Chase field decided; NASCAR issues still remain

Published 11:16 am Tuesday, September 9, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The last race of NASCAR’s regular season is intended to decide the 12-driver Chase for the championship field.

But when the checkered flag flew at Richmond International Raceway, there were as many lingering questions as there were answers about the final 10 weeks of the season.

Among them is the health of the Sprint Cup Series. Thriving on many levels, it’s hard to view it as a picture of parity when only four car owners are represented in the championship hunt and slumping automaker Dodge failed to make the cut.

The direction of deep-pocketed Red Bull Racing is certainly subject to scrutiny now that general manager Jay Frye is being wooed by Tony Stewart’s new team.

Speaking of Stewart, the end-of-the-race sniping between him and crew chief Greg Zipadelli left many wondering if after 10 turbulent years together, the two can survive the final 10 weeks of their working relationship.

First up, the Chase field. On paper, it looks to be quite competitive — four former series champions, hotshot Kyle Busch and NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. are among the 12 who will race for the Sprint Cup title.

But when Kasey Kahne failed to make the Chase with a poor Sunday run at Richmond, it created a troubling picture of the current state of the series. Kahne is a two-time race winner this season, and for those counting at home, that’s two more wins than five of the Chase drivers have this year.

Of course, he and his No. 9 team can only blame themselves — and consecutive 40th-place finishes leading into Richmond — for their late summer collapse. But the issue could be deeper than that.

Kahne drives for Gillett Evernham Motorsports, which has the same hefty funding as NASCAR’s top four teams. But the separation between everyone else and the big four — Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing — is so steep, Kahne and the GEM gang have been fighting an uphill battle all year.

Those big four owners placed three cars each in the Chase and have combined for 22 of 26 wins this season. Kahne has two and Penske Racing drivers Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman grabbed the other two.

But none made the Chase, and — coincidence? — all drive Dodges.

The automaker is reeling, lags far behind Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota on the race track and in showroom sales, and on Saturday revealed it was pulling out of NASCAR’s Truck Series.

So as the race for the title begins Sunday in New Hampshire, it will be interesting to see what happens to Dodge as its teams are left out of the action.

It’s also going to be interesting to see how Stewart and his Joe Gibbs Racing team handle their final 10 races together. The two-time champion is leaving at the end of the year to run his own race team, and the tension from his decision has been building all season.

Zipadelli has consistently presented a united front, but radio communications have revealed cracks that could crumble the team before Stewart moves on.

Stuck in a 40-race winless streak dating back to last season, Stewart has had victory in sight several times this year only to lose in heartbreaking fashion. Sunday wasn’t one of those crushing defeats: He waged a stirring late-race battle with Jimmie Johnson, but ultimately didn’t have a car strong enough to win.

As he pulled off the track following the second-place finish, he criticized his team’s performance for letting another victory slip away. In audio replayed several times by ESPN, Zipadelli sharply reminded him they win and lose as a group.

After, Stewart was surly and didn’t want to dissect yet another on-track defeat.

A championship battle with Stewart involved is the best kind of title fight, as the emotional driver usually leaves everything out on the track and goes down fighting. But if he and Zippy give up on each other before this season is over, there’s very little chance Stewart will be a factor in this Chase.

Meanwhile, Stewart is being pulled in several directions as he shapes Stewart-Haas Racing for his impending takeover. He’s hired a driver in Newman, a crew chief in Darian Grubb, secured several sponsors and is now seeking a general manager.

His sights are apparently on Frye, who kept a midlevel team afloat for 12 years before it was swallowed last season by Dale Earnhardt Inc. That freed Frye to take over Red Bull in January and clean up what was a heavily funded but poorly managed team.

Before Frye’s arrival, both Red Bull cars struggled to make races and AJ Allmendinger’s development was in serious danger of derailing. Now Brian Vickers is a legitimate contender, Allmendinger has his car inside the top 35 in points and Red Bull appears ready to race for wins.

That could all implode if Frye leaves and Austria-based team executives revert to the Formula One mentality that made their debut NASCAR season a joke.

The signs are already troubling. Regardless of what Frye decides, Allmendinger’s status with the team is not certain even though the kid has done nothing short of what Red Bull asked of him.

Thrown into a ride he wasn’t ready for with a team that didn’t have a support system in place for him, Allmendinger weathered it all and has shown potential to run up front. But the Austrian’s are gaga over former F1 driver Scott Speed, a longtime Red Bull athlete who has been given a second chance in NASCAR.

This shouldn’t be an “either Allmendinger or Speed” situation, but the longer Allmendinger goes unsigned, the worse it looks for his future with the team. And if Red Bull can’t be counted on to keep its young talent, then why would Frye turn down the chance to build a winner from scratch for Stewart?

The Sprint Cup title will be decided over the next 10 weeks, but there’s plenty of other industry issues to keep an eye on.