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After Jimmie Johnson's Dover win, it's Hail Mary time for most other title challengers...or is it already too late?

After Jimmie Johnson's Dover win, it's Hail Mary time for most other title challengers...or is it already too late?

Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and Matt Kenseth (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   By Mike Mulhern

   KANSAS CITY, Kansas
   Well, that didn't take long.
   Barely three weeks into the NASCAR playoffs and it looks like 10 of the 13 chase drivers are toast, or all but.
   Yep, this fall's Sprint Cup championship appears to have boiled down to Matt Kenseth versus Jimmie Johnson, as expected, with Kyle Busch hanging tough but still having to prove he can indeed challenge for the title.
   Johnson and Kenseth are throwing heavyweight punches...while most everyone is waiting to see if Busch, perhaps the most talented pure driver in stock car racing today, can get through this 10-race chase without faltering. Sunday's Kansas 400 could be one of Kyle's biggest tests yet, since this hasn't been a great track for him.

   Scratch Kasey Kahne.
   Scratch Joey Logano.
   Scratch Carl Edwards.
   Scratch Dale Earnhardt Jr.
   Scratch Kurt Busch.
   Scratch Clint Bowyer.
   They're all more than a full race behind Kenseth.

   Scratch Ryan Newman too, most likely. He's nearly a full race down.
   Scratch Greg Biffle, probably.
   Scratch Jeff Gordon, probably.
   Scratch Kevin Harvick, probably.
   Those three are in a pretty deep hole, and they don't look to have stepped up their game yet in these playoffs.

   That all might seem a rush to judgment, since the NASCAR playoffs have another six weeks, and seven races, to go, and sometimes in this sport -- witness Tony Stewart in 2011 -- wild things do happen.
   And desperate times call for desperate moves.
   But three weeks into the chase, to be honest, looking at numbers and history, the title contenders have been whittled down essentially to just three, Kenseth, Johnson, and Kyle Busch.
   Few have been able to match up with those three the first eight months of the season, and at the moment no one seems strong enough or consistent enough to challenge them over the final month and a half of the season either.
  No surprise it's those three of course.
   But the rest of the 12-man -- oops, 13-man -- NASCAR chase field appears to have all but eliminated crashed out in the first three rounds -- Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover.
   It's been clear all season -- has it really been eight months since the Daytona 500? -- that those three are playing in a different league from the rest of the stock car guys. And they've been quite consistent through it all, all things considered.
   Nothing should change here in Sunday's Kansas 400. After all Kenseth is going for his third straight tour win at this 1-1/2-mile track.
   Upsets? Certainly possible, especially considering the new tire here, and the new asphalt, just a year old.

   However the last time someone other than a chase driver won a chase race was nearly two years ago.
   Johnson's win Sunday at Dover was expected; he's now won more races at that track than anyone else. And playoff drivers swept the top-10.
   But Carl Edwards wasn't one of those. He finished 35th.
   Edwards, from nearby Columbia, Mo., realizes he faces an uphill fight from here on. His 'home' track, he hopes, will be a launching pad: "Off our terrible luck at Dover, it couldn't be a better track to go to.
   "Our position in points is what it is; there's really nothing to do but let it all hang out and go for the win. We've got to make something happen now."
   However Edwards would be hard-pressed to make up 65 points on Kenseth, AND 57 points on Johnson, AND 53 points on Kyle Busch.  
   That so many title challengers have faltered so quickly and so dramatically should be a surprise.
   What remains now is to see how much interest the Johnson versus Kenseth versus Busch battle will spark, with the World Series on deck, and with college and pro football so ripe.
   How many green flag laps at Dover again?
   Well, Danica Patrick was in New York City the other day, promoting next week's Charlotte 500, among other things, with a Breast Cancer Pink stocker.

    The drama off the track could be more exciting than the drama on the track, for a while at least. Like:
    -- Martin Truex Jr.'s future remains cloudy, two weeks after sponsor NAPA said it would be dropping the Michael Waltrip team in the wake of the Richmond fiasco. At least teammate Clint Bowyer looks to be getting a one-year reprieve by sponsor 5Hour Energy.  
    -- Tony Stewart has begun therapy on his injured right leg, banged up in that early August sprint car crash. He says he doesn't expect to be back at the wheel until the end of January or early February. But he's finally up on crutches, and he says he's trying to regain upper body strength.
    -- Ford. The scorecard through this season's 29 races: Ford, five wins. Chevy, 11 wins. Toyota, 12 wins. Laps led: Ford, 1299. Chevy, 3436. Toyota, 3616.
    -- NASCAR's sluggish rollout of its 2014 Sprint Cup schedule. Phoenix just announced its next spring date, Sunday March 2. No word on next fall's date. This fall's Phoenix 500K is set for Sunday Nov. 10th. Major renovations are rumored in the works at that track for next season.
   Meanwhile, over on the financial front, Lesa France Kennedy, ISC boss, has weighed in on the third quarter results for her family's International Speedway Corp.
  The snapshot:
  -- Net loss for the third quarter (ended August 31) was approximately $7.9 million, compared to net loss of approximately $1 million in 2012.
  -- Total revenue for the third quarter was approximately $117 million, compared to revenue of approximately $115.9 million in the prior-year period.
  -- Operating loss was approximately $13.1 million during the period compared to operating income of approximately $0.7 million in the third quarter of fiscal 2012.
  -- Net income for the nine months ended August 31, 2013 was $28.1 million, compared to $29.8 million in 2012.
  -- For the nine months ending August 31, total revenues were $424.0 million, compared to $422.9 million. 
  -- Operating income for the nine-month period was $49.2 million compared to $63.6 million.

  Kennedy says the new Daytona project "is moving forward on time and on budget."
   And she points to NASCAR's new TV package as "the largest broadcast rights deals in the sport's 65-year history, providing ISC contracted revenue through 2024.
   "With broadcast revenue representing our largest revenue source -- almost 50 percent of total revenue -- having this visibility through 2024 places us in an enviable position compared to other industries and will provide us unparalleled long-term cash flow."
   Though pointing to "on-going softness in media advertising," she said "We remain encouraged with our quarter and year-to-date financial results.
  "Adjusting for comparable events, our attendance revenue -- which has been our principal risk -- was down less than one percent for the quarter."
   She says that was "within our range of expectations, and showing further signs of stabilization in our business."



Would it make sense if....

ISC merge or buyout Speedway Motorsports?


The Ms. Kennedy response is not surprising. It's just a business to them. They could care less about what it was, just that it was profitable. Maybe we should just get 43 of our favorite stockbrokers and put them behind the wheel for the season. Maybe, in a few years, the France family business will go bankrupt. Then the tracks can be sold to Bruton Smith, and a new series can be formed. Something exciting like the old days. I'm dreaming, right?

Too late

Unless Kenseth wins at Kansas or if Johnson is in the "Big One" at Talladega it's too late. That big trophy will be hoisted by that 48 team at the end.

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