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The Groundwork for a Humdinger

So far, so good. The NASCAR season has started well. Eight races are enough to encourage tentative analysis. Reasonable conclusions have been drawn. Now let’s see what shakes out. Eight races do not a season make. The young season is attractive, but, like a child, its features are only partially drawn. An evolution occurs, and it has only just begun.

As a practical matter, the first eight races have merely laid the season’s groundwork. (Ah, the first metaphor worked OK. Let’s try another.) Seven drivers have already won races. Only Kevin Harvick has won two. No season has begun with such a sharing of wealth since 2003. The bounty so far is modest, in part because Harvick, Trevor Bayne, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have all earned a share.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., sans a victory, is third in the Sprint Cup standings. His is an apple-cheeked face on any season. Those expecting Johnson to win the title yet again – it’s five but who’s counting? – have seen little to dissuade them. Carl Edwards, the Roman candle sparkling brightly at the end of 2010, just might be the Saturn rocket of ’11. Kevin Harvick seems slightly less consistent but slightly more likely to win. Denny Hamlin began his season in the same fashion as the Boston Red Sox, but as in the case of the baseball team, hope is far from lost.

Every year drivers wax poetic about the incredibly high level of competition. For once, the form sounds more akin to a sonnet than a limerick.

Thirty drivers aren’t going to win races this year. Half the drivers who are going to win have probably done so already. Some of those who charged out of the gate will invariably languish down the stretch. As a practical matter, thanks to the Chase format (Version 1.3), the majority of the cars will be on the track but not the radar screen. Twelve will vie for the championship over the final 10 races, no matter how many win.

In spite of all the hindsight – five years of Johnson hindsight – the championship is very much there for the taking.

Perhaps the reason everything seems so … balanced … is that much has changed, and most drivers and teams are adjusting, by trial and error, hook and crook, to the changes.

“The cars have changed,” said Jeff Gordon. “Tires have changed. Competition has changed. When you go through a streak without winning, you think, OK, is it me or what is it? [Winning allows] you to regain that confidence in yourself …”

When Gordon won the season’s second race, at Phoenix, it ended an agonizing spiel of 66 winless Cup weekends. This is Jeff Gordon, mind you, winner of four championships, 83 races and 70 poles.

It appears as if Gordon is, uh, back. It appears as if Earnhardt is, uh, back. Even those who have thus far faded into obscurity – Can you say Denny Hamlin? Remember Jeff Burton? – still have time to resurrect championship hopes.

Now, however, it’s time to dispense with the parity. It’s time for reliable contenders to emerge from the pack, and they will.
What NASCAR needs is an injection of rivalry, something that would energize the fan base, something that would inspire them to watch from the grandstands instead of the couch.

It could happen. Imagine Edwards and Harvick – two drivers who, to paraphrase football broadcasting god Keith Jackson, “just do not like each other!” – trading paint down the stretch. Or Kyle Busch and Earnhardt Jr., the former having been shoved out of a seat in order to hire the latter. Or even a reprise of Johnson and Gordon, the older driver having had his thunder stolen by the younger.

NASCAR has regularly occurring excitement, amply funded teams, diverse venues and breathtaking finishes.

What it needs are legends, and legends only thrive when the heat is on.

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