After Running Iraq, What’s Next? Maybe the Nextel Cup

Besides to the handover of power in Iraq, this summer’s most anticipated transition will be occurring in New Hampshire, where NASCAR’s playoff-style “Chase for the Nextel Cup” starts on September 19. It’s the first time this new format has been used; at least 10 qualifiers will advance to determine the Series championship.

If NASCAR gets lucky, this shootout will be like a big eraser wiping away the early season scribbles and miscalculations. The sanctioning body seemed to have lost the ability to run a race. Controversy surrounded the early June events. At the Pocono 500, run on June 13, Jimmie Johnson won despite official incompetence in a yellow-flag situation, which almost cost him the victory.

“NASCAR’s credibility is at an all-time low,” a member of the Fox Sports broadcast team told us a week later, just before the DHL 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

That race was a perfect example of how NASCAR keeps producing cotton candy for fans’ consumption. A yellow flag for “debris on the track”- which is one of the staple ingredients of NASCAR’s recipe book — conveniently fluffed and flapped on Lap 34, just as the cars were in need of their first pit stop and just as the field happened to be getting all strung out. The crew in the broadcast truck hooted in derision.

During subsequent yellow flags, the “lucky dog” rule – which allows the first car that’s a lap down to return to the lead lap — put Ryan Newman and then Kasey Kahne back in the hunt. So guess who finished first and second, respectively. Third-place finisher Dale Jarrett, speaking to the press afterward, said he doesn’t think any competitor should ever be given a free pass. We liken it to racing’s version of affirmative action.

After all of eight caution periods (cautions accounted for 16.5 percent of the 200 total laps), it finally appeared as though the race might actually end in heated combat, but the yellow came out for the ninth time, freezing Kahne behind Newman in another anticlimactic finish. Somehow, showing uncharacteristic self-discipline, the fans refrained from throwing beer cans, as in April when Jeff Gordon won under yellow in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

With ugliness from the spectators, ugly races, and ugly extracurricular activity at Pocono between Kevin Harvick and defending Series champion Matt Kenseth (all right, we confess taking pleasure in their pushing and shoving), there hasn’t been much sparkle to the campaign.

When the Chase for the Championship shootout comes, NASCAR should avoid the tactic of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Anything that looks like a surprise early handover of power – for example, more of these pathetic yellow-flag finishes – could cause far worse than beer cans to fly.