Points system impacts Chase

Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was yet another example of why to me, the sport of NASCAR is the greatest sport.

Our sport is unlike any stick-and-ball sport out there. Here’s a guy, Tony Stewart, who for the first 26 races of our regular season could only manage to finish in the top five in three races – just three, that’s it.

This is the same guy that had to go all the way to the last race of our regular season, at Richmond International Raceway, to even see if he was going to make the 2011 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup. This is the same guy who in August was saying they weren’t running well enough to be included in the Chase.

Tony even went as far to say more than once that even if they got into the Chase, they might be robbing someone else who was more deserving of his spot.

Now on the upside of things for the No. 14 Stewart camp, they had two good runs in the last two races leading into the Chase – at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Richmond – that gave them some much-needed momentum. I challenge you to find anyone, Tony Stewart included, that would have bet you any amount of money that he would go out and win the first two races in this year’s Chase, but he has done just that.

This just continues our year of surprises in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It all started in February with rookie Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500 and now it continues still in September with Tony notching two straight wins in the Chase.

When the year started, everyone picked Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards to be the odds-on favorites for the 2011 Chase. Jimmie was coming off his fifth consecutive championship season. Denny, who had finished second in the points, had won eight races in 2010. Carl had gotten hot and won the last two races of 2010.

Now go look at the season-to-date statistics. Sure, all three are in the Chase, but you’ll also notice that all three only have a single win. So they have a lot of work to do. This is why you have to tune in every week to our sport. This year, unlike any other in many years, you simply don’t know where the next surprise will come from. The fun part is everyone agrees we know there will be more surprises.

We have seven years of a model of what it takes to win the Chase. You hear us say it all the time, that you can only afford one bad race in the Chase if you want to be the champion. Look no further than Jimmie Johnson last year. Jimmie finished 25th in the Chase-opening race at New Hampshire in 2010. He overcame that and won the championship.

The difference with 2011 is the new points system. I think that is a big variable this year, but we still don’t know to what extent. I don’t think there is any question if you have two bad finishes outside the top 20, your championship dreams are over. Unfortunately, we have to be realistic because Denny Hamlin falls into that category.

It has to pain those guys to no end. They were so strong last year and in the Chase. His teammate, Kyle Busch, has had a great year but I am starting to see the repeat of Chase history for Kyle as well. He has a history of being so strong in the regular season but when the Chase begins, things just seem to fall apart.

I’m not saying it’s all Kyle’s fault. Can he control a loose wheel and running out of gas last week? Heck no. Unfortunately things just are not going well in either the Busch or Hamlin camps.