Stock car racing’s playoffs begin this weekend near Chicago, which, having grown up there, is something I never would have imagined.
With NASCAR having expanded its Chase for the Sprint Cup to 16 drivers and altered the format to include NCAA basketball tournament-style elimination rounds, people normally not associated with stock car racing are weighing in on it.
“You got to have the right combination, baby. You got to have momentum and a smart strategy for each track, and you need the team leader in the right crew chief to call the NASCAR pick and rolls and get in and out of those pit boxes like a quick basketball timeout, making your adjustments to win it at the end.
“Kasey (Kahne) is my diaper dandy driver to watch.”
You may have deduced that was college basketball guru Dick Vitale weighing in on NASCAR’s Sweet 16. That’s also something I never would have imagined.
Will Dickie V. be watching NASCAR’s best trade paint and pass on the high side at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday? Probably not, because Duke basketball practice begins in a few weeks, and Dickie V. must get ready.
Plus, the NFL has started.
That’s probably why NASCAR changed its playoff format again. It’s difficult to go up against the behemoth that is the NFL, so one performs trickeration on the rules. Might as well bring Don King on board, too.
Not only are there now 16 drivers, but after every three races of the 10-race Chase, a quarter of the field will be eliminated. That will leave only a Final Four of NASCAR drivers to battle for the Cup in the season finale at Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 16.
It’ll pretty much be winner take it all, say the NASCAR chiefs, and though winner take all on the paved oval may not be enough to pry eyes offs off that day’s Vikings at Bears game, or even Lions at Cardinals, maybe it’ll help generate interest among the 17 or 18 souls in the general sporting public who are not pro football fans.
Luckily for NASCAR, Patriots at Colts is the night game on Nov. 16. The stock car racing season will be over by then, unless it rains.
So though all the stock cars will be on the track from now until nearly Thanksgiving, only 16 can win the title, and two are driven by cats from Las Vegas named Busch, as Richard Petty might say.
Kurt Busch, 36, who some people forget won the first Chase for the Championship in 2004 by edging none other than Jimmie Johnson, will drive the No. 41 Chevy for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Kyle Busch, 29, whose best Chase finish is fourth, will drive the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Each Busch won a race this season, which is all a driver must do to earn his way into the new playoff schematic.
The experts aren’t giving either Busch much of a chance, because this hasn’t been either’s best season. But these Busch boys are talented drivers, two of NASCAR’s best. And in a playoff system, the best team doesn’t always win. Ask the 2007 Patriots or 2001 Seattle Mariners.
Kurt Busch wouldn’t have made the Chase without an early season win at Martinsville, Va., but he’s improved seven spots in the standings since Memorial Day while driving for a start-up team. There’s momentum building.
With Kyle, not so much.
Busch the younger has been in a slump, tangling in recent weeks with Martin Truex Jr. on the track and with his own crew chief, Dave Rogers, over the in-car radio. These things happen in stock car racing. Plus, one may recall that Jimmie Johnson was struggling, too, going into last year’s Chase, and then he won it, as Jimmie Johnson usually does.
Both Busch brothers took time out from their busy schedules to call from Illinois on Thursday, which is something Tom Brady or Lou Piniella would never do.
Each spoke of the new playoff format, and how it has provided each with a second chance not only to end the season on an upswing, but maybe even on top should everything come together and one of the other drivers get in Jimmie Johnson’s way.
“The new format … has a mentality that every race counts, that there are three mini-chases in this one big, long chase,” Kurt Busch said. “So you can almost break it down into four quarters, like football, yet there’s 16 drivers and a bracket, like college basketball.
“There’s so many similarities you can pull from different sports. That’s what I think (NASCAR CEO) Brian France, our fearless leader, wanted.”
Kyle Busch, who most likely would have sneaked into the Chase as a wild card under the old rules, also supports these new ones.
“I think it creates a great opportunity for drivers like myself,” said Busch, who like his older brother also punched his Chase ticket early, by winning at AutoClub Speedway in California. “It lends itself to some pretty interesting ways to make the Chase field. We did that, so now it’s up to us to see if we can’t find a way how to win this thing.”
For what it’s worth, Dick Vitale has Kahne, Johnson, points leader Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick in his NASCAR Final Four. But if you’re a fan of the Busch brothers, do not fret, because Dickie V. never had Butler going very far, either.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski