Commentary: 'Chase' lags behind IRL

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The championship race is so tight and so tense, tempers are boiling. Car owners have nearly come to blows.

Accusations of dirty driving abound.

This, however, is the IndyCar Series, its final month full of bickering and blocking. All of which is a tremendous buildup for Sunday's season finale in Chicago, where Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti will attempt to hold off Scott Dixon and teammate Tony Kanaan for the title.

Meanwhile, back in America's No. 1 racing series, NASCAR's much-hyped "Race to the Chase" has been a bit of a dud.

Only Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains mathematically eligible to grab one of the final Chase spots Saturday night at Richmond. But Earnhardt is 128 points behind the 12th and final qualifying spot, and even he admits his chances are slim to none.

"It doesn't look like we're going to make it, but we're not going to quit trying until they tell us we're not (in)," Earnhardt said after finishing fifth in Sunday night's race at California Speedway in Fontana.

And that's what this 26-race "regular season" has come down to: Junior's last, desperate grasp at the title he's never delivered to his daddy's company, and the need for catastrophe to strike a rival driver to make it happen.

Of course, this is the precursor to the main event. The 10-race march to the Nextel Cup championship is still a week away, and it's possible it will be a nail-biter down to the Nov. 18 finale.

But, oh, if only it could be half as juicy as the IRL.

In the span of seven days:

Dixon took the points lead out of Sonoma when Franchitti wrecked with teammate Marco Andretti late in the race. It left Franchitti steaming on pit road, where he was calmed by actress wife Ashley Judd before he coolly criticized Andretti. Meanwhile, team owner Michael Andretti was equally unimpressed with Franchitti.

At the very same time, Dixon and top league officials were disgusted when Kanaan deliberately didn't pass Franchitti late at Sonoma so that his teammate wouldn't lose valuable points.

By admittedly laying back, Kanaan prevented anyone else from passing Franchitti -- tactics racing great Rick Mears said damaged the integrity of sport.

Kanaan then won Sunday's race in Detroit, putting himself in mathematical contention to win the title while caustically dedicating the performance to Mears.

Dixon and Franchitti, meanwhile, were involved in a last-lap crash that started when Buddy Rice ran out of gas. It caused Dixon to run into Rice, and his spinning car slid across the track in front of Franchitti.

Dixon said it was accidental and Franchitti said he believed him, but Michael Andretti strongly accused Dixon of deliberately wrecking his rival.

Although Franchitti moved back into the points lead, Andretti was so incensed, he and co-owner Kevin Savoree confronted Dixon's owner, Chip Ganassi. Witnesses said the men almost came to blows.

Everybody is mad at somebody, and it will all culminate Sunday in Chicago, where Franchitti leads Dixon by a whisper-thin three points and Kanaan is a manageable 39 back.

NASCAR won't have nearly that drama Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, where barring a disaster to Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch or Kevin Harvick, the current top 12 drivers will simply advance to the Chase.

It will still be compelling to watch Earnhardt give it one last shot, and it was riveting to watch him Sunday night in California.

He was red-faced and spent after driving his wheels off for 500 miles in 100-degree heat, and the twinge in his voice made his words sound like a concession speech.

Earnhardt is leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the season, and this is his final opportunity to win a Cup title in his beloved No. 8 Chevrolet.

"I would like to thank my team," Earnhardt said. "I like to think they can run just as good without me, but I would never be able to run that good without them."

It will be interesting to see if Harvick can stop his slide. The Daytona 500 winner has plummeted from seventh to 12th the past six weeks.

He'll claim he's not concerned, and the sensible part of him knows it will be awfully hard for Earnhardt to gain 128 points on him in one final race. But he's clearly on edge.

"We're in the race," he growled, when asked if he was concerned about the Chase following his 14th-place finish Sunday night. "You make a story about it and jerk everybody around and make them feel it's a good story. I feel like you're asking me stupid questions because we're in good shape."

Unlike last year, when defending champion Tony Stewart stunningly missed the Chase, or 2004 when Jeremy Mayfield won Richmond to earn his berth, there shouldn't be much drama beyond Harvick's snarls and Earnhardt's effort.

Only 10 drivers made the Chase in its first three seasons, and the field was expanded to 12 this year. After one season, it appears adding the two spots has watered down the field and taken all the air out the "Race to the Chase."

Yet it's way too early to call it a bust -- the Chase may still be fantastic. And there's still time to hope it produces a fraction of the IRL's fireworks.