Bruce Martin
Monday September 15th, 2008

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- So after the first race of the Chase, it is apparent that Jimmie Johnson picked the right time of the season to be at the top of his game, while Kyle Busch could not have picked a worse time to falter.

That is the danger of this 12-driver, 10-race process that determines the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. Busch threw away his 80 bonus points in one day and with a 34th-place finish following a miserable drive that included spin outs, a broken Heim Joint and other maladies, Busch is now 74 points out of the lead with nine races remaining.

While there is plenty of time left in NASCAR's Chase for Busch to pedal his way back to the front, once again it shows just how meaningless the 26-race exercise known as the "regular season" can be to the driver who enters the Chase atop the standings.

Busch looked unstoppable at the end of the regular season with a 203-point lead over Carl Edwards, but that was all but wiped out when the points were reset for the 12 drivers that are in the Chase, leaving Busch with a 30-point lead over Edwards.

Jeff Gordon discovered that last year and Johnson suffered the same fate in 2004 and '05. They all had healthy leads in the standings wiped out when the Chase began and ultimately watched another driver celebrate the title. The same scenario could easily happen to Busch this year. Consider that the No. 1 seed in the Chase has won the championship just once.

Suddenly, eight victories and a confident swagger don't look so good for the driver who was leaving his competitors in his exhaust fumes for most of the season. But, this is the way NASCAR wants it.

When they came up with the innovative, although far too contrived, plan to determine the season champion beginning with the 2004 season, they wanted to have more drivers battling for the Cup title. In theory, they would like to see seven or more drivers have a legitimate chance of winning the championship heading into the final race of the season.

After all, the team with the best record in the National Football League doesn't always win the Super Bowl -- just ask the New England Patriots about that.

But those sports have a legitimate "playoff" format where teams are involved in an elimination tournament where teams are seeded. Once a team is eliminated, they are out of contention.

But in NASCAR's Chase format, the teams still alive for the championship are still competing against the other 31 teams that missed the cut in the regular season.

So a Chad McCumbee can still have an impact on Matt Kenseth's championship run as that actually happened on Sunday at New Hampshire late in the race in a six-car crash that brought out the red flag and put Kenseth out of the race.

Give NASCAR credit for trying to infuse some interest in a points system that sometimes resulted in a "Ho-Hum" points race, such as 2003, when Kenseth won the title with one victory.

But if Dale Earnhardt Jr. had won the 2003 Cup title with no victories, would NASCAR have felt the same urgency to change how a champion is determined? I highly doubt it.

NASCAR's Chase was a huge success in its first year when five drivers all had a chance at winning the title in the final race before Kurt Busch ultimately prevailed in 2004. But since then, one or two drivers have sped out of the gates and left the rest of the Chasers behind as Gordon virtually conceded any hope of winning the title to Johnson after the Phoenix race last year with one race remaining.

NASCAR has been successful in selling the Chase to the media. It becomes part of the sports vocabulary as soon as the checkered flag drops at the Daytona 500 in February.

But the one group that hasn't embraced the Chase is the most important constituency of all -- the race fans.

Most of the people that attend a Sprint Cup race are there to see if Earnhardt Jr. is going to win the race and if he can't, then they will pick another driver to cheer on to the checkered flag or boo if they get in "Junior's way." They are there to watch the race not calculate who is leading the Chase.

Last year before the October race at Talladega, I decided to sneak out of the press box and find an empty seat in the open-air grandstands at the tri-oval, to catch the full force of the start of the race. While I sat in the stands, I listened in to what some of the fans were saying, not letting them know that I was an eavesdropping member of the media.

"I don't buy into this whole idea of taking away points from a man who earned them in the regular season," one fan said to his friend. "That just ain't right. Look what they did to Jeff Gordon. They took 365 points away from him at the start of the Chase. Now that just ain't right to take points away from the man like that."

Now remember, these were race fans at Talladega, Alabama -- not exactly a bastion of sympathy for Jeff Gordon. In fact, they would rather throw beer bottles at the No. 24 Chevrolet than bouquets of roses.

So now, Kyle Busch finds himself in a similar scenario. Stripped of his once-mighty points lead and thanks to a bad race to start the Chase he feels urgency for the first time all season.

It means that suddenly, he can envision another driver hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy at the end of the Chase after a season where he was seemingly in firm control.

This weekend was the highly-publicized Sprint Cup debut for 18-year-old Joey Logano, the driver whom NASCAR has called "the greatest thing since sliced bread."

After watching the rookie wheel the No. 96 Toyota around the flat one-mile oval, this loaf of bread may have been brought out of the oven too soon.

Because Friday's qualifications were rained out, Logano made the starting lineup based on the owner's points for the Hall of Fame Racing entry. He started 40th and finished 32nd, completing 297 of 300 laps.

That's not bad for a kid from Middletown, Conn., who should be entering his freshman year in college, getting used to the blandness of dorm food or figuring out if he wants to pledge a fraternity.

But Logano wasn't participating in this race for a top 10 finish; he was taking his first course in "NASCAR Sprint Cup 101" and by using those standards, he should get high marks for staying out of the way.

"It was a tough one," Logano said. "We tried hard, but it just wasn't there the whole time. Deep down inside I really wanted a better finish than that. After our practice session at Richmond [last week], I thought we were going to have a lot better race car than that. We just missed it. We got close to where we needed to be -- just too late in the race and we weren't able to work on it from there."

Logano is getting a crash course in Cup racing because he will take over one of the best cars in the garage area -- the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota Camry currently driven by Tony Stewart.

"I learned a lot and I'll take a lot from this for when we come back here next time," Logano said. "I just wish we would've had a little better run than that. I learned there's a lot of give and take out there. Again, there's a lot of take -- believe me. We learned a lot, so we'll just have to take what we got."

Logano is scheduled to drive five more Sprint Cup races in 2008, one for Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 02 Home Depot Toyota at Atlanta, and four for Hall of Fame Racing in the No. 96 DLP HDTV Toyota at Kansas, Charlotte, Martinsville and Texas.

Ken Schrader is scheduled to drive the No. 96 DLP HDTV Toyota in next week's Sprint Cup race at Dover, while Logano will drive the No. 20 GameStop Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

When Aaron Fike admitted earlier this year to shooting up heroin while he was a NASCAR driver, it struck at the sport's lack of an aggressive drug testing program. But when it was discovered that NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr. had used a topical cream that included Testosterone -- a human-growth hormone -- it was simply another overblown media report.

Consider that Hornaday was in the midst of a health crisis where he had lost so much weight in 2004, Ghandi could have probably taken him in hand-to-hand combat.

I'm not condoning the use of steroids or human growth hormone, but Hornaday was fearful that he had cancer before he was properly diagnosed as having Graves Disease, a thyroid condition that is currently being treated.

With steroid use a major issue in other sports, it would only be a matter of time before it found its way into NASCAR, but in Hornaday's case a topical cream certainly wasn't a performance advantage.

So when NASCAR officials met with the driver on Friday morning and said there would be no penalties or sanctions for what they considered a "personal medical issue" it was the right call.

"Our substance abuse experts have told us the prescription Ron Hornaday used did not enhance his performance or impair his judgment. It is our understanding Ron had a very serious health issue, which is continuing to be addressed," Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications, said on Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Anyone who watched Hornaday wither away during that period knew there might be something wrong with him. After all, the driver was as strong as they come and had Popeye-sized forearms.

"From a friend standpoint, when we saw Ron's health start to deteriorate, it's not about driving, it's about somebody's personal health," Kevin Harvick said. "He was misdiagnosed twice. After the California race [in 2007] I told him. 'That's it. You're done until you figure out what's wrong.'

"From an owner's standpoint, maybe that's not how I should have done it. But from a friend's standpoint, that's how I did it."

And the thought that steroids can give a driver a performance advantage is way off-base. Yes, race drivers are athletes, there is no argument about that and anyone who doesn't think so should climb into a Cup car and take a few laps with a driver at speed to see the physical demands and skill required to drive 500 miles on a high-speed race track with 42 other competitors.

Joe Gibbs Racing was caught using magnets to keep the accelerator from engaging fully on the chassis dyno when the car Nos. 18 and 20 were being tested after a Nationwide Series race at Michigan last month. Now that was a performance advantage. But a topical cream containing testosterone?

"I don't see how it would help you," said Carl Edwards when asked about steroids. "We've got power-steering and I think the competitive advantage in this sport is more mechanical with the car. As a person, I don't know that there's anything other than just practicing and focusing and doing the best you can that helps you. I would think anything that alters your state of mind or anything like that would be bad for you. All you have to do is line up all the drivers and look at our different statures and strengths and sizes and it has no bearing on how you run on the race track."

What is truly distasteful were the unethical methods that were used in the ambush interview at Hornaday's house thinking they were tracking down Victor Conte and another BALCO situation instead of someone suffering from Graves Disease.

"Did they go to his house and bang on his door and say answer this? Answer this piece of paper?" Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "He didn't call them and say hey, come on over here and ask me about HGH. They just came at him.

"I feel bad for Ron. He's a good guy and if his doctor told him that's what he needed to do to help the problem he had, I think that's way more important. Your health is number one and if he's being honest which I believe him then he don't got no reason, Hell have you seen that man's gut?"

Matt Kenseth may not be mathematically out of contention in the Chase but he is already 177 points out of the lead after the first race, following his 41st-place finish at New Hampshire on Sunday, he's in a pretty deep hole.

Not only does the driver from Cambridge, Wisc., have to make up the deficit, but he also has to pass 11 drivers to get to the top. "You just kind of take it one week at a time," Kenseth said afterward. "We've got to get running better. Today, we were going to salvage something decent, I thought, after not much of a Friday and Saturday, so we've just got to keep working and get our performance better.

"We just really have to approach it one week at a time and work as hard as we can every week to get our cars better. If we can get our cars better and run up front, most of the time things like this won't happen. If we would have been up running where Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards were running, we wouldn't have got wrecked to start with, so I always feel it's partially your fault. Even though we got caught up in somebody else's mess, if we would have been running better, we would have been ahead of their mess."

First, it was Brett Favre leaving the Green Bay Packers. Then, it was the Milwaukee Brewers folding up like a cheap umbrella to the Chicago Cubs (Egad! Not the Cubs!!) in the National League Central. Now, it's Matt Kenseth wrecking his way out of the Chase.

The good news for Wisconsin natives is ice-fishing season is only a few months off.

With Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards dominating the Cup regular season -- and Jimmie Johnson's recent surge -- a tie at the top of the standings following the first Chase race was expected. Edwards and Johnson are both atop the standings but Busch has sunk to eighth, 74 points out of the lead after a miserable day.

"It's cool to be leading the points," Edwards said.

Johnson chooses to take his typical corporate outlook to leading the Chase with nine races remaining.

"We'd love to be in Victory Lane celebrating right now, but the big picture, second place is not a bad day at the office," Johnson said. "I'm so very happy with the performance."

When Greg Biffle blew past Jimmie Johnson late in Sunday's race, Biffle baffled the race leader and went on to score the 13th win of his career.

It also boosted the Roush Fenway driver to third in the Chase, 30 points out of the lead, leaving him in better position to win the Chase than Kyle Busch.

"That's a credit to NASCAR and all those guys that came up with that Chase format," Biffle said. "It gives 12 guys a chance to win a championship. That's exactly why they designed it that way to reset the points. I'm surprised that the points leader coming in -- especially with an 80-point lead -- I'm surprised to see him that far back. I knew he was going to finish bad when he was two laps down, but that can happen with the Chase. We all know that.

"That's what hurts so bad when we're trying to get in the Chase. We're leading at Darlington and had a problem and finished 43rd and you take such a hit in the points when you finish dead last. It's unbelievable how fast you can fall."

Maybe this year Biffle can baffle everyone by winning the Cup title after coming so close in 2005.

Kyle Busch left New Hampshire Motor Speedway without a comment on his 34th place finish, but he got some words of support from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Tony Stewart.

"He just needs to go home and forget about it for the week," Stewart said. "He has been the dominant force all year, and today was one of those odd days for him. You feel bad for him because you know they're better than that. But you know if there's anybody that can rebound from a day like today, it's that 18 [Kyle Busch] car and Kyle and Steve Addington and those guys. They're not out of this yet."

Collin Pasi, an engineer at Roush Fenway Racing, nearly became a hood ornament on Greg Biffle's car during a pit stop late in Sunday's race.

Pas was in front of Biffle's car taking tape off the front of a brake duct when the jack dropped and Biffle hit the throttle.

"I almost did run over that guy that was in front of the car taking the tape off because I couldn't see him," Biffle recalled. "I saw him go across the hood and down and they dropped the jack and it was like, 'I didn't see that guy run out of there. I jumped the clutch and was on the gas and then he popped his head up, so I had to push the clutch back in and give him a chance to get out of there, so it was kind of funny actually."

Crew chief Greg Erwin said the team was trying to save its brakes and put some additional tape on the right side brake duct.

"I've known him since he was a little kid, so I feel good that we didn't run him over," Erwin said. "He knows when the jack drops it's time to go.

"He's a big, strong kid. He'd do anything for a win."

Sebastian Vettel set Formula One history over the weekend in the Grand Prix of Italy by becoming the youngest driver ever to win a pole and a grand prix.

The previous youngest race winner was Spaniard Fernando Alonso, who was 22 years and 26 days old when he won the 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix for Renault. Vettel will not be 22 until July 3, 2009. Vettel is 21 years and 73 days old.

"I don't know what to say, but this is just unbelievable. I feel so happy for me, for my family and the team," Vettel said. "When I stood on the podium and saw the crowd it was a moment I will never forget for the rest of my life."

With four races remaining, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain has 78 points to Felipe Massa's 77 and Robert Kubica's 64 for BMW-Sauber, pending an appeal into the result of the Belgian Grand Prix, where the championship leader was demoted from first to third for cutting a chicane.

Finally, proof that in Formula One a smaller team can actually win a race. Toro Rosso's victory should be hailed as a true David and Goliath story for a form of racing where the top teams are funded by sponsorships from global economies.

The first motorcycle race in nearly a century was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the weekend with the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix.

Valentino Rossi became the winningest rider in MotoGP history with his victory, overcoming rainy and windy conditions. Local favorite Nicky Hayden, from nearby Owensboro, Ky., finished second on his No. 69 Repsol Honda Team Honda/Michelin in the shortened race, his first podium finish since August 2007.

The victory, which came under tough wind and rain conditions due to the passing remnants of Hurricane Ike, gave five-time MotoGP World Champion Rossi his 69th win in the premier class, one more than fellow Italian legend Giacomo Agostini.

Rossi, rider of the No. 46 Fiat Yamaha Team Yamaha/Bridgestone, said he appreciates the significance of victory at Indianapolis.

"It is quite special, yes," he said. "I hear that Indianapolis has just the top class of all the motorsports. So from Indy to NASCAR and now in motorcycle we have MotoGP. So it's important. It is something right on the history. But especially I'm so happy because I like the track."

Race officials red-flagged the race on the 20th of 28 scheduled laps due to driving rain propelled by gusty winds. Rossi and Hayden were both adamant that officials made the right call, citing the blinding rain and gusts that, without warning, pushed their bikes side to side as they rocketed down the Speedway's main straightaway at 190 mph.

"The wind is very inconsistent and very strong," Rossi said. "You never know what's going to happen with the bike. Every lap, I look and I say, 'I hope for the red flag; I hope for the red flag.' It was a good decision to end the race."

Rossi took an 87-point victory over reigning champion Casey Stoner and can clinch his sixth MotoGP world title Sept. 28 at the Grand Prix of Japan at Motegi.

Hayden could not hide his emotions following the race, partly for claiming his first podium since finishing third at the Czech Republic in August 2007, but even more so because he led 12 of the 20 laps in front of family, friends and fans.

"Man, I had nothing to lose here," Hayden said. "I just had to go for it. The bike felt good in the wet. Man, it felt really good to be in the lead, and I felt quite comfortable. It's been a long time. I was thinking, 'This only happens in the movies.'

"I just want to thank the team, my family, and my fans for sticking behind me. I'd like to thank the fans. We only had to be out there for 40 minutes, they've been out there all day in the rain."

Sam Hornish Jr. was once considered the greatest IndyCar driver of his era when he won three series titles and the 2006 Indianapolis 500 before making the jump to NASCAR this season.

Now, Hornish will be the voice of "Roary the Racing Car" in an animated series that is aimed at preschoolers that is scheduled to begin Oct. 13 on PBS Kids Sprout, an on-demand online product.

What's next? A.J. Foyt as "Foghorn Leghorn?"

Actually, I've always thought Dan Wheldon was the voice of the "Geico Gecko."

"Kyle would be afraid of him like everybody else was. Not many people messed with him and got the good end of the stick. I don't know. I'm not as aggressive as my dad and he would have handled it probably a lot differently." -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., when asked how his father would have dealt with Kyle Busch.

"Honestly, I don't even feel like talking about that. It's so silly. That was just a race where one guy threw a little fit and it turned into a giant deal. I don't think there's really anything to it." -- Carl Edwards being asked, yet again, if there is a feud between himself and Kyle Busch.

"Let me say first of all that all the Red Sox fans, we're glad to be here with John Henry. They won last night and we were able to win today. They probably felt as bad about their chances halfway through the game last night as I watched it as I did from the lap times we had on Friday and Saturday." -- Jack Roush, who co-owns Roush Fenway Racing with the ownership group of the Boston Red Sox led by John Henry.

"Well I mean we don't want to wreck each other. I don't want to hit Jeff; I like him. I thought I had him and I slipped a little bit and he got back by me. It was just great, great racing. I hate that I lost a spot though because every one is important, but it's fun. He's a good racer. He's hard to beat man, just smooth." -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. talking about his battle with Jeff Burton in Sunday's Cup race.

If I were going to Dover for Race No. 2 of the Chase, it would be a plate of steamed blue crab at Sambo's Tavern (No joke, that's what it is really called) in nearby Leipsic, Del.. But, I'm not as it's a chance to recharge the batteries before hitting the road for the last eight races of the Chase beginning at Kansas Speedway next were where the toughest choice will be the sliced beef sandwich at Arthur Bryant's Barbecue near the Negro League Baseball Museum or the short ends at Gate's Barbecue.

So, it's the last full weekend of college football on HDTV on Saturday trying to see if Charlie Weis of Notre Dame can remain a "leg up" on the competition, or at least get out of the way of his own players on the sidelines followed by the NFL on Sunday and of course, the insight of SI's Peter King on NBC's Football Night in America.

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