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Tough year for NASCAR continues after scoring flap

This year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup may end up with Jimmie Johnson winning a record-tying seventh championship or former NFL Super Bowl-winning team owner Joe Gibbs scoring a fifth title.

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The crowd waves and cheers as the Bandit Flight team performs a fly-over during pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

This year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup may end up with Jimmie Johnson winning a record-tying seventh championship or former NFL Super Bowl-winning team owner Joe Gibbs scoring a fifth title.

Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are still in the running for a second championship, as are defending title holder Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.

Potential breakthrough champions Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards are still in the hunt, although Edwards needs a victory to advance.

Any of these outcomes would be a plus for NASCAR, which has had a tough year when it comes to the business of promoting and sanctioning races.

Beyond who wins the championship, there's another big question looming: who will sponsor the championship in 2017? That's a process that continues to chug along with no apparent outcome. In addition, the television ratings are falling and there have been problems in the conduct of races.

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Three times during the Chase officials have left an event with some egg on their face due to scoring and rules controversies.

The 29-lap caution period at the Martinsville Speedway on Sunday was the latest. An unusual situation among leaders caused the extended caution and all indications are that the sanctioning body got the order of cars correct for what turned out to be the final restart. But at least one driver thought the outcome was affected by the reduction in green flag laps.

The week before at the Talladega Superspeedway, the slippery concept of competing at "100 percent," a holdover from the Chase scandal at the Richmond International Raceway in 2013, raised its ugly head. Clearly all the teams of JGR and Stewart-Haas Racing did not try their best to compete at the front of the field in the interest of helping their teammates in the Chase.

Running for points instead of a victory is as old as racing championships and there's not much a sanctioning body can do about it. But fans didn't see all the sport's stars compete fully for a victory, which is disrespectful at best to them. The situation results from the elimination format of the Chase, a format that has otherwise worked very well for NASCAR and to its credit the sanctioning body has already put in place a likely remedy by moving Talladega to the second of three events in the Round of 12 in 2017.

The biggest issue in officiating occurred in the first race of the Chase, which could very well affect its outcome. After the opening round in Chicago, officials declared the cars of race winner Martin Truex, Jr. and Johnson to be illegal. They later reversed themselves and let both drivers continue without penalty despite measurements of rear axles that fell outside the rules.

That's not all. This year's Sprint All-Star race, where half the field was lapped due to wonky rules, might have been totally disastrous for teams and fans were it not an exhibition event. As it was, the sponsor could not have been happy.

In some respects, these types of controversies are typical of motor racing and underscore the difficulty of running a major-league series full of talented drivers, teams and well-financed team owners. Often, controversies help generate more publicity and interest by fans. But that hasn't happened this year, highlighting NASCAR's ongoing difficulties with TV ratings.

Only eight of the 34 races - including the All-Star race - have resulted in TV ratings that have gone up or stayed even. This comes in the second year of a 10-year agreement with Fox and NBC, meaning that the comparisons are apples to apples. Both networks are committed to developing all-sports channels, which is one reason why they can't match the numbers of ESPN in 2014 or, in the case of Fox, its own network telecasts versus Fox Sports 1.

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Still the comparisons do not look good. In five of the cases where there's been improvement this year, the ratings of the previous year's event were influenced by rain delays or postponements.

At least a decrease in the ratings of the powerhouse NFL this year has finally given NASCAR some protective cover when it comes to changing viewing habits in the U.S. And the number of NASCAR viewers is still significant on a time slot basis. But the ratings are bound to influence the current discussions with potential new title sponsors.

Ideally, NASCAR would be able to say goodbye and thanks to Sprint and hello to its new sponsor at the season-ending banquet. But discussions have dragged on. NASCAR executive Brent Dewar, the chief operating officer, has said talks are still in advanced stages with potential sponsors. But he's also said there's more emphasis on getting the right fit than on a specific timeline.

The specter of starting the 2017 season without a major title sponsor in place for the first time since the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company came on board in 1972 is certainly an unpleasant prospect for the sport. In any event, there will likely be less investment due to those tepid TV numbers.

All's well that ends well and especially at the checkered flag in motor sports. NASCAR has much to look forward to in that respect. This year's Chase has all four of the major powerhouse teams involved, all three of the automotive brands and only two of the sport's established stars - Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski - eliminated prior to the current Round of 8. (This assumes Truex, Jr. is a new star and that Danica Patrick has star power but is not a star driver.)

Judging from his public appearances, there's reason to be confident that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will return to his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy in 2017. And this year's rookie class of Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher is the strongest since Earnhardt, Jr. and Kenseth arrived in 2000.

For now, it's on to the Texas Motor Speedway Sunday for the second race of the Round of 8 with a six-time champion, Johnson, currently leading the charge after a victory at Martinsville. It's the Chase, where anything can happen and often does. One hopes it doesn't involve another controversy over rules and officiating.

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By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange

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