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Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: Race for the Chase is headed for NH

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 14. 2013 11:20PM

LOUDON -- We now return you to your regular scheduled racing program.

Back to the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Back to Chicagoland Speedway for the start of the 2013 Chase this afternoon at 2. And then back to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Sylvania 300, Race 2 in the Chase, next Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the rest will see if they can restore a bit of normalcy to NASCAR. The past week has been anything but.

The organization has its 12 drivers ready to go in the Chase, but the road to getting to the dynamic dozen was winding, if not a bit rocky.

As word and evidence spread on Sunday and Monday of some late-race chicanery on Saturday at Richmond International Raceway that involved a suspect spin-out by Clint Bowyer and a couple of moves designed to manipulate results and thus the Chase, NASCAR had to act.

It did.

The organization on Monday ruled that Martin Truex Jr., the beneficiary of the maneuvering, was out of the Chase and put Ryan Newman in. Newman was leading the race and looked like he was ready to lock up a Chase slot until Bowyer went on the wild ride that shuffled the standings.

NASCAR handed out penalties to members of Michael Waltrip Racing, for whom both Bowyer and Truex Jr. drive, and said it's time to get on with the show.

"I'm sure it draws more attention to the sport," said Joey Logano, who drives for Penske Racing and is in the Chase for the first time. "Any time you can get more attention for your sport, that's a good thing. But it's definitely different. We've never seen it happen before."

Logano spoke at the Pease Air National Guard Base in Portsmouth on Wednesday. He was in the state as part of NASCAR's "Chase Across America" promotion that sent the Chase drivers out to drum up support for the 10 races that make up the final run to the Sprint Cup title.

Ironically, news broke later that day Logano's team may have benefited from some late-race deals as well.Jerry Gappens, the general manager at NHMS and a masterful promoter, predictably loved the attention.

"Absolutely," he said. "It adds spice to things. It's been the buzz of the week and I think that's good for our sport. ... Controversy's good in my opinion."

Gappens said he was surprised by NASCAR's action because the group has been loath to change results after a race is finished, even if there have been problems.

That said, he agreed with what the organization did, though he would have taken it a step further.

"Even though we like to tell ourselves we're in the entertainment business, at the end of the day it's still a competitive sport and we're not the World Wide Wrestling Federation," Gappens said. "We shouldn't be manipulating finishes or predetermining who's going to win because then you take away from the credibility of it."

And the other move Gappens would have made?

"If I were the King of NASCAR, the only thing I would have done differently, since the race did have manipulation at the end with the last laps, I probably would have added Jeff Gordon," he said.

"I'd say let's start 13 cars instead of 12 because I think he's the only one that probably got the short end of the stick besides Ryan Newman," Gappens said.

Gappens got his wish on Friday when Gordon was added as a 13th driver to the Chase field.

With an eighth-place finish at Richmond, Gordon fell one point shy Logano of making the 12-man Chase field. But that was before evidence emerged mid-week that the Penske team struck a deal with fellow Ford competitors Front Row Motorsports that allowed a struggling Logano to easily pass FRM driver David Gilliland for 22nd place as the laps wound down to gain the additional championship point he needed to edge Gordon for the final Chase berth.

After compiling and studying video and audio evidence, NASCAR CEO Brian France and president Mike Helton decided to set a historical precedent by adding four-time Cup champion Gordon to this year's championship battle, six days after he thought his hopes for a fifth crown had been controversially crushed.

So who's out?

The defending Cup champion and the 2011 winner. Tony Stewart broke Johnson's string of five straight championships in 2011 and his season ended with a broken leg as a result of a racing crash away from NASCAR. Brad Keselowski won his first title last year, but did not qualify this time around.

Kenseth (2003) and Kurt Busch (2004) join Johnson and Gordon as the former Cup champions in the field.

Kenseth is atop the points lead after the standings were reset and bonus points awarded for wins. He is three points ahead of Johnson and Kyle Busch. Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards are three more points behind that.

Johnson was rolling a month ago and surely seemed like a good bet to make it a six-pack of titles. But he was 40th at Richmond and 28th, 36th and 40th in the three races before that.

"You don't ever count out Jimmie Johnson, that's for sure," Logano said. "But I feel like we have a good shot at beating him. I think we can do it. But there are going to be a lot of guys saying the same thing as me right now. They think they can win."

Can they?

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The weekend at NHMS starts with a free FanFest on Thursday that includes a hauler parade at 6 p.m., a question and answer session with Bowyer at 7 p.m. and a concert by country singer Chelsea Bain at 9. ... Friday is for practice and qualifying. Sprint Cup qualifying is at 3:40 p,m. ... On Saturday, the F.W. Webb NASCAR Whelen Modified race goes at 12:15 p,m,, the North American Power K&N Pro Series East race is at 2:30 p.m. and the Bond Auto ACT Invitational at 4:30 p.m. ... Sunday's Sylvania 300 is at 2 p.m. On Twitter: @AllenLessels

Allen Lessels on Motor Sports