Monday, September 20, 2010

Loudon Provided A Tasty Chase Appetizer

In an era of 42-14 Super Bowls, it’s a rare sporting event that actually lives up to its pre-event hype. Once every 80 years or so, the Boston Red Sox erase a 3-0 deficit to the hated New York Yankees to win the American League pennant, then go on to sweep the World Series. Every few decades, Doug Flutie uncorks an 85-yard touchdown bomb with no time on the clock, or Boise State pulls off the old fumblerooski in overtime to win a major Bowl Game.

But most of the time, our biggest sporting events are more “talk” than “walk.”

The 2010 Sylvania 300 was the exception to that rule. The Opening Round of this year’s Chase For The Sprint Cup outstripped even its lofty pre-race hype, delivering a race filled with drama, controversy, upheaval and surprises.

Denny Hamlin finished second Sunday to keep his championship hopes alive, but not without dodging a major bullet in the person of Carl Edwards. Edwards chased his car up the banking and into Hamlin’s Toyota on lap 214, sending the Joe Gibbs Racing driver for a spin that dropped him from third to 23rd in the running order. "Can't hold his line, can he," deadpanned Hamlin on his in-car radio, exhibiting a level of confidence that foretold his eventual recovery to the runner-up spot. He heads to Dover this weekend with a 35-point margin over Clint Bowyer.

Bowyer established himself as this year’s potential “Cinderella Story,” running up front for much of the day, then taking advantage when Tony Stewart’s dominant Chevy sputtered dry with just two laps remaining. You remember Bowyer, the guy who limped through the back door as the 12th and final Chase qualifier? He’s now a two-time winner in the opening round of the Chase, and three years ago, he rode the momentum of a win at Loudon all the way to third place in the championship standings. His Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet is a title contender once again.

For Stewart, it was a day filled with thoughts of what might have been. His failed fuel mileage gamble left him 24th at the finish and 11th in points. He shares the “No More Mistakes Allowed” column with Jimmie Johnson, who drove like a man possessed to overcome a horrendous, 25th-place qualifying effort with several spectacular, three-wide moves on the tight Loudon oval. It was all for naught, however, as his Lowes Chevrolet fell victim to loose lug nuts in the late going that left him 25th in the final rundown. After the race, Johnson deadpanned, "It got a lot more exciting than what I had anticipated." Like Stewart, he has no remaining margin for error in his pursuit of a record fifth consecutive championship. But hey, he’s Jimmie Johnson. He’s not out of the hunt just yet.

Kevin Harvick was steady-as-she-goes again at Loudon, finishing fifth on a day when he often didn’t appear to have car enough to do so. NASCAR’s regular-season champion is now just 45 points behind Hamlin as the series heads for the Monster Mile this weekend, and if Hamlin slips even slightly, “Steady Eddie” Harvick will be right there to capitalize.

Like he has all season, Jeff Gordon followed closely in Harvick’s tire tracks Sunday, registering a consistent, sixth-place finish that bumped him up three spots to fifth in points. He still hasn’t shown the ability to win races – something this year’s champion will almost certainly have to do -- but he stepped forward while others stumbled, keeping himself in the title hunt for at least another week.

Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth were ordinary at best Sunday, showing little to recommend themselves as title contenders. Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch showed flashes of brilliance, but faded to 15th and ninth at the end of the day. Kurt Busch admittedly overdrove his Dodge for much of the day, hitting everything but the Tri-State Megabucks lottery en route to 13th. Like Stewart and Johnson, Edwards, Biffle, Kenseth, Burton and the Busch Brothers will need to step it up a notch at Dover to remain part of the championship discussion.

Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire provided a tasty appetizer for the feast to come; a tantalizing glimpse of the drama and excitement that could carry all the way to Homestead-Miami Speedway in the month of November.

Bring on Round Two!

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