NASCAR & Auto Racing

What does NASCAR have to do to get Dale Jr. into the Chase?

A few years ago I spent more than two hours touring NASCAR headquarters. My hosts were gracious, and they showed me everything. They showed me everything except the Secret Lab, where imaginary late-race debris is created, and the Secret Room.

I can’t prove there’s a Secret Room. When I called NASCAR on Wednesday and asked for the Secret Room, an operator told me she didn’t have such a listing. She told me in a courteous, gentle way that implied I should perhaps get more sleep and make sure I don’t spend too much time by myself.

Yes, I felt stupid making the call. But professional journalism isn’t always pretty.

Let’s assume, for the sake of this column, that there is a Secret Room. I can tell you who is in there – NASCAR’s brightest and most creative minds. And I can tell you what they’re doing. They’re trying to get Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

You think I’m kidding?

NASCAR was once the up-and-coming sport. Then it was the sport that had reached a plateau. Now it’s the sport that has rolled off the plateau and started the slide down.

So what happens if the 10-race playoffs, which last even longer than the NBA playoffs, go on without Junior?

What happens is fans will go more than two months without watching Junior drive a meaningful race?

What happens is, NASCAR will go head to head with the NFL without its best draw. What happens is Kurt Busch will edge Carl Edwards in a thrilling Sunday race and Montel Williams will get better ratings.

Only one athlete means more to his sport than Junior means to his, and that athlete is Tiger Woods. You know what they call a tournament that Woods elects not to play?

They call it the Wyndham Championship. That event concluded Sunday in Greensboro. You weren’t there.

Junior has been on a terrible streak since reluctantly announcing that he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. First he lost Budweiser, his beloved sponsor. Then he lost 8, his beloved number.

DEI’s reluctance to part with the number is ludicrous. The only reason 8 is famous is because it is attached to the side of Junior’s car. It’s almost as if DEI looked in the mirror, tried to decide how to get even more fans to dislike it, and came up with this.

Twelve drivers make the Chase. Junior is 13th, 163 points behind Kurt Busch. If Junior doesn’t make up all those points in the three remaining races, he spends the fall doing nothing more than going for Sunday drives.

Although the Secret Room probably has soft leather chairs, NASCAR is in a tough place. Racing fans are sharp.

They, too, know about the Secret Room and the Secret Lab and other conspiracies. These fans expect NASCAR to call a news conference to announce that it will expand the Chase from 12 teams to 13.

They’re wrong.

Because Junior is only eight points ahead of Ryan Newman, NASCAR will call a news conference to announce that it will expand the Chase from 12 teams to 14.