NASCAR’s final countdown

Nov 16, 2004 7:28 AM

The culmination to a fantastic 10-week run for NASCAR takes place this Sunday in Miami.

Though Miami is about as South as one can go in America, it’s not exactly "Southern" in NASCAR regards. This further lends to the idea that this isn’t your father’s NASCAR anymore.

Most fans would tend to agree that a season finale, with all the marbles at stake, would be much better represented on a traditional NASCAR track such as Bristol or Talladega. Atlanta used to have the season finale every year, but traded dates with Miami.

The Atlanta officials said it rained too much, not to mention the final race of the season hasn’t meant anything since 1992. I’d bet Atlanta would like to rethink that decision now. For Miami, this race has been soldout for two weeks. Selling all the tickets has been a difficult task since the Cup debut in 1999.

In the first four seasons of the track, the 1.5-mile paper clip shape track used to be the flattest on the tour. There’s only six degrees of banking around the turns. The track resembles Indy and Pocono to some degree. Drivers who have done well on those two sites fare well in Miami.

This will be the second year of the new and improved track features, such as a fast 20 degrees of banking. Track officials hoped the banking would create more side by side racing and had initially said there would be three equally effective grooves around the oval.

That wasn’t necessarily the case last year but, after testing sessions earlier this month, some drivers in the chase believe three grooves will be a possibility this year. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who set the fastest lap during the sessions, is very impressed with how much the track has matured since last year. Gordon believes the track’s quick maturation will lead to some great racing during the Ford 400 season-finale. "Tracks tend to take a while to mature, but with this track, the hot sun has allowed the track to mature very fast," said Gordon. "I think you are going to see a three-groove race track and that’s really going to be exciting for the fans."

Gordon’s teammate Jimmie Johnson, currently second in points just 18 behind leader Kurt Busch, agrees about the maturation of the track.

"The lanes are going to be wider than last year and we’ll have a higher groove out there than we did before," said Johnson. "It’s only going to get better as time goes on."

To begin discussing what might happen in this race, you have to start with Johnson, the hottest driver on tour with four wins in his last five races. Johnson finished third on Miami’s new configuration last season and there is no reason to think he can’t close out the season with another win.

There is no one better on 1.5-mile tracks than Johnson this season, posting eight wins. Johnson is close to winning his first championship, but he’s going to need some help.

Jeff Gordon finished fifth in this race last season and Miami remains one of the few tracks that he’s never won on. Gordon is only 21 points behind Busch and is going for his fifth Cup title. While he’d like to see his protégé Johnson win a title in the car he owns, he surely will not sacrifice himself for that cause.

As long as Gordon is running well, Johnson will be just another car in the way to win the title. All friendships and loyalties are out the window. This is the Super Bowl. Based on his testing, Gordon should be the one to beat this week.

If the scenario unfolds as it did last week with Busch struggling but maintaining a solid sixth place finish while Johnson won, Busch would finish second behind Johnson for the championship. Busch was running third over the final stretch and allowed all who wanted to pass him to do so without a fight.

The Las Vegas driver was definitely points racing and, based on the way his day had gone, anywhere in the top 10 was fine with him. This week, his crew will be calculating all the possibilities with all the contending drivers. Where he stands will dictate his aggressiveness. A 19-point lead is nothing.

Should both lead a lap, with Busch finishing fourth and Johnson first, Johnson would win the title by one point. In that scenario down the stretch, the battle for third would be one of the greatest races in history. For drama purposes, what if that driver in third was Gordon? The thinking would be that Gordon had already conceded the win to Johnson, but now had to play team racing and block like Formula One.

If that driver is Mark Martin, Busch’s teammate, does he allow the easy pass and give his car owner and buddy Jack Roush a second straight championship? It’s hard to say how it would unfold, but there will surely be great battles like all day during the race. It’s likely that the integrity of the sport will not be compromised by any of the competitive drivers.

These scenarios haven’t been an issue because championship races down the stretch haven’t been close since ’92. Back then team racing was in its infant stages, with the teammates not even liking each other.

I think we’ll see the drivers in the top three racing their race for the first 250 miles. They’ll take only what the race gives them and be extremely patient with hopes of staying out of harms way. Drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr and Mark Martin, who are within 82 points of the leader, will attempt to take the upper hand early.

They will be attempting to lead the most laps and will be very aggressive from the start. As the final pit stops come around, all drivers will be jockeying for position. Depending on how the tires are wearing, it’s likely that some of these teams will roll the dice by taking only two tires or fuel in an attempt to gain position.

During this last run to the checkered flag, some of these drivers in the chase may force the issue. It’s likely they’ll push the car harder than it can go around the corners, resulting in a crash. I look for at least one of the top three to end in a DNF, with Busch the mostly likely candidate.

Busch is coming in with a car that didn’t run particularly well in testing and his car will be inferior to both Gordon and Johnson’s. Busch will need some luck involving both Hendrick cars to have a shot at winning the title. If they all run 400 miles, it’s likely Busch’s car is not a top five level. Both Hendrick cars will be there.

With only three points separating the teammates, one may have to win the race. Since this has been such a great inaugural season, we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Gaughan out of 77

Las Vegan Brendan Gaughan will not be driving the No. 77 Penske Dodge next season and is reported to be offered the wheel of the No. 0 NetZero Chevrolet for next season. Gaughan was never given the opportunity to drive great cars like teammates Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace. The association with Penske initially appeared to the perfect platform for Gaughan to display his great driving skills. But, he was continually given inferior products.

No word yet on whether Gaughan has accepted the Chevy ride yet. Dodge has been very high on Gaughan because of his driving skills and outgoing personality. Possibly, Gaughan will drive the No. 62 Orleans Dodge truck again and then wait for Jamie McMurray’s Chip Ganassi ride in 2006.