Cathy Elliot column: Realignment 2011, Race To The Chase are puzzlersPublished 6:05pm Friday, August 20, 2010
By CATHY ELLIOT
The past few days in NASCAR have started to resemble a Sudoku puzzle. You know the pieces are going to fall into place eventually. You’re just not exactly sure how.
Sudoku is a number puzzle, usually a block of nine individual squares combining to make one big square, where you have to arrange digits in a certain order so that no line — horizontal or vertical —- contains the same number twice. I have never mastered it, or completed even a single one; just thinking about it prompts a mad dash for my Goody’s Cool Orange stash.
A few of the numbers, like that famous Biblical tree planted by the water, shall not be moved, but the rest are subject to relocation. The trick is finding the right spot for them to land.
Some look at Sudoku and see a fun challenge. Others see an indecipherable hieroglyphic that requires the mental equivalent of a crystal ball or Rosetta Stone to sort things out.
NASCAR, I suppose, sees both, although you have to wonder how in the world they manage to keep it all sensibly organized.
Summer’s end is the time of year when NASCAR generally announces the Sprint Cup Series race schedule for the following season. With the notable exception of 2004 — the first official year of the realignment process — the schedule has held few surprises.
Next year, however, is starting to approximate how you might feel upon walking into your home and discovering that in your absence, all the furniture has been rearranged. The official schedule hasn’t been announced yet, but various track announcements and press releases have already answered some of the questions.
Atlanta Motor Speedway, which has hosted two Cup races a year for a half century, is down one. Kentucky Speedway, which has hosted zero Cup races a year since 2001, is up one.
Kansas Speedway has added a second race, and Auto Club Speedway has lost one. Phoenix International Raceway hung on to their two annual Cup Series weekends, but the first has moved from April to February. New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been moved out of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup; Chicagoland Speedway has moved in to take its place.
The new schedule is interesting, but like any sort of change, will take some getting used to. We might be banging our shins on the coffee table the first year or so.
A more immediate issue is the final spot in the 12-driver Chase lineup, which has an awful lot of turnover.
It brings to mind another numbers-oriented game, this one from childhood. In the process-of-elimination game Musical Chairs, the players outnumber the seats. So when the music ends and everyone plops into place, one competitor is left with no place to perch.
Interestingly, in this game the last man standing — the only guy still on his feet — is no longer eligible to win.
In some parts of the country, Musical Chairs is also known as a cakewalk, where the one who claims the final chair literally takes the cake. In six weeks of racing, from Loudon, N.H. to Watkins Glen, N.Y., three drivers have occupied this seat — Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin.
Edwards has gradually moved higher into the Chase field, but the other two are still duking it out, trading punch for punch like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. Martin is a perennial contender, while Bowyer has shown himself to be a model of consistency. At this point, there’s really no way to predict who will win the fight.
Perhaps it will be neither. A handful of other guys, most notably Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and even Dale Earnhardt Jr., are hot on their heels. None of them should be taken lightly.
Newman has been known to put together some pretty impressive winning streaks in the past. McMurray has shown a knack for grabbing headlines this season, with high profile wins in the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. And it’s frankly difficult to dismiss Junior with two short track races — at Bristol and Richmond — still to be run before the Chase field is set.
Soon the entire 2011 schedule will be released, and the 12 Chase drivers confirmed, leading to Las Vegas and the crowning of a champion.
It isn’t a mystical process, and it doesn’t require an ancient granite key to unlock the answers — just a lot of time, thought and very hard work. It has taken NASCAR many months of ciphering, but the numbers now seem to be falling neatly into place, and soon the entire puzzle will be complete.
In the end, what began as a random and jumbled list all adds up, and that definitely takes the cake.
Cathy Elliott writes a column for NASCAR.