My Brain On NASCAR: Somone will win Chase, but who?

At a press conference in Darlington in 2006, Greg Biffle was asked for his opinion of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, which was still relatively new at the time.

Biffle didn’t equivocate, or make a false attempt to be politically correct. “If you’re not in the Chase, you’re nothing. You may as well be invisible,” he said.

“You are Nobody.”

Well, first of all, thank goodness we still have a handful of plain-spoken drivers in NASCAR. And second, Biffle has nothing to worry about. After Hurricane Bristol, AKA the Irwin Tools Night Race on Aug. 25, he is locked into the 2012 Chase, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.

Greg Biffle is definitely Somebody.

Bristol was a game changer in a lot of ways. It was a hard race to prepare for, because no one really knew quite what to expect. Since the track’s last race back in March, the racing surface was ground down in an attempt to take away one of the racing grooves and provide the single file, “if you want to pass me you’re gonna have to knock me out of the way to do it” style of racing that has kept Bristol a fan favorite for decades.

It worked, for the most part. Old Bristol had one racing groove, at the bottom. New Bristol had a couple of grooves, revealing to everyone’s surprise that fans don’t really like side by side racing all that much. New-Old Bristol has one groove, but now it’s on the top.

“It was the same thing; we were all running in a line. You’re just waiting for the next guy to screw up to get around him,” said race winner Denny Hamlin. “That’s what we had to do with the old Bristol. I don’t think we saw as much side-by-side racing, but you didn’t see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol. You just saw a bunch of cars in line, waiting for someone to get knocked out of the way or to mess up.”

So fans got a lot of action, and they also got what they were secretly hoping for, although they might not be willing to come right out and admit it: a fight.

When tempers rise at Bristol, fists have a tendency to go up right along with them. This, after all, is the place where generally gentlemanly Jeff Gordon got into a shoving match with Matt Kenseth, where Jimmy Spencer reached through the window and allegedly punched Kurt Busch while he was still strapped into his car, prompting Busch to observe that Spencer “has the brain of a peanut.”

More than fists and pith are thrown at Bristol. Back in 1993, Dale Jarrett threw his helmet at Bobby Hillin, and in 2002, Ward Burton heaved his heel guards at Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR is a sport of repetitive action – and this was Bristol – so we got more of the same on Aug. 25. Tony Stewart scored a dead-on bull’s eye with a two-handed sling of his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car, after being cut off by Kenseth while attempting to make a pass for the lead. The contact took both drivers out of contention for the win, and dropped Stewart to 10th in the driver standings.

Stewart, another plain speaker, readily stated his intentions.

“I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got from now till the end of the year. Every chance I’ve got,” said the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

The biggest battle potlighted at Bristol, however, is the fight for the two wild card spots in the Chase. Those currently belong to Kasey Kahne, who has two wins and ranks 11th in the driver standings, and Kyle Busch, who has one win and is in 13th place.

Right behind them, in 14th, 15th and 16th place respectively, are Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Marcos Ambrose, with one win each. Last year’s runner-up, Carl Edwards, is in 12th place, but has no wins this season, which takes him out of contention unless he can make it to Victory Lane in the next two weeks, at Atlanta or Richmond.

If things remain fairly stable, which we all know is never a sure thing, a couple of winless drivers will make the Chase: Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, ranked 5th and 9th coming out of Bristol.

Just to keep things interesting, although Stewart looks like a sure thing, he has been experiencing some less than stellar luck lately. If he drops out of the top 10 he will still make the Chase, but will not get bonus points for his three wins so far this season.

All we know for certain is that some truly marquee drivers will not be in the championship hunt this year. While that’s kind of sad, it’s also a great endorsement for the sport and for the parity it has managed to achieve. Domination is only fun when your team is the dominator. It’s downright miserable for everyone else.

Long story short, when this year’s Chase begins, it will be literally impossible to predict how it will end. By the strict letter of Biffle philosophy, we do know that Somebody will win the championship.

We just don’t have a clue which Somebody it will be.

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