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Chase should detour onto road course

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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Since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was introduced in 2004, I have been a proponent of adding a road course to NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

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If NASCAR is going to use 10 races to determine a champion, then it should be representative of a variety of venues that display a driver’s versatility and talent. But the tracks that have recently produced the best racing — road courses and short tracks — are starkly absent from the Chase.

Every Chase has been over-represented by intermediate tracks. And while NASCAR is working diligently to change the current car style for 2013 and make the Sprint Cup Series more competitive, the drama on road courses simply can’t be matched.

When NASCAR chairman Brian France was asked about the possibility of adding a road course to the Chase last month, he replied: “I don’t know. We only have two, so it would be a little challenging just from a scheduling perspective. We haven’t heard a lot of concern one way or the other why it is or it isn’t. So it wouldn’t be top of our list.”

But it should be. It’s shortsighted to think just because there are only two road courses in the Sprint Cup Series, that the sanctioning body shouldn’t take Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve under consideration. Canadian race fans are some of the sport’s most passionate. In 2008, when it poured on the 2.709-mile course, the spectators never left the stands. A race at Montreal would offer NASCAR international exposure without the security risks the sanctioning body faced in Mexico City.

If NASCAR elected to stay within the borders, Elkhart Lake has also been a popular stop on the Nationwide Series tour. Although the Cup series hasn’t raced there since 1956, the 4.048-mile circuit has provided an exceptional stage for Nationwide action over the past three seasons. And if the sanctioning body is looking for a Grand-Am-friendly venue, it’s perfect for a double bill. The only objection to Elkhart Lake is lodging. The closest city is Sheboygan, and Milwaukee is at least an hour from the track.

Still, now is the time to put NASCAR’s best product forward. And after witnessing the races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen this season, I’m convinced the most thrilling races are on road courses.

Here are 10 other storylines to watch during the coming week:

1. You have to see it to believe it

Drivers battled oily conditions in the closing laps of the Finger Lakes 355 on Sunday and questioned NASCAR’s decision not to call the race. After the race, Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said NASCAR spotters witnessed the No. 47 car smoking but didn’t see any oil on the track. But that wasn’t the case for the competitors.

“There was just oil everywhere from somebody,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “It was everywhere. You couldn’t see it, but it was everywhere. So you didn’t know where to run, and I saw the leaders were coming and I was just trying to get out of the way and they were in oil and I was in oil and then I watched everything that happened in front of me. It was a bad deal.”

2. Dodge done?

Despite Dodge’s announcement on Tuesday that the manufacturer will not return in 2013, chances are the backlash from race fans will force the car company to rethink its marketing plans in the future. Finding the right partner will be the first place to start considering that NASCAR’s future will be dominated by factory-backed teams.

3. Petty blue (oval)

Richard Petty wasn’t going to waste a perfect opportunity on Sunday. After Marcos Ambrose’s win, the King hit up Ford motorsports boss Jamie Allison in Victory Lane to shore up plans for 2013.

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“I’ve seen some of the Ford people here today, and I told them me and Marcos won the race,” Petty said. “I had my contract in my pocket, and I was gonna let them sign it right there. I don’t think it went over too good (laughing).”

RPM dropped a notch in the Ford pecking order after Penske Racing announced plans for join the manufacturer in March. But Petty, who hoped to be part of the Dodge equation, was left at the altar after last week’s announcement.

“When the Penske deal came about, then we were kind of shuffled around a little bit with Ford," Petty said. "I don’t think we’re shuffled out, but we’re kind of shuffled around. So we’re just gonna have to renegotiate our contract with Ford is I guess the way it’s gonna be.”

4. JGR’S terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day

There are surely days where coach Joe Gibbs wishes he were back in training camp. Sunday was one of those days. A broken shock mount sent Joey Logano to the garage on Lap 32. His No. 20 team repaired the car, and Logano finished 32nd. Denny Hamlin was the next casualty. On Lap 58, his engine caught fire.

“I started feeling the heat and I looked down and saw fire right by my feet, and it was coming through the fire wall,” Hamlin said.

At least, Hamlin found the words to describe the situation. After Kyle Busch lost control of his car — and the lead — on the last lap, he simply accepted his seventh-place finish and went home.

5. Just Smokin'

Before Sunday, crew chief Steve Addington quipped that his driver wasn’t good during practice at Sonoma and still finished second. If only Tony Stewart’s Watkins Glen performance had been executed as smoothly. Stewart’s issues began in the pits as he left before the gas can was removed from his car on Lap 29 while running third. He restarted 20th and climbed up to second on the Lap 62 restart. Stewart spun on the frontstretch 10 circuits later and finished 19th.

6. Montoya's misadventures

How does the saying go, “If it wasn’t for bad luck . . . ” Well, meet Juan Pablo Montoya. After winning two consecutive poles, his final results were disappointing. He told reporters while sidelined on Sunday, “If we wouldn’t finish, it’s been a tough year.” Montoya completed a total of 63 laps before an accident ended his afternoon with a 33rd-place finish. Montoya dropped to 22nd in the points standings. Just as an aside, Montoya’s former crew chief Brian Pattie’s average finish on road courses this year is 2.5. Montoya’s is 33.5.

7. Where the rubber meets the road

Greg Biffle participated in the tire test at Michigan on July 30-31 to verify Goodyear’s control tire for this weekend’s events.

“I think Goodyear did a good job,” Biffle said. “They had a little bit harder tire, maybe a little bit thinner on the right side so it doesn’t get as hot. They seem like they ran really good. The speeds were down just a little bit, but not much. I think it’s gonna be good. I don’t think it’ll be a lot different than when we were there before, and I thought it put on a pretty good race.”

Biffle trails current points leader Jimmie Johnson by only one point. He has won two of Jack Roush’s 11 trophies at Michigan International Speedway, most recently in 2005. Johnson has never won at Michigan, but has earned the most points of any driver in the past two races.

8. Back to the drawing board

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Jamie McMurray’s experience at the Glen ended after 24 laps when motor mounts broke on the No. 1 Chevrolet. The good news is he’ll have another opportunity to redeem himself after signing an extension with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing for next year. Mac said the team has a test on Tuesday with “some developmental parts for Michigan, so hopefully we find something there.” After EGR’s outing at the Glen, the organization could use a lift.

9. Hometown boy makes good

Cato, N.Y.’s Regan Smith posted his best finish (ninth) at his hometown track, Watkins Glen International. For Smith, it was also his second consecutive top 10 — and his second top 10 of the season — under the direction of crew chief Todd Berrier, who joined Furniture Racing before the Brickyard 400. Before Sunday, Smith’s best run at the Glen was 23rd.

10. Invasion of the body snatchers

Was that really Kurt Busch on TV Sunday? His reaction on TV while sidelined as his team scrambled to reconstruct the No. 51 Chevrolet — a car that barely passed inspection that morning — was a departure from some of his earlier interviews.

“We are still trying to understand,” Busch calmly said on the sidelines. “The axle shucked out, it’s on the track. It felt like a broken track bar again, like we had at Sonoma, but it’s not. They are just working hard to find out what it is and I want to get back on track just to make sure that we diagnosis the problem the best we can.

"These guys work way too hard for these mechanical things to happen. Sometimes, these things just add up and we are just on the wrong side of the eight ball. I’ve just got to thank (team owner James) Finch and Phoenix Racing, this Chevy. We were coming to the front, we were catching those guys to be on that strategy and just to pit twice today similar to Sonoma, but it didn’t turn out.”

Busch, who was the feel-good story at Sonoma, returned to the track and finished 31st, nine laps down.

Tagged: Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Regan Smith

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