Gordon Kirby – The US Scene

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Benefits of a sprint finish

Six years ago NASCAR shook up its long-running series format, which was renowned at that time for rewarding consistency over a long season. Instead, a play-off was introduced among the top 12 drivers in the points, to be run over the year’s final 10 races. Called the ‘Chase for the Sprint Cup’, the idea was derided by many as a devaluation of the traditional championship in favour of some marketing mavens’ eternal search for bigger TV ratings.

Yet it’s turned out that the Chase has made the top-tier championship more interesting and exciting. It’s given more drivers and teams a chance to win the championship, manufactured plenty of stories for NASCAR’s voracious media hounds and much reduced the chance of a runaway champion dominating the closing month or two of the 36-race season. Defending triple NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is among those who’s become a convert.

“Truthfully, it took me at least two seasons to embrace the Chase,” he says. “I just didn’t like it. I liked the old system but, oddly enough, I’ve won my titles under the Chase system. I still think winning the championship under the old rules was much tougher, but if you talk to Jeff [Gordon] he says the opposite. So it’s just a matter of opinion.

“In general, I think the Chase has done a lot for our sport,” adds Johnson. “It’s made it more interesting at the end of the season and it’s spread a lot of focus on teams that wouldn’t really have had that. I hear comments from people saying that you are a second-class citizen if you’re not in the Chase. But I think there’s more love spread around and the top 12 are getting plenty of attention.”

Without the Chase, this year’s Sprint Cup series would have been a foregone conclusion in Tony Stewart’s favour before the calendar turned to fall. “It would’ve been a one-man show with the 250-point lead Tony had [before the Chase],” Johnson points out. “We could tweak it – maybe celebrate the regular season champion a little more and put a bigger gap between one through five and the rest of the finishing order. But in general we are on the right track.”

In his first year as a driver/owner, two-time NASCAR champion Stewart has done a superb job, heading the points for most of the year. A key element in his decision to become a partner with machine tool manufacturer Gene Haas in Stewart-Haas Racing was the guarantee of a supply of cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports equal to those provided to Hendrick’s team. With top equipment, Stewart has been a ferocious competitor in most races and is fighting hard to win his third championship. Team-mate Ryan Newman also qualified for this year’s Chase and Stewart, like Johnson, has become a supporter of the system.

“NASCAR has always done a good job of taking a step back and looking at what we can do to make it better for our fans,” he says. “The whole concept of the Chase was to do that. I was a little confused by it until I understood exactly how they were doing it. But once they made that decision it was [a case of] OK, it really doesn’t matter what we think. This is what it’s going to be and this is how you’ve
got to start thinking about how to make it work for you.

“Once we all got through the first year I think we realised that it was a good idea. [The rule makers have] done a good job of rewarding drivers for their wins and giving those guys the bonus points going into the Chase. I think the Chase format is pretty good the way it is. I’m sure there are ways of making it better, but that’s not what my focus is on. My focus is on how to win the Chase.”

This year’s top contenders are: Stewart, Hendrick drivers Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin aboard one of Joe Gibbs’ three Toyotas, Kurt Busch’s Penske Dodge, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle aboard two of Roush-Fenway’s five Fords, and making the Chase for the first time is Juan Pablo Montoya. This is Montoya’s third year in NASCAR with Chip Ganassi’s team, which merged last winter with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. The merger resulted in Montoya switching from Dodge to Chevrolet and he’s truly earned his NASCAR spurs this year, often running near the front and showing plenty of racing moxie.

The top seed in this year’s Chase is 50-year-old Martin, who’s enjoyed a resurgence in his career this season, his first with Rick Hendrick’s all-powerful four-car Chevrolet team. By the end of September Martin had won five races – more than anyone else – including the opening round of this year’s Chase at the one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway where he beat Montoya after a fierce late-race duel. “I have a lot of respect for Juan Montoya,” says Martin. “I gave him respect from day one on the race track and I got respect from him, almost from day one.”

Montoya reciprocated Martin’s comments. “Mark always runs very clean,” he says. “He’s one of the guys I respect the most out there. He always gives you a lot of space and he’s been one of the guys I’ve always been able to go to for advice.”

JPM thinks Martin is the man to beat for this year’s championship. “I think Mark is the most dangerous guy,” he declares. “He’s the guy with the most experience and he hasn’t won a championship. I know Jimmie Johnson’s gonna be there every week, like always, but Mark is somebody who wants it really bad.”

Ex-Formula 1 driver Montoya is clearly enjoying life more than ever in NASCAR and for the first time he believes he has a chance to win the title. “I’m loving it,” says Juan. “It’s good that we are competitive now, but it sucks when you’re not. But when you’re not, it doesn’t mean you’re not trying. Last year, when we finished 15th or 16th, that was an awesome day. Now when we finish 15th, we suck.

“This year we achieved what we wanted to, which was to be competitive, and making the Chase is like a bonus for us. The cars and the team are incredible. The team are pumped up, they’re excited and they can see that we can do it. If we get a shot at [the championship] then we’re going to give it everything we’ve got. We’re not leaving anything on the table, I can tell you that.”

*****

Five titles decided in one weekend

David Brabham and Scott Sharp won this year’s ALMS LMP1 championship driving Highcroft Racing’s Acura ARX-02a. The pair beat the similar car driven by Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud to the title. The Acuras dominated the races, duelling among themselves well clear of the rest.

Acura also won the P2 championship with Adrian Fernández’s lone entry for himself and Luis Diaz, handily beating Rob Dyson’s pair of new Lolas. The Lola-Mazdas started the season without any testing and were made quicker and more reliable by Dyson’s team as the year wore on. The ALMS GT2 championship was won by the Flying Lizard Porsche 911GT3 driven by Jörg Bergmeister/Patrick Long from Risi Competizione’s Ferrari 430GT handled by Jamie Melo/Pierre Kaffer with Mika Salo’s occasional assistance.

The rival Grand-Am series produced another tight battle, with 2007 champions Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty winning four races and taking their second title aboard Bob Stalling’s Gainsco Riley-Pontiac. The championship went down to the wire with Gurney/Fogarty beating defending champions Scott Pruett/Memo Rojas in Chip Ganassi’s Riley-Lexus, and Max Angelelli/Brian Friselle aboard Wayne Taylor’s Dallara-Ford The Grand-Am’s GT championship was taken by Dirk Werner/Leh Keen’s Farnbacher/Loles Porsche 911GT3.

The Grand-Am’s problem is it rarely draws much of a crowd and enjoys little or no national media coverage. In contrast, the ALMS enjoys a reasonable fan base, although without Acura the series won’t have much pulling power in 2010.

*****

Franchitti seals IRL championship

Dario Franchitti won his second IRL IndyCar championship in three years by scoring his fifth win of 2009 in the season finale on the Homestead-Miami oval. Franchitti won the race by conserving fuel and staying on the track in the closing laps as title rivals Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon were compelled to make last-minute stops. Briscoe and Dixon rejoined to finish second and third, leaving Franchitti to secure the title by 11 points over Ganassi team-mate Dixon, with Briscoe a further point behind in third.

Of course, Franchitti turned his back on Indycar racing after winning the 2007 IRL title and Indy 500 with Andretti-Green. The Scot tried his hand at NASCAR in ’08 with Chip Ganassi’s team, but near the end of the year he accepted Ganassi’s offer to return to Indycar racing with Chip’s IRL team where he was paired with defending champion Dixon. Ganassi’s drivers led the IRL points through most of the year, with both Franchitti and Dixon winning five races apiece.

Ryan Briscoe was able to edge in front of Dixon and Franchitti late in the season thanks to a string of eight second places and three first-rate wins. After a couple of unsuccessful years trying to break into the IRL, Aussie Briscoe joined Roger Penske’s ALMS Porsche LMP2 team in 2007 and was promoted in ’08 to Penske’s Indycar team. Briscoe won three IRL races in ’08 and finished fifth in the championship, but this past year he became Penske’s de facto lead driver as Hélio Castroneves recovered from his income tax evasion trial.

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