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Not A Bad Season So Far

Fans are hard to please. They pay their hard-earned money to attend NASCAR races and expect them to live up to expectations.

And they can’t possibly live up to expectations. If so, every race would end with two cars crossing the finish line side by side, upside down, backwards, and on fire. And the winner would climb out of his car and do a back flip off the …upside-down …car. It would be cool because, after the back flip, he would end up …right-side up …in contrast to …the car.

But some would still be mad that it wasn’t Junior.

Every race cannot be a classic. If they were, they wouldn’t be because then there would be no classics.

When you get right down to it, this season has already seen its share of classics. Want a Cinderella story? Check out 20-year-old Trevor Bayne’s victory in the Daytona 500. Want the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? Consider Kevin Harvick’s triumph over Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Martinsville, Va. Want a miracle? Regan Smith’s astonishing win at, of all places, Darlington, S.C., fits the bill.

Kurt Busch became the Sprint Cup season’s 11th winner in the 16th race. Worried about Jimmie Johnson’s dominance? To this point, “Five Time” has one of them. Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Burton have combined for … none.

Still winless, too, is Dale Earnhardt Jr. (the Junior noted above). By every other measure, his performance is vastly improved. So what if his last victory was 109 races ago? Ever heard of anticipation? Old enough to remember the Heinz commercial and Carly Simon? All right, then.

In one sense, rule changes have spurred an increase in both the level of competition and parity. That makes it difficult to compare the races of 2011 with, say, the races of 1971, but it doesn’t mean that those rule changes – double-file restarts, free passes, narrowing of technical limitations and tolerances – haven’t made the races, by almost any measure, more interesting.

Do the fans want Johnson to face a greater challenge as he makes a bid for yet another championship? Sure they do. Johnson’s greatest fans would probably enjoy another title hanging in the balance entering the final race.

Which, by the way, happened last year, too.

Bottom line:  NASCAR is making a comeback, one that can be measured in upticks in television ratings and weighed positively against the experience of other sports in an economy that is still struggling.
Intangibles are out of NASCAR’s control. The tangibles are starting to look pretty rosy. At this point a year ago, seven drivers had won. Johnson had three victories after the first five races.

If he’s going to win a sixth straight championship – and, after all, he does rank third in the standings – Johnson’s going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. With apologies to the late John Houseman, he’s going to have to earn it. 

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