The best laid plans of mice and men -- and now NASCAR -- often go awry. That's the situation this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where NASCAR's three national series close out their seasons.
NASCAR created the Chase to build drama in the Sprint Cup championship over the last 10 races and take it down to a grand, Super Bowl-type finale. On balance, compared to the old system, it's worked well in its initial four seasons, but Jimmie Johnson, with his 141-point lead over Carl Edwards going into Sunday's Ford 400, has turned it into a lackluster conclusion. Johnson only needs to finish 36th to clinch his third straight title. NASCAR has lost a chunk of the television audience, and perhaps some of the fans in the stands, before the green flag waves.
Now comes the embarrassing part for NASCAR: Without the Chase, the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series both have real, live, down-to-the wire runs for the championships. With 34 races in the books, Edwards trails Clint Bowyer by 56 points going into Saturday's Nationwide race. The NCTS' Ford 200 on Friday is a virtual match race between Johnny Benson and Ron Hornaday Jr. with 34 other trucks on the track. Benson leads Hornaday by three points after 24 races. It's the closest ever in the Truck series and only the 1979 Sprint Cup championship, in which Darrell Waltrip led Richard Petty by two points going into the finale, has been tighter in NASCAR history.
Edwards, going for his second straight Nationwide title, has chopped 140 points off Bowyer's lead in the past three races with two victories (including last weekend at Phoenix) and a second.
"If we run like we've been running and we perform as well as we have and [crew chief] Drew [Blickensderfer] makes the decisions that he's been making, we can close 56 points without Clint [Bowyer] having trouble," Edwards said following the Phoenix race. "They just have to have a little bit of an off day. We needed to win this race. We needed to lead the most laps [which Edwards did]."
Bowyer has been 16th, sixth and fourth in the last three races. The Richard Childress Racing driver was caught up in a crash with 122 laps to go at Phoenix that damaged his Chevrolet's nose. Bowyer restarted 30th and made a remarkable run to fourth to maintain the points lead.
"It was a roller coaster, for sure," Bowyer said. "But I'm really proud of our guys. They didn't give up. I thought the championship was done right there."
Edwards has the momentum, Bowyer a decent lead in the points going into a classic Ford vs. Chevrolet battle.
"If someone would have come to me at the beginning of the year and said, 'You'll have a 56-point lead [going into Homestead-Miami],' I'd have been pumped," Bowyer said. "If we go out there and do exactly what we did [at Phoenix], then we'll be champions."
Kyle Busch has 10 wins and 17 top-fives in 29 races and would also be in the thick of the championship if he had decided to run the full Nationwide schedule. Busch would be the leader if he had averaged an eighth-place finish in the five races he missed.
Hornaday exemplifies the Truck series reputation as the Old Timers Tour. He'd become the first 50-plus driver to win a NASCAR national series championship. He's also become the first to win back-to-back titles and the first four-time NCTS champion.
In a Truck, Hornaday is as good as anybody. Busch has driven in 17 of the 24 NCTS races and has three wins. Hornaday has six and is the all-time leader in the series with 39.
The 45-year-old Benson has plenty left, too. He has five wins this season and 14 in the past three years. Benson can also make some history. He'd become the second driver, joining Greg Biffle, to win both the Truck and Nationwide championships.
Benson and Hornaday have exchanged the points lead five times this season. They've combined to hold it since the ninth race.
The Truck series has some controversy, too. NASCAR changed the engine rules for the Toyota engines prior to the 17th race of the season at Gateway in St. Louis, reducing their power by an estimated 15 to 20 horsepower through the use of a different carburetor restrictor. Benson, who drives a Toyota for Bill Davis Racing, had a 119-point lead over Hornaday, who drives a Chevrolet for Kevin Harvick Inc.
"It's hurt us," Benson said. "[With] the rule change, I knew they [Hornaday] were going to gain points. That part was going to be pretty obvious. But, we're doing everything we can to hold them off."
When the change was announced, Benson predicted the Chevrolet and Ford drivers would make their biggest gains on the 1.5-mile tracks and that appears to be the case. Hornaday has been second at Atlanta and won at Texas in the two races on 1.5-mile tracks since then. Benson was seventh at Atlanta and third at Texas.
Miami-Homestead is a 1.5-mile track, but Hornaday doesn't see that has a guarantee he can finish in front of Benson.
"Nobody has the advantage anymore in this point battle," Hornaday said. "I think this championship is going to go to the guy that has the least amount of bad luck. I've been saying for the past tew weeks this thing is going to come down to Homestead and here we are."
It will be Benson's final race with Davis and, perhaps, in the Truck series. He's announced he's leaving, but says he hasn't decided where he's going.
The race will also conclude Craftsman's 14-season run as title sponsor. Camping World begins its seven-year agreement next year.
The Nationwide and Truck series don't carry the prestige of Sprint Cup, but it's good, hard racing with championships going down to the last lap of the season. It isn't what NASCAR had hoped for, but two out of three ain't bad.