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NASCAR tries to move past Chase scandal following Chicagoland opener


Technically, Matt Kenseth stood in Victory Lane Sunday night, the winner of NASCAR’s 12 Hours of Chicagoland. There are all sorts of stats, analysis and history I’m supposed to pair with that for you. It’s his series-leading sixth victory of the year, more than his No. 20 car had registered throughout the last six years of competition. It’s a driver armed with something to prove, hoping to bookmark the last championship under the old format with his first under NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship. A compelling storyline? Under the right circumstances, I would say absolutely.

But as the confetti rained down, replacing the rain that had destroyed most of Sunday at the racetrack, celebrating a victory for anyone seemed hollow. Eight days after “Spingate,” three days after NBC News aired a story asking, “Is NASCAR rigged?” the garage still licked wounds from Richmond’s awful aftermath. The sanctioning body, exhausted after its week of ridicule in the public eye, has to sit back, process and realize that it just asked the best racers in the country to try. That’s right, one of the myriad rules changes in effect now has the right to penalize a driver for not giving 100 percent. LeBron James takes the fourth quarter of regular season game off? Maybe the coach benches him. Maybe. But if that happens in NASCAR? It could cost a driver a championship.

It’s part of a wide display of overregulation, inconsistency and credibility concerns going forward which leave everyone involved in the sport with constant nausea. No, there’s no reason to throw up anymore; but at this point, there’s no guarantee that pain in your stomach is easing off. Clint Bowyer spins to manipulate the outcome of a race? He could still walk away with the trophy come Homestead. In fact, 31 percent of NASCAR’s current field – including Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman – would win the title with an asterisk if 10 weeks’ worth of dominoes falls just right. That’s not the type of odds you want when it comes to a lifetime of dirty historical context.

It’s not easy to watch NASCAR’s House of Cards fall to the ground. It’s even harder to pick up all those flimsy pieces of hardened paper and rebuild it. So you can forgive me, along with most of my audience, for not delving too deep into the stats of Chicagoland. Yes, Matt Kenseth won the race. But NASCAR as a whole has lost a battle for both its relevancy and credibility during its 10-week playoff.

Those who have dedicated their life to this sport still have faith that they’ll win the war. They have to, for the sake of their future survival. But moving on won’t happen with one quiet, darkened Victory Lane celebration on a Joliet Sunday night. It may not even have happened by the time the series gets to Homestead. If there’s one thing this race taught us, it’s that healing, through the course of good ol’ natured competition, won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take time.

With that said, there’s still a column to write. “Through the Gears,” post-Chicagoland, we go:

FIRST GEAR: Not the best way to put a cheating scandal behind youThe one thing NASCAR couldn’t control, in a week of flexing muscles and exerting authority over their sport, was Mother Nature. Sunday became a wash on many levels as the first race of the playoffs ended 10 hours after its original start time, around midnight eastern when most fans had dozed off or grown tired of extensive delays. It didn’t help that the Air Titan — new technology in place to vacuum up water quickly — was mysteriously unavailable for one of the sport’s most important races. Why? Chicagoland, owned by the International Speedway Corp. – directly connected to NASCAR and its billions – couldn’t afford the $50,000 price tag.

That, to be honest, tells you as much about the financial state of the speedway as executive idiocy; the stands, even before the rain, were no more than half full. But perhaps more importantly, with all that TV time on their hands, there was far too little racing to revisit on ESPN and far too much “Spingate,” “Spingate Revised” and “a black eye for the sport from — you guessed it — Spingate.” It was an afternoon full of Negative Nancy publicity, mixed with the loss of any casual fans turning heads to see what this fracas was all about. As a casual fan or someone curious about the events of the week, why sit and watch when the race takes over 10 hours to complete? Especially when there’s some juicy NFL action just a click away.

The icing on the cake was three of the race’s top-5 finishers: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. Those were the trio the prognosticators thought would be contending for the title in the first place. Cinderella was nowhere to be found. What NASCAR was left with, as we start week two of the Chase, is simple: her broken glass slipper, no one at the dance and a whole lot of pumpkins to turn back into a carriage of believers all over again.

SECOND GEAR: Gibbs gets great start to the Chase  
Kyle Busch’s Chase for the Championship, more often than not, is kaput by the second race of the playoffs. So while second place is typically the first loser, on Sunday night it was a confidence-building effort by a team that needs to start with a foundation of solid finishes that prove it’ll be a contender.

“It’s a process,” Busch said after exiting his car. “Our program seems to be working well with these mile-and-a-half tracks. I think having the 18 and 20 run up front shows that we’re capable (of contending).”

Perhaps Busch’s confidence will come quicker with the stability of winner Kenseth alongside. Holding a title in hand already, he’s well-versed in competing for the big prize — albeit not under this format. Kenseth’s legendary patience paid off Sunday night, getting the right push from Kevin Harvick on the final restart to blow by his teammate, Busch. It’s a steady presence the latter can learn from.

However, perhaps the biggest education came in the form of a blown engine from JGR’s third car, non-Chaser Denny Hamlin’s No. 11. The experimental mule, it was an aggressive engine package that shows the organization exactly how far it can push the envelope. One blown engine could be all it takes to derail a title campaign, so expect Hamlin to have two, maybe more, the next few months so his teammates wind up with zero.

THIRD GEAR: Big delay means bad break on engines  
Speaking of powerplant problems, two Chasers seem already down for the count. Both Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. hit the garage early Sunday night as part of a rash of failures blamed on the long rain delay. With both registering finishes well outside the top 30, any comeback will be difficult in this, a 13-driver Chase where the top-three seeds logged top-5 finishes on Sunday night.

“We have some pretty tough competition in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “The average finish is going to be inside the top 10 to win the championship.  So you can do the numbers, you can do the math.”

For Logano, the finish was just as crippling considering Penske Racing’s had arguably the most speed on the series’ last three intermediate-track stops. With a poor track record at some of the other venues on the Chase schedule, the No. 22 Ford needed to rebuild momentum, post-Richmond, to jumpstart its bid. That won’t happen now.

Among the other notable engine failures at were Richmond Michael Waltrip Racing’s  Brian Vickers, JGR’s Hamlin and BK Racing’s David Reutimann, driving a Triad Toyota.

FOURTH GEAR: Jimmie Johnson’s road to recovery
Why has “Five-Time” won so many titles? For an answer, look no further than Sunday night. The No. 48 was arguably the fastest car on-track and would have run circles around the field in clean air. Instead, Lady Luck was conspiring to have this Chase contender run 35th. A NASCAR official bungled a call on the first pit stop, claiming a lugnut was left loose when it wasn’t. Then a flat tire, luckily found just before a caution flag, left this team sitting well outside the top 20.

Typically at intermediate races, that type of track position deficit — even with 115 laps to go — is the kiss of death. But Johnson went right to work, passing cars and ending up a solid fifth when the checkered flag flew. If not for the race’s final caution, one might argue he would have ended up second behind Kenseth. It was the type of save that other Chase teams won’t always make when problems come their way. That gives Johnson a 10-15 point head start amongst the rest. Fans love to hate them, the media falls asleep interviewing them, but you’ve got to hand it to Hendrick’s best team: they know what it takes to get this done.

What better way to get back at someone who fired you? By jumping ship right to his biggest rival, that’s how. And that’s exactly what Juan Pablo Montoya did Monday, signing an IndyCar deal with Roger Penske that keeps that program on par, if not better than, rival Chip Ganassi. What a strange turn of events, considering how loyal Ganassi has been to his open-wheel-turned-stock-car project. Most thought Montoya should have been ousted two or three years ago. … Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is quietly turning the corner this season. He’s got two straight top-10 finishes after going the first 25 races without one. A little further back, although not as impressive, was girlfriend Danica Patrick, who continues to step it up on intermediates. She was a reasonable 20th and on the lead lap Sunday night. … The first race with NASCAR’s new restart rule was controversy free. But there’s still a sense of subjectivity involved. When and how does NASCAR determine if the first-place driver “mashes the gas” coming to the green flag? You get the sense the sanctioning body is hesitant to embrace all the technology in front of it — like live telemetry to make these types of instantaneous decisions. No need to voluntarily use human error in 2013, right?

Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter:@NASCARBowles

Photos byActions Sports, Inc.