’ve had Joey Logano vs. Denny Hamlin, Michael Waltrip Racing vs. the world, Kevin Harvick vs. RCR, and, now, Jimmie Johnson vs. Greg Biffle in 2013. Though those moments were exciting in their own right, they weren’t as thrilling as that Gordon vs. Bowyer melee was last year. This poses the question: are drivers scared to fight for respect on (and off) the track? Not only is NASCAR enforcing the rule book stronger than in years past, but the cars are becoming too expensive to wreck. Also, the races are too crucial to throw for a bit of retaliation. Drivers are “points racing,” which seems to be a fancy term for “riding around.” Maybe Phoenix can fix that.

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