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Motorsports Insider: With stars on bubble, Chase format delivers promised drama

Maybe NASCAR got it right. The new Chase format is going about as well as the top racing circuit could have hoped.

Some, including yours truly, weren’t on board early. Was a knockout-type playoff the best way to determine the season’s best driver?

It just didn’t seem fair or right. But neither is seeing a 30-win college basketball team upset early in March Madness, or a baseball team reach the playoffs and then lose in a one-and-done wild-card playoff.

It creates drama and excitement, though, and also shows which teams and athletes are best prepared to handle the pressure.

And that’s what we have now in NASCAR.

Forget about Joey Logano, last week’s winner at Kansas, who secured a spot in the eight-man Eliminator Round. My eyes during this weekend’s race at Charlotte will be focused on arguably the three biggest stars of the sport who now essentially have to win one of the next two races to advance: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.

Earnhardt appeared to have a good day going at Kansas, leading 45 laps, before crashing into a wall because of a flat tire. That dropped him to a 39th-place finish.

That, however, was a spot better than Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Getting tangled in an early wreck caused Johnson to finish 40th, matching his career-worst finish in a Chase race.

And Keselowski fared the “best” out of the three stars, seeing his day end when he blew a tire and crashed on Lap 159. Hello, 36th place.

It’s hard to see all three doing enough the next two weeks to overcome this big of a hole, but it’ll be worth watching them try.

NASCAR, of course, can’t be thrilled with the idea of having those three stars eliminated, but that’s part of what makes this format great. Sure, the NCAA would love their blueblood basketball programs — such as Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana and North Carolina — to reach the Final Four every March, but there’s nothing wrong with having a Butler or VCU make a surprise run in the tournament.

And let’s not forget. Those three drivers aren’t toast yet. They still have chances to advance.

As Keselowski said, “We know we are in a hole, but we also know we can win our way out of this hole.”

That’s exactly right, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

Hornish returns

Sam Hornish Jr. put together a nice IndyCar career, but decided to make the move from open-wheel racing to stock cars in 2008. The results didn’t go too well.

Hornish, driving for Team Penske, had no wins and only two top-five runs in three full Cup seasons between 2008-10. He then moved to a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series in 2011, and has found success on that circuit.

Because of that, Hornish feels he’s ready to return to the Cup circuit and will do so beginning next year in the No. 9 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports.

“I feel like I’m a lot better prepared,” Hornish said during a conference call Wednesday to announce the agreement. “I need to be thankful that I stayed in the fold long enough and held to my values for my opportunity to be in the right ride. I put myself in good positions to get back to this point.”

Quotable

“It is a little bit frustrating to come that close and not get wins, but it’s also nice to see yourself running in the top three with everybody that’s in the Cup field. It’s amazingly tough. It’s really exciting but a little bit frustrating at the same time, but I still definitely leave in a good mood. It would be kind of weird to leave the racetrack in a bad mood for finishing second.”

— Rookie Kyle Larson, who finished runner-up last week at Kansas. He has finished 3-2-6-2 in his last four races.

Telling number

12.0Average finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season. His career average finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway, however, has been 19.4 in 29 races.

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