The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to SoCal on Sunday with a race in the Fontana suburb of Los Angeles (2:30 PM ET, Fox) and the race took its second major twist this week when the penalties on driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were lifted.
It was in the aftermath of the Daytona 500 that Knaus was suspended for doing the NASCAR equivalent of putting his car on steroids, and according TheSportsNotebook’s Sprint Cup consultant, my brother Bill, this is not the first time that Knaus has ridden past the boundaries outlined in the rulebook. Furthermore, the 25-point penalty given to Johnson has been reversed, and with the restoration, JJ is now back to 12th in the overall standings.
“A bunch of BS”, was how Bill described the decision to restore the points and Knaus’ eligibility. “A lot of NASCAR fans are unhappy with this. It’s not the first time this has happened (putting the car on steroids).” When I noted that Johnson was still a distant 12th in the point standings, Bill reminded us causal NASCAR fans that a driver need only make the Top 10 to make the Chase For The Cup in the season’s fall races. Essentially fans have witnessed the equivalent of the New York Yankees penalized ten games in the standings, had the season begin and then suddenly given those games back. Whatever you think the final decision should have been, this is clearly no way to run a railroad.
Sunday’s race will be at one of the “cookie-cutter” tracks that have become more common, to the chagrin of racing buffs. The Fontana track fits a standard mold of being 1.5 to 2 miles. Bill anticipates a spread-out race. “Cookie-cutter tracks are like that. When the race is spread out, pole position is not important as long as you’re not lapped.” He cited tracks at Chicago, Michigan and the recently completed run in Las Vegas as having a similar dynamic.
The drivers Bill called “the usual suspects” are at the top off the odds board—Johnson, Stewart, Kyle Busch, et al, are running with odds of anywhere from 6-1 to 8-1. While their respective resumes make it understandable for their favorites’ status, the early overall standings don’t include them.
Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick run 1-2 without having won a race thanks to their overall consistency, while Daytona champ Matt Kenseth is a close third. Martin Truex and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are also in the top five without a win, as Earnhardt Jr. shares the five-spot with Vegas winner Denny Hamlin.
“The early standings have surprises,” Bill allowed. “Kasey Kahne has had no luck whatsoever. He’s been caught up in other drivers’ wrecks. Jeff Gordon has also had some tough luck.” It’s certainly one of the variables of NASCAR that it’s hard to find an equivalent of, where a driver can be running a good race when an accident in front him that he had nothing do sucks him in and wrecks (no pun intended) not just the race but his position in the standings.
While the fact Kahne is Bill’s favorite driver might lead some (at least me) to believe some sour grapes is involved, Bill is entitled—like me, he’s a Wisconsin basketball fan and after talking NASCAR the conversation shifted to commiseration over the tough Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse. Seeing your favorite driver wrecked and your favorite team take a wild ill-advised shot in the closing seconds is a lot for anyone to handle. But like it or not, what all NASCAR fans and drivers have to handle is that a decision away from the track and in the administrative offices put the sport’s top driver in Jimmie Johnson back in business as we get set for action in the Los Angeles area.