It's the time of the year when NASCAR racing should shine. But after two races in this year's Chase the spotlight has been on the sport for all the wrong reasons.
Rather than talk of an exciting championship race, hard and competitive competition or even the unprecedented quest by Jimmie Johnson for a fifth straight Sprint Cup title, NASCAR has been mired in questions, controversies and feuds.
|Clint Bowyer goes from celebrating his N.H. victory to being accused of cheating -- three days later. (AP)|
But fines and penalties and appeals simply blur the opinions of longtime fans as well as the coveted casual observers NASCAR is trying to attract and turn into repeat customers.
Part of what's driving these last 10 days of confusion is the inspection process NASCAR employs to ensure cars are legal for competition. Every car goes through a lengthy technical check-up before qualifying and each week's race with a similar evaluation of the top finishers when the checkered flag flies.
There was a time when a NASCAR official would come into the media center after that final inspection process and either announce all cars were clear and legal or outline inequities that were found. In either case, when you left the track Sunday night it was clear who was within the rule book and who wasn't.
However, now things are different.
With the advent of the next generation Sprint Cup car, a more precise method of inspecting cars is needed, one that without delving into too much technical talk involves laser measurements and other technology that cannot be done trackside.
So now it's necessary to take vehicles back to NASCAR's Research & Development facility outside Charlotte where this high-tech equipment is housed and the proper inspection can be completed.
And as was the case with Clint Bowyer's car after his New Hampshire win two weeks ago, problems can be found at the R&D center two days after "winning" a race that will result in fines and penalties.
It muddies the waters to say the least.
While ensuring the sport is policed and competitors maintain boundaries well inside the rules is both necessary and admirable, NASCAR has to find a way to complete that process at the race track. It is simply unacceptable for teams, and more importantly fans, to wait two days after an event to know for sure if the winner was legal or not.
The procedure also sets precedent for what could conceivably be an embarrassing and most likely damaging scenario.
Suppose Johnson goes on to win this year's championship for a record fifth straight time and is crowned the king at November's season finale in Homestead. Pictures are taken, trophies are handed out and Johnson begins the annual media blitz that follows the Cup champ's clinching effort.
Fast forward two days later when NASCAR takes the car to the R&D center and finds the No. 48 Chevrolet to have the same chassis infractions uncovered on Bowyer's car with measurements off by 60/1000 of an inch. The sanctioning body has no choice but to hand out the identical 150-point penalty given to Bowyer and Johnson's tally is recalculated accordingly.
But since he won the title by only 50 markers over second-place Hamlin, the 150- point strip drops Johnson to second in the standings and 100 behind in the final count, which effectively gives the championship over to Hamlin.
That's a PR nightmare waiting to happen if NASCAR doesn't find an answer to post-event inspection plan that's now in place.
• Television news is not good for the second straight week of the Chase. Sunday's Dover race was off 22 percent from last year's event at the "Monster Mile," coming on the heels of the Chase opening New Hampshire visit's 23 percent plunge.
• Trevor Bayne is suddenly on the unemployment line after an unexpected turn of events at Diamond-Waltrip Racing. The Nationwide Series team released the young driver, considered to be one of the brightest stars in the sport, citing a lack of sponsorship as the reason for change. But while Bayne was booted from the ride, Ryan Truex, younger brother of Sprint Cup regular Martin Truex Jr., will drive the entry this Saturday in Kansas. The two brothers will split duties in the No. 99 Toyota for the rest of this season, and Ryan, who has a successful short track and NASCAR regional series resume, will return in 2011 if financial backing is found. Meanwhile, Bayne may join Roush Fenway Racing.
• Richard Petty Motorsports has A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose set as part of the team's 2011 lineup but hasn't ruled out a third car for next season. Team owner Petty said last weekend in Dover that with the infrastructure in place for what is now a four-car team, ramping up from a planned two-car effort to three next season won't be hard. Finding the money to do so on the other hand won't be as easy.
• Only 12 points separate series leader Will Power and Dario Franchitti as the IZOD IndyCar Series prepares to finish its season Saturday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "Of course it couldn't be 14 or it couldn't be 13, it has to be 12, which means if Dario wins the pole and leads the most laps he wins the title without winning the race," Power said. "I just have to finish ahead of Dario."
• One of short-track racing's biggest events is on tap this weekend at Illinois' historic Rockford Speedway with the 45th running of "The National Short Track Championship." The top late model stock car drivers in the country will invade the tiny quarter mile, high banked asphalt oval for this year's edition, which is capped by a 200-lap main event Sunday night. Over the years Rockford has seen such future stars as Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Darrell Waltrip tackle the challenging speedway.