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Chase controversy continues in NASCAR's trip to Chicago


1. Image recovery starts anew for NASCAR with cars on track
What a week.

Judging by fan reaction alone — and boy, was there plenty of it — the way Michael Waltrip Racing decided to use Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer (allegedly, apparently) to get Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase for the Sprint Cup signaled a large shift in the way NASCAR does business as a competitive sport. Already forced to accept 10 years of the sport’s biggest upheaval with the advent of the Chase process, teams using tactics beyond going as fast as possible was the proverbial last ounce of water that broke the dam of fan discontent. NASCAR was forced to act.

At this point, it’s hardly even worth arguing if Bowyer, Vickers & Co., were out of line. The sport’s norms and traditions led MWR to the seemingly innocent combination of acts. They didn’t do anything necessarily wrong in their minds or even in the minds of most competitors not named Ryan Newman of Jeff Gordon

But to the most important stakeholder in all of this — the average NASCAR fan — MWR intentionally sliding two cars behind Joey Logano and putting Ryan Newman’s win in jeopardy late in the race to get Truex in the title fight was plain wrong.

It’s that reaction and that reaction alone that led to Monday’s unprecedented penalties. NASCAR had to remove Truex from the Chase lest calls of the 2013 season bearing an illegitimate champion may have continued for years. It’s unfortunate that the sanctions ultimately kicked a guilty-by-association Truex to the Chase curb. But NASCAR, based on its current rulebook and inability to decide conclusively about Bowyer’s late-race spin, was in a box. It was the farthest officials really could or wanted to go.

All told, the whole ordeal seems like a necessary growing pain for the sport’s future. It’s just one that is going to hurt for awhile.

[Editor's Note: Following the posting of this column, NASCAR announced that Jeff Gordon had been added as a 13th Chase participant.]

2. Caution will be the name of Clint Bowyer’s Chicago game  Clint Bowyer’s race could feel like a version of Mario Kart as he dodges potential troublemakers the whole way.

Who will play those roles? Well, Ryan Newman was ultimately vindicated from missing the Chase with the Monday penalties handed down by NASCAR, but of all of the sport’s drivers, he’s probably the least likely to have completely given a pass to Clint Bowyer. It’s Newman, after all, that consistently draws ire from other drivers for racing hard each and every lap no matter the position.

And then there is Jeff Gordon, who remained plenty heated this week over what he presumed was an intentional spin by Bowyer at Richmond that knocked him from the Chase. As we saw less than a year ago at Phoenix, he’s not exactly above settling scores on-track. Bowyer probably didn’t help things this week when, amidst a long non-denial denial tour filled with curious apologies, he said he wished he had intentionally knocked Gordon from the Chase.

Don’t forget, either, that at least two of Gordon’s teammates in Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have somewhat come to his defense or at least stated dissatisfaction with how Bowyer changed the Richmond race.

No, I’m not saying drivers will be bent on taking vengeance on Bowyer or any other MWR entity this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. But don’t expect them to get many on-track breaks from more than a handful of potentially disgruntled drivers. A lack of give-and-take can sometimes get dicey, however.

For what it’s worth, Bowyer has finished in the top 10 for four consecutive races at Chicagoland. He should figure in the proceedings by race end. He hopes to, at least, for the sake of his Chase hopes.

3. Chicagoland is NASCAR’s NostradamusShould Clint Bowyer avoid said obstacles and win Sunday’s race — I’d be very interested to hear what the Chicagoland crowd would sound like Sunday with the No. 15 doing burnouts on the frontstretch — he’ll be feeling good thanks to more than the post-race champagne.

That’s because in the last two seasons, Chicagoland’s 400-mile race winner has gone on to win the Sprint Cup title. First it was Tony Stewart in 2011 who pulled off a surprising fuel mileage race win just days after informing everyone that he was embarrassed to actually be a title-fight participant. Last year, it was Brad Keselowski dueling with and later beating Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps in a race that not only beared the eventual champion but the battle that would engross the sport over the final races.

Sunday’s race will be the third time that the Chase has opened in the Windy City.

4. Who can play Chase spoiler?
NASCAR may have the most unique playoff structure in sports for the sheer fact that even the teams not good enough to participate are included in the events.

That presents two ways for drivers not inside the Chase to actually become a big part of how it plays out. First, there’s the unfortunate way where an on-track incident could deal a big blow to an unassuming and innocent Chase contender. Those types of situations have generally been rare in the Chase’s 10-year history, but in a system that rewards aggregating points more than actually winning, a DNF can be a dream-killer.

There’s also the drivers looking to prove that missing the Chase isn’t the final peg for judging a season as a failure. Gordon and Brad Keselowski are both good examples here as they were competitive often this season while wins eluded and mechanical defects torpedoed their season points positions. Don’t lose sight of a miffed Truex or a statement-making Juan Pablo Montoya, either.

This process also leads to the evergreen question during this time of the NASCAR season: Is it really fair drivers in a selective title fight to compete for points among drivers who aren’t in the competition? Someone smart has probably considered and shot the idea down, but I’d be interested in to see how a system that allocates Chase points based on where a driver finishes comparative to other Chase drivers would work.

5. Middling consistency won’t win title for Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr.  
On the surface, all is virtually right in NASCAR’s world thanks to the most popular driver earning his third-straight bid to the Chase. It was only a few years ago when more than a few assessments of NASCAR’s addition of the Chase’s two Wild Card spots assumed it was the sport’s attempt to keep a struggling Dale Earnhardt Jr., in range of the postseason conversation.

That’s not been much of a question since 2010 as Earnhardt’s performance as a consistent front-runner has made Chase qualification easy. But Earnhardt’s title chances seem slim even before the Chase takes the green flag because has never re-assumed his early-career role as a frequent race winner. Even in this, one of his more consistent seasons to date, Earnhardt still has the fewest number of top-5 finishes (three) of Chase entrants and hasn’t won.

It’s the same story for Greg Biffle. A perennial Chase entrant himself, Biffle doesn’t appear slated for title run either. While he does have a win in 2013, Biffle has just five top-5 finishes in 26 races.

Nothing we’ve seen from either driver suggests they have the ability to turn up the performance starting Sunday. Of course, we didn’t see anything from Tony Stewart before his five-win Chase performance in 2011, either.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter:@GeoffreyMiller