RICHMOND, Va. – In the still of a sultry summer’s eve, the NASCAR fairy was hard at work late Saturday night.
While Jimmie Johnson and his team celebrated a victory in the Chevy 400 at Richmond International Raceway, stock car racing’s points pixie visited the enchanted vault at an unnamed bank in Ocala, Fla., picking up bonuses being held there since Kevin Harvick won the Daytona 500 way back in February.
Working the kind of magic that has made Santa Claus a legend, the points fairy confounded boundaries of space and time and in the beating of a hummingbird’s wing deposited the points – PRRRANNGGG!! – into Chase for the Nextel Cup fire suits hung on the figurative mantels of each of the 12 teams qualifying for this year’s playoff.
Rubbing the champagne from his eyes after winning for the second straight week and for the sixth time this year, Johnson discovered that he, indeed, had received the 60 points NASCAR promised – 10 for each trip to victory lane.
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Jeff Gordon, who had been a very good boy in building a huge lead in the standings, had to be happy with just 40 points from the bag of bonus bounty. That’s only 10 more than Tony Stewart, who didn’t even start behaving like a good championship contender until half the first 26 races were gone.
OK, OK. So we’ve belabored that long enough.
But there really was a presto factor to Saturday night’s proceedings, for as soon as the checkered flag fell with Johnson winning for the second straight race, a page was turned on the year in Nextel Cup.
Beginning with the upcoming Chase opener Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway, it’s time to start caring about the top of the standings again. It’s not about 12th place any more. Finally, it’s back to being about first.
“It’s a really stout field,” Johnson said of the Chase lineup, which features four former champions among its top five seeds. “I said earlier that this is going to be the most competitive Chase we’ve seen.”
To win the championship, though, you first have to earn the right to race for it. For the past six weeks, the sport’s focus – or, in ESPN/ABC case, fixation – has been on those drivers just trying to get their chins to the championship cutoff bar.
On July 1, Kurt Busch was 236 points outside the top 12. Busch, however, hasn’t finished worse than 11th since, and with two wins in that surge he starts the Chase with 5,020 points, tied with Carl Edwards.
Edwards has been Chase-safe for weeks, but Busch and Kevin Harvick still had to sweat it out a little in the regular-season finale. Both took care of business, with Harvick finishing seventh and Busch ninth, but not without a fright from a crash on Lap 242.
When Ryan Newman got spun out in front of most of the pack, Busch got punched in the rear as he slowed and Harvick bulldozed his way through the infield grass avoiding the mulitcar mash-up that ensued.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., trying to erase a 128-point gap between him and a Chase spot, was running second. So until it was clear that Busch’s Dodge was still serviceably fast and that the steam puffing from Harvick’s engine would go away as soon as chewed-up turf was mown from its grille, there was a whiff of actual drama.
But as the final 25 laps or so wound down, enough cars were already either out or so far down that even TV could sustain the hype no more. Busch and Harvick were in, and Earnhardt Jr. was out. There’s no word yet whether ABC announcers will work the 10 Chase races wearing black armbands, but don’t bet against it.
Gordon, Stewart, Earnhardt Jr. and rookie David Ragan, who picked an unfortunate time to have his career-best Cup finish (third), battled hard for position over the final 40 laps. Alas, as has been the case all too often recently, they were well behind the eventual winner. Stewart wound up as runner-up three seconds behind Johnson, who led all but two pit-stop technicality laps of the final 104.
“We’re happy to be hitting our stride at this point in the season,” Johnson said, who won last week at California and now sets out to try to become the first to win back-to-back championships since Gordon in 1997 and 1998.
“I just want to be strong and steady.”
And work a little Chase magic.