Almost everyone in America watches the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. It determines the champion of the most popular sport in America. But what is largely regarded as the second most popular sport in America is now entering its equivalent of the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. It’s not the sport with the tight pants or the one with the really tall guys.
One hundred million Americans watch NASCAR every year, but nobody north of the Mason-Dixon line seems to be too excited.
Let me give you a quick look at where things stand at the moment.
The champion of the Chase for the Nextel Cup, NASCAR’s playoffs, will be determined in the next two weeks. Barring catastrophe, either Jimmie Johnson, last year’s champion, or the polarizing Jeff Gordon will emerge as this year’s winner. These two races promise to be pressure-packed, as Johnson, who has won three of the last four races, attempts to continue his hot streak. But he knows that even the slightest error could hand Gordon, who has won the NASCAR crown four times since 1995, the 2007 championship.
The top 12 drivers after the first 26 races qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, often shortened to just “the Chase.” The rest of the drivers still race every week, but they cannot win the championship. Drivers earn points and climb the rankings by winning races, leading laps and finishing races. The final 10 races then determine which of the 12 eligible drivers will emerge as the Nextel Cup champion.
With two races remaining, Gordon trails Johnson by a slim 30 points, while Clint Bowyer trails Gordon by roughly 150. With so few races left, it truly is a two-man race — pun very much intended.
Bowyer, a relative no-name on the circuit until this year, hopes to make history and overcome a triple-digit points deficit for a historic championship. He will need an ’04 Red Sox-type comeback, as Johnson and Gordon have been driving like men possessed for the last two months.
One of the preseason prospects, Tony “Smoke” Stewart, a perennial favorite who won the NASCAR championship in 2002 and 2005, has seen his season go up in smoke. The man who was once the most dominant driver in the sport seems to fall off the pace week after week. But anything can happen this weekend in Phoenix — the penultimate race of the season — even if the champion is in all likelihood one of two guys.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., arguably the most prominent figure in the sport, finished outside that all-crucial top 12 — he came in 13th — and has been eliminated from the Chase. But “Little E,” who follows in his late father’s footsteps on the track, still hopes to salvage the season by stealing a late victory. In order to do so, Earnhardt will have to keep his engine from blowing up, as it has several times already this season. It seems as if every week some stroke of bad luck knocks Earnhardt out of the race, much to the chagrin of his immense fan base (and probably NASCAR’s sponsors — no Earnhardt in the “playoffs” is akin to the uber-marketable Peyton Manning missing the NFL playoffs).
And yet that’s why NASCAR is exciting. Each week, any driver can wreck, experience engine trouble or win the race in the last lap. And the sport’s most popular driver can finish outside of the top 10 in two years out of three.
America will be glued to its television sets this Sunday and next Sunday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. … if you live in the former Confederacy or the Midwest. Those living on the East Coast will be watching another meaningless weekend in the NFL or speculating about who will get screwed by the BCS. (Short answer: everyone!) Those in New England will be gloating about how cool they are because none of their teams can lose, and the rest of the country will continue to hate their arrogance.
It’s not just Washingtonians like me who are disenchanted during election season (actual elections notwithstanding).
Sports suck this time of year. The NFL, college football, the NBA and the NHL are worthless in early November. Wake me after Thanksgiving.
I’ll worry about the Patriots’ undefeated season when they play the Giants in Week 17. I’ll care about Tony Romo’s new contract or Joe Torre bringing Larry Bowa and Don Mattingly to L.A. as soon as … well … never. ESPN turns mundane, insignificant stories like these into news because there is nothing to report the week after Halloween in the years Albert Belle doesn’t try to run down trick-or-treaters in his car.
As I said, sports suck this time of year — unless you live in the third of the country that cares about the fastest-growing sport in America.
Contrary to many people’s beliefs, there are those who watch NASCAR for its compelling story lines, unusual teamwork and skillful driving — or its sweet fiery crashes.
For those who give the sport a chance and don’t say, “I’ve never seen a race, but I know it’s just a bunch of drunk rednecks watching cars drive in circles,” this weekend will be exciting. For those in the rest of the nation who are too prejudiced to give NASCAR a shot, have fun talking about how great Pats-Colts was or debating whether Kevin Youkilis will keep his goatee for next season. Until December, when individual football games begin to matter, I’ll be watching Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson drive for their own Super Bowl.
Colin Gutman is a sophomore in Pierson College.