As the green flag waved to signal the start of the Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) on Nov. 11, we had a perfect storyline to follow. It was pretty much a given that the lion’s share of attention would be focused on two drivers – a statesman of the sport with multiple NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships to his credit, and a younger, brasher competitor still in strong contention to win his first title.
We got the script exactly right, but as it turned out, there were some issues with casting.
There was never any doubt the race would be a two-man show, as Jimmie Johnson pursued his sixth championship and Brad Keselowski, just seven points back in the driver standings, pursued Jimmie Johnson.
Kyle Petty set the stage during SPEED’s pre-race show. In a segment comparing the two top teams’ crew chiefs, Chad Knaus and Paul Wolfe, Petty compared racing to a chess match, masterminded by the guys sitting stop the pit boxes.
“You’re out there racing that one car in front of you and that one car behind you. That’s it; that’s all you know,” Petty said. “As the chess player, you depend on your crew chief. You are just a pawn on the board, but he sees the whole game.”
This seemingly random comment, in addition to probably being the only time Brad Keselowski and Bobby Fisher will be mentioned in the same sentence, made sense in a strange way. While the game of chess often seems as indecipherable to me as trigonometry or the language of “kids these days,” I do know one thing: Although the contest may begin with two warring monarchs, at the end of the day only one king will be left standing.
The issue I seem to have with chess is that all my pieces seem anxious for the game to end quickly. The NASCAR game is just the opposite. Headed into Phoenix, it had raced on for 34 weeks, leaving only two viable players on the board, vying for the title of Grandmaster.
Racing, like chess, is a game of strategy. The players set positioning goals, and then maneuver to achieve them during the event For the most part, the drama at PIR unfolded according to plan. Kyle Busch had the dominant car for most of the day, and there were a couple of single-car cautions, but with about two-thirds of the race remaining, Keselowski and Johnson both sat comfortably in the top ten.
Then, NASCAR’s game of thrones took a disastrous turn for the No. 48 team. Johnson blew a tire, smacked the Turn 4 wall, and was forced to head to the garage while the damage was repaired, handing the points lead to Keselowski. Johnson’s chances of winning title number six weren’t completely destroyed, but like the driver himself, they were down a substantial number of laps.
The game settled back into a calmer rhythm for a while, until Clint Bowyer, the only driver other than Johnson and Keselowski with a remaining shot at winning the title when the day began, literally rubbed Jeff Gordon the wrong way. After what the four-time Cup Series champion described as a series of transgressions by Bowyer, most recently at Martinsville on Oct. 28, his tolerance had reached its limit. He fought back, deliberately wrecking Bowyer with only a couple of laps remaining in the race.
“Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me. He got into me on the back straightaway, and pretty much ruined our day. I have had it, was fed up with it and got him back,” an unapologetic Gordon said after the race.
The resulting brawl was one for the NASCAR record books. The garage area erupted into a pretty fair approximation of a mosh pit, with Bowyer’s team attacking Gordon en masse and “Somebody hit somebody” becoming the mantra of the moment. My personal favorite moment was Bowyer’s Jim Valvano impersonation, as he ran around in circles looking for someone not to hug, but to hit.
Now, that’s something you don’t often see in a chess match. The scene may not have been the best for NASCAR’s public image, but it was definitely memorable.
Kevin Harvick — who won the race, in case you were wondering — admitted he enjoyed the melee. “The sport was made on fights. We should have more fights. I like fights,” he said. ”They’re not always fun to be in, and sometimes you’re on the wrong end, but fights are what made NASCAR what it is.”
The 2012 NASCAR season has certainly been eventful. Strategies have been conceived and various tactics employed to carry them out, and one by one, pawns, bishops and rooks — and one queen, I suppose — have been removed from the field of play. The two opposing kings are left standing, with Keselowski needing to finish only 15th or better in the series finale at Homestead to become master of the realm, for the next year, at least.
I have to admit that I never would have dreamed the phrase “I went to a fight and a chess match broke out” would flit through my mind; it’s just too weird. But thanks to a couple of unlikely knights errant, that’s exactly what happened.
The game is in check … but there are no mates to be found.