2014 Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr, Jeff Gordon & Jimmie Johnson out of running in 'The Chase' finale despite 13 victories between them
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- NASCAR CEO Brian France boasted in January that this season's revised Chase format would produce a bonafide Sprint Cup champion with the emphasis on track wins along the way.
But it hasn't quite worked out that way.
And certainly Dale Earnhardt, Jr., brought NASCAR nation to life back in February with his dramatic sprint to the checkered flag in the Daytona 500 after a six-hour rain delay.
Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, considered the three best drivers -- all racing for Hendrick Motorsports -- with 13 wins between them highted by Junior's season-opening Daytona 500 victory -- are each capable of winning today's season-ending race at Homestead, but they won't be vying for the chmpionship and adding to their legacies:
• Earnhardt has yet to win a cup championship, but he has the two Daytona 500 championships, the thriller in February and the first in in 2004, just three years after he finished second to Michael Waltrip in his first Daytona 500, his father running in third before an incidental bump from Sterling Marlon trying to charge to the front sent the racing legend nearly head on into the outside concrete wall coming off off Turn 4, collecting Ken Scrader in the process. Schrader walked away from the crash but the elder Earnhardt was killed instantly, slamming into the wall at 185 mph. Junior would come back that July 4th weekend to win the Coke Zero 400 under the lights. He has 23 career cup wins, putting him 31st all-time.
• Gordon has four NASCAR Cup championships -- 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001; three Daytona 500 wins in 1995, 1997, 2005. In his 23-year career, he's amassed 92 cup wins, ranking him third all-time behind Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105).
• Johnson, once a protege of Gordon, has six NASCAR Cup champioships, the first five in consecutive years -- 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013; and two Daytona 500 wins in 2006 and 2013. He has 70 career cup wins. That puts him eighth all-time and six behind legend Dale Earnhardt in seventh.
But later today when the sun sets on the 2014 season here in South Florida, the crown prince of NASCAR could have egg on his face with a winless driver not even winning the finale, but finishing ahead of three others still in the running to claim the championship.
That driver isn't Earnhardt, who actually won five races altogether. Junior's not even among the "Final Four" contenders.
In reality, it doesn't really matter much to Junior, who when asked in the media center at Daytona if he could finally win a Sprint Cup championship, he didn't stutter when he shot back: "I just won the Daytona 500."
Jeff Gordon? He's a known commodity, even to non-NASCAR followers. Gordon has won four races, but he, too, is not in the hunt.
Jimmie Johnson -- some people might have heard of him -- six-time Spring Cup champion?
After all, Johnson has won four races this season. Nope. Not him either.
Imagine the embarrassment for Brian France, the billionaire racing czar at the helm for 11 years and college dropout -- the benefactor of family lineage -- whose grandfather, "Big Bill" France, created the stock-car empire back in 1948.
It was Brian France, kid brother of Lesa France Kennedy -- she as head of head of International Speedway Corp., based at Daytona International Speedway and owner of a dozen tracks in all -- with his concoction of the Chase in 2004.
This was three years after Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died in a last lap crash in the Daytona 500, beginning a decade-long decline in NASCAR attendance and a waning interest in the sport dominated bat the highest levels by 20 members of the France .Family, collectibvely worth $5 billion, according to Forbes.
But back to the here and now: Today's finish could put the exclamation point on the gimmickry that has given die-hard fans little to cheer about other than the two Daytona 500 wins by a now-40-year-old Dale Earnhardt, Jr, the signature races a decade apart from each other.
In between, fans have had to endure two-car tandem races where a set of cars would have to run bumper to bumper and then switch off.
There was the infamous jet-dryer crash involving Juan Pablo Montoya that delayed the 2012 running of the Daytona 500 that had already been delayed for one day due to heavy rain. But intermittent showerrs in the Monday run resuilted in a series of cautions, the biggest coming on lap 160 of the 200-lap race with Montoya striking the jet dryer.
Montoya was not hurt in the ensuing fiery explosion nor was the machine operator -- but it created a massive crater in the track's asphalt. The race was red-flagged -- stopped -- for more than two hours for it to be patched.
It was France's chase that many fans deride Jimmie Johnsonas an opportunist, coming out of nowhere to win five championships in a row beginning in 2006, and a sixth cup championship last year.
But none of that really matters today at Homestead or even who wins the race in terms of crowning a first-time cup champion among the four finalists -- so long as one of them finishes ahead of the other three.
The "final four" include winless Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and the veteran, Kevin Harvick. who initially was given Dale Earnhardt's ride after his death, but not in the No. 3; instead a new No. 29.
Harvick, who left Richard Childress Racing last season to race for Tony Stewart, himself winless this season amid the death at the clay track in upstate New York that led to the death of a young driver in a minor circuit race in August getting out of his car and challenging Stewart before he was run over and thrown some 50 feet and pronounced dead before a stunned crowd. A grand jury investigation did not return a crimininal indictment against Stewart whio sat out three subsequent Sprint Cup races.
Harvick and Hamlin are the likely favorites to come out on top with Logano trending as well.
But should Ryan Newman defy the odds and finish ahead of the other three and still not win the race, well, then Brian France will likely become the butt of jokes, judging by the grumbling of NASCAR fans before the 3 p.m. race start with the following teaser from NASCAR to the fans on its Facebook page: Four drivers. One race. First to the finish is CHAMPION.
But should Ryan Newmn defy the odds and finish ahead of the other three and still not win the race, well, then Brian France will likely become the butt of jokes, judging by the grumbling of NASCAR fans before the 3 p.m. race start with the following teaser from NASCAR to the fans on its Facebook page: 'Four drivers. One race. First to the finish is CHAMPION.'
Here are some of the fan responses:
Mary Jenchowski-Arends: Will the REAL champion please stand up. #JeffGordon #EraseTheChase Roger Allyn Lyle Everyone knows Gordon should be this years champion. And Newman doesn't even deserve to be in the chase, much less the final four. Going for Harvick today.
Katie Howard: Yeah there is only one champion this season and his name is JEFF GORDON!!!! but NASCAR screwed him.
Paul Cramer: Only1can win but none won during the year!!! WAY TO GO NASCAR! (does anybody remember when racing was the fastest and first car to the finish line? Now it's (restrictor) plate go carts drama!!
Barbara Middleton: No champion this year, sad to say, only a winner.....
Roger Allyn Lyle: Everyone knows Gordon should be this years champion. And Newman doesn't even deserve to be in the chase, much less the final four. Going for Harvick today.