NASCAR: Kenseth Closes Career with Classy Can-Am 500 Victory

Matt Kenseth delivers a stirring emotional victory in the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (Photo: Sherri Swann-Bottano/Motorsports Unplugged)

Matt Kenseth delivers a stirring emotional victory in the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (Photo: Sherri Swann-Bottano/Motorsports Unplugged)

In likely his final NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, smoothly slid past Chase Elliott with less than 10 laps remaining in Sunday’s Can-Am 500, spoiling Elliott’s potential Cinderella ticket to the Championship 4 playoff finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

For the former Cup Champion Kenseth, the victory was a stellar way to put a ribbon on his Hall of Fame racing career, as he busted a 51-race winless drought.  Kenseth certainly soaked in the Victory Lane celebration, with both smiles and tears of joy.

“It couldn’t be any sweeter,” shared Kenseth, who confirmed what everyone saw coming, namely that he would be stepping away from racing in 2018, primarily due to shortage of sponsorship to fund a championship caliber ride.  Kenseth continued, “We got one race left and (this is) a great way to go out.  I’ve been so incredibly blessed my whole career to have had so many great people work with me.”

The Can-Am 500 semifinal race showcased the best of NASCAR, with classy tributes and fresh, robust racing in full effect:

The rising talent among the sport’s future stars indeed shines bright, with both Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney running in the top 10 most of the day, and each just coming up short of punching their Championship ticket to Homestead.

Just missing his ticket to Homestead, Chase Elliott exudes class by congratulating Matt Kenseth immediately afterward in Gatorade Victory Lane (Photo: Sherri Swann-Bottano/MotorsportsUnplugged)

Chase Elliott exudes class by congratulating Matt Kenseth immediately afterward in Victory Lane (Photo: Sherri Swann-Bottano/Motorsports Unplugged)

Both these young guns carried themselves with the noble pedigree of their racing families, appealing to legions of new fans following their every move both on track and in the garage at Phoenix.  Blaney flashed his raw talent by qualifying on the pole, and Elliott whipped fans into a frenzy with an eruption of cheers rivaling those typically reserved for Dale Earnhardt Jr, as he ripped the lead from Denny Hamlin with a flurry of bold racing moves in the late stages of the race.

Most impressively, both Elliott and Blaney made classy trips to victory lane to congratulate Kenseth on his win and commend him for his driving prowess.  Kenseth responded to their overtures by saying, “It was pretty neat to have a lot of your peers come and congratulate you, and even at the end to be able to drive by all the fans and … actually hear them yelling over the car and hear them in the window,” Kenseth declared.  “I mean, it was just a really, really special day for a lot of reasons.”

Brad Keselowski barely points his way into the Championship 4 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but recognizes that his Penske Racing Team will need to step up their game if he is to claim his second title. (Photo: Sherri Swann-Bottano/MotorsportsUnplugged)

Brad Keselowski recognizes that his Penske Racing Team will need to step up their game if he is to claim his second title. (Photo: Sherri Swann-Bottano/Motorsports Unplugged)

Fighting an ill-handling car and mired in traffic, Brad Keselowski clawed his way to a 16th-place finish in Sunday’s Can-Am 500, securing the last spot to join Martin Truex Jr, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch to run for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship.  Keselowski grasped that he had dodged the elimination bullet, and grimaced after the race knowing the formidable challengers that await him at next Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today,” shared Keselowski.  “I’m glad I don’t have to relive this day, that is for sure.  I am just looking forward to going to Homestead.  This feels a little bit like Christmas.”

Overshadowed by the playoff drama were several stout finishes by drivers eliminated in earlier playoff rounds, including Chip Ganassi Racing’s Jamie McMurray, who finished 6th, right behind last week’s winner and reigning Phoenix master Kevin Harvick, as well as Roush Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr who finished 8th.  With dominant storylines linked to playoff advancement, these purged drivers often fall below the radar in terms of media coverage.

Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, battled in close proximity with Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Stewart-Hass Ford, throughout the day (Photo: Sherri Swann-Bottano/MotorsportsUnplugged)

Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy, battled in close proximity with Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Stewart-Hass Ford, throughout the day (Photo: Sherri Swann-Bottano/Motorsports Unplugged)

Having transformed into the jewel of the desert, Phoenix Raceway has emerged as the must-see stopover with yet another sold-out crowd.  For fans, this racing experience will escalate in 2018, as the track is progressing rapidly forward on its nearly $180 million renovation project with many changes already on display.  Beginning January 2018, Phoenix Raceway will be known as ISM Raceway, thanks to a multi-year partnership with ISM Connect, a pioneer in smart venue technology.

A circuit reconfiguration will result in the current backstretch becoming the frontstretch, with the start-finish line moving just beyond the renowned “dogleg” segment, ideally creating a rousing racing curve.  New suites, midway, grandstands, and a reimagined infield will offer fans unprecedented access, including direct viewing of garage activity and the drivers’ pre-race meeting, combined with the first motorsports venue to have Wi-Fi throughout the facility.  If you’re considering coming to Zoomtown USA, buy your tickets early or be disappointed.

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano.

 

NASCAR Playoffs: Harvick Takes Down Truex at Texas Speedway

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, poses with the winner’s decal in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick claimed the playoff prize with his victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup AAA Texas 500 (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

When it’s playoff time, Kevin Harvick knows how to lock-in.  On Sunday, Harvick stampeded past Martin Truex Jr to win the AAA Texas 500, clinching his position in the Championship 4 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks.  Harvick also checked another track off the list where he had not previously won.

More importantly, Ford (and explicitly Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing Team) fired a salvo at Toyota’s dominance, whose teams had won all the playoff races so far (except for the Talladega wildcard).

At the outset, Kurt Busch, a Stewart-Haas teammate, secured the AAA Texas 500 pole with not only a track record qualifying speed approaching 201 MPH, but also the fastest lap at any 1.5-mile intermediate speedway ever, validating that the team’s development work with the switch from Chevrolet to Ford at the beginning of the season is now paying dividends.

During the race, Harvick tracked down Toyota driver Truex Jr with a power move around the outside with just nine laps to go, after loosening Truex up with air at the bumper, extremely impressive given Truex has already won six races at intermediate tracks this year.  Also noteworthy was Harvick completed the pass without spinning Truex out or ramming him from behind.

Harvick explained in victory lane, “I knew I had a really good car.  I knew I had to do something different.  I started driving a whole lot deeper in Turn 1—a whole lot deeper.  I started doing that earlier in the race, but I was afraid I didn’t have the brakes to continue to do that all day.  So, I waited until the end and was able to get on the outside of Martin and got him loose and brushed across the back of him and was able to get by on the outside down there.”

Truex, despite his second-place finish, also clinched his berth in the Championship 4 race based on his playoff points total.  Kyle Busch, last week’s Martinsville winner, is also locked into the Championship 4, leaving only one spot up for grabs at Phoenix among five remaining playoff eligible drivers.  Expect the Zoomtown USA desert race to be blazing, as drivers gamble to secure the final spot.

With Texas hosting playoff races for all three of NASCAR’s main series, several other takeaways stood out.

Downforce Leads to Sizzling Speed

Remember all the aero package rules changes that took downforce out of NASCAR Cup cars at the start of the season? It’s back.

The engineering teams have regained the majority of downforce that was removed, given the blistering qualifying speeds.  Five NASCAR drivers exceeded 200MPH in the final round of qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway.  That’s crazy fast for a 1.5-mile oval, especially since the track was reconfigured with a repave last year that lowered the banking through Turns 1 and 2 so that drivers would have to lift off the throttle.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, qualifying 2nd on the front row, summarizes tersely, “The biggest thing is just the development, and trust me, I don’t know of any driver that was comfortable running the speeds that we’re running right now.”

Critically, aero push was obvious at the Texas race.  For some fans in the stands, the most entertaining activity was watching lead cars try to pass lapped cars without wadding everybody up, given the absence of on-track passes at the front.  Todd Gordon, crew chief for Penske driver Joey Logano, observed that Logano would drive up through the field to 10th to 15th place and then his car would simply stall out.

during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas.

With record speeds at Texas, drivers often experienced aero constraints when trying to pass other cars in the pack (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Our mid-race Twitter poll of fan reaction reinforced this snooze fest, with almost 60% suggesting the race was a “couch nap”, while only 7% agreeing that the race lived up to the “No Limits” credo of excitement for Texas Motor Speedway.

Undoubtedly, NASCAR needs to reexamine the 2018 rules configuration, or the momentum the sport has shown this year in terms of fan interest may regress just like the number of on-track passes for the lead.

XFINITY Playoffs Sputter

The quandary of Monster Energy Cup drivers dropping down to XFINITY Series races to steal the show is still a thorn in the side of NASCAR’s playoff system expansion to all three series, with the “win and advance” setup.  Despite rule changes curbing some participation, NASCAR Cup drivers continue to claim the checkered flags in the XFINITY playoff races, to the detriment of XFINITY playoff contenders.

Saturday night, the craze continued, just as it has through all five XFINITY playoff races, as the top three finishers were all Cup regulars, with Erik Jones leading 137 of 200 laps in claiming the top spot.  Ryan Blaney finished 2nd, and Kyle Larson claimed the final podium spot in 3rd.

XFINITY races have become two separate competitions within the main event, which chills the excitement when XFINITY playoff contenders can’t get to victory lane.  Surely, this is not what NBC envisioned when the network introduced its novel interview of the race winner right on the front straightaway after crossing the finish line to capture the winner’s excitement.  Instead, these interviews lack passion, with the XFINITY playoff contenders relegated to pit lane commentary on point standings.

The XFINITY Championship 4 for the Homestead-Miami title race is determined next week in Phoenix; right now, there likely will be no magic Cinderella contender that advances based on claiming race victory, so the Champion contenders would instead be set by points, with Elliott Sadler, William Bryon, Justin Allgaier, and Brennan Poole currently holding the four magic slots.  Sadler, the point leader, has yet to win a race this season.

Chevrolet Fading Fast from Championship Spotlight

For the first time under NASCAR’s elimination playoff format, Chevrolet may not have a contending driver in the mix for the Monster Energy Cup Championship.

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 Hooters Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Despite three 2nd place finishes in the playoffs, Chase Elliott heads to Phoenix in a must-win situation (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

With Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson below the cut line by 49 and 51 points, respectively, these two remaining Hendrick Motorsport playoff contenders are in the basement of the standings.  Either of these Chevy drivers must win at Phoenix to advance to Homestead-Miami, with wild strategy gambles necessary, given the general speed malaise that seems to be afflicting this team.

For Johnson, he finished 27th at Texas and was 3 laps down at one point, at a track where he has won seven times, including the April race earlier this season.  More striking, Johnson, usually the calm and collected seven-time Champion, expressed displeasure:

“We’ve got to figure something out,” Johnson said.  “I’m definitely disappointed.  And, I honestly just feel bad for my team.  These guys are working so hard.  And to work this hard and not see any speed go back in the car and have bad results as the last three weeks have been is pretty disappointing.”

For Chevy, having unveiled the 2018 Camaro ZL1 race car to replace the aging Chevy SS platform after this season, the testing that has shown improved aerodynamic performance cannot come soon enough when the actual cars hit the track next year at Daytona.  We will likely have to wait until then to potentially see a Chevrolet in victory lane.

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano.

NASCAR Playoffs: Larson Blows Up While Blaney Blasts Off

KANSAS CITY, KS - OCTOBER 22: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, speaks with the media after having engine trouble during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 22, 2017 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kyle Larson experiences the media crush after engine troubles eliminated him from the NASCAR playoffs. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway was a tumultuous contest, with favorite Kyle Larson, driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing #42 Chevy, eliminated from Championship contention, while Ryan Blaney, driver of Wood Brothers #21 Ford, delivering a storybook finish to advance to next round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

An engine detonation relegated Larson to the garage on lap 73 of the Hollywood Casino 400, extinguishing his Championship quest.  As one of the leading favorites to make the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Larson’s fortunes going up in smoke caused fans on social media to melt down and lose their collective minds.

Conversely, Ryan Blaney started from the rear at Kansas Speedway but drove a stellar race and dodged several bullets to finish 3rd and remain alive in the playoff picture.

Surely, these contrasting challenges encompass the Game 7 drama that NASCAR sought when they introduced this multi-stage playoff elimination format.  No doubt playoff outcomes can be influenced by fortuitous luck or haphazard chance, but mechanical equipment has always been part of the equation in racing success.

Such mechanical misfortune could befall Martin Truex Jr. at the Homestead-Miami final, should he advance that far.  Truex, Sunday’s winner at Kansas and the perennial favorite to win the Championship, has a series-leading seven wins this season, and anything less than a Championship will seem unjust to the fans of the Furniture Row racing team, regarded as the “little team that could”.

Certainly, this Championship format is demanding.  Larson undeniably didn’t have a dazzling 2nd playoff round.  With previous finishes of 10th at Charlotte and 13th at Talladega, Larson had a narrow point cushion to rely on for advancement beyond Kansas.

 Ryan Blaney, driver of the #21 Wood Brothers Ford, raced through the field to a 3rd place finish in Hollywood Casino 400 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney raced through the field to a 3rd place finish in the Hollywood Casino 400 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Conversely, Blaney and his Wood Brothers Racing Team are alive in their quest to win this year’s championship. Blaney explained, “I would say this is probably the most fun I’ve ever had racing with anybody, no matter what car.  They just make it a fun year.  Just to be competitive, still be in this thing, that’s just a bonus, to be honest with you.”

And, naturally, seven-time Champion Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Racing Chevy, persevered to advance in a less than stellar season for him, showing composure when confronted by desperate unscheduled pit stops that would have derailed a lesser team.  Johnson again revealed the golden horseshoe often attributed to him, spinning out not once but twice, including a critical journey into the infield grass that could have torn up his car and destroyed his quest for a record setting 8th Championship, but didn’t.

The abrupt nature of playoff elimination for those drivers and their fans always will generate an empty and hollow void at the end of each playoff round.  It’s the game we now have in NASCAR, and as each round concludes, the playoff cuts only get stiffer as worthy drivers are eliminated.

Still, the remaining eight contenders provide a perfect balance for the Championship chase.  We have a compelling mix of drivers, with four former champions (Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski), two young guns (Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney), and two experienced vets who have just fallen short of the title chase before and are as hungry as ever (Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin).

We also have manufacturer diversity in the title chase, with three Toyotas, three Fords, and two Chevrolets among the eight remaining contenders, despite the perceived dominance of Toyota during NASCAR’s regular season.

Vegas odds now favor Truex, Busch, Harvick, and Keselowski to make the Ford Championship Weekend in Homestead-Miami.

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota, displays his 7 victory decals in a stellar season (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr displays his 7 victory decals in a stellar season (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Truex will likely waltz to the Finals given the playoff point buffer he has already accumulated with seven race wins this season.  And Harvick can surely get the job done at Phoenix, the penultimate race, with 8 previous wins at his home track.  Meanwhile, Kyle Busch is just on fire, with raw speed, talent, and conviction all converging at the right time.

Yet, I’m calling an audible on Keselowski, with the anticipation that either Hamlin or Johnson will rip a win at next weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.  Johnson and Hamlin are the preeminent active drivers at the oddly-shaped paperclip short track, having netted 9 and 5 wins, respectively, which would guarantee either’s advancement to the Homestead Final.

Then again, that’s just my reasonable conjecture.  In the congruence of man vs. machine, NASCAR’s playoff format requires that teams and drivers bring their best stuff to EVERY race.  Isn’t that why we should be tuning in, for the both the triumph as well as the agony that this playoff system delivers?

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano and share your final four contenders. 

NASCAR: Talladega Turmoil Produces Playoff Perfection

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, AL: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Alabama 500 (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If high speed racing in clustered three-wide packs is truly an acquired taste, then I’m craving more.  Sunday’s racing at Talladega Superspeedway was nothing short of the finest that such super long ovals with high-banked corners can deliver in NASCAR.

The Alabama 500 was certainly inspiring, with a packed house and the best TV ratings for a Talladega race in five years.

Fans were loud and boisterous, although devotees of Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely left frustrated that he couldn’t snag a checkered flag in his final appearance at the track, despite starting from the pole.

If there was any solace, Earnhardt Jr was running for the prize at the end, and that passionate energy was apparent as he survived multiple near misses, like a cat with nine lives.

Even more promising, a rising star named Chase Elliott garnered significant cheers when he drove the Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet to the front, and the dash to the finish line with Penske driver Brad Keselowski sweeping to the bottom in front of Ryan Newman to steal the victory on the final lap propelled fans into a frenzy as well.

Inevitably, the last restrictor-plate race of the season was a wreckfest that featured multiple red flags and the elimination of more than one-half of the cars prior to the conclusion of the race.  Such chaos ensures there will always be cynics who demand that Talladega “bulldoze the banks” and bring back normalcy to racing.

Yet, crashes serve to remind us of the fundamental risk in motorsports, with drivers on the edge of the competitive scalpel.  As the adage goes, we don’t want to see drivers injured, but we can’t look away from a spectacular pileup.

Oct 15, 2017; Talladega, AL, USA; A pack of 17 drivers wreck in turn three during the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

A pack of drivers wreck in turn 3 during the Alabama 500. (Photo: John David Mercer/USA TODAY)

So what qualities make these superspeedway races so appealing?

First, driver skill was evident throughout the race.  No doubt there is randomness to such racing, but all forms of competitive sport feature a certain amount of luck.  However, superspeedway races require a mental toughness and spatial awareness that taxes the drivers’ focus.  Situational awareness is critical in knowing when to make the right move and at what time.

Hard racing, side by side and in close quarters, was on display throughout the day.  Drivers could not afford to hang back with three stages of playoff points in play.  The tension in the pack was evident, and required a fine balance of patience and aggressiveness, like a game of high stakes poker.

More prominently, playoff stress escalated tremendously.  At the halfway point of the ten race NASCAR playoffs, Talladega injected sorely needed buzz into a championship chase that seemed on autopilot, with an inexorable march of four Toyota teammates originally anointed to reach the Championship final at Homestead-Miami in November.

With Brad Keselowski’s win, Ford broke up the Toyota juggernaut that had won the all the playoff races to this point.

Crucially, for the Kansas Speedway elimination next weekend, former Champions Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson are on the brink of elimination unless they deliver the goods.

With two victories in the 1st playoff round, Busch looked primed to punch his ticket to the Championship.  Now, two poor back-to-back finishes has jeopardized his quest.  Nothing wrong with that.  Being on the brink of elimination often showcases the true mettle of Champion contenders in overcoming adversity and proving their pedigree.

Superspeedway races resemble a marathon sprint, challenging both the driver’s and team’s mental stamina and physical endurance.  Sunday’s race featured almost four hours of racing, as well as compression on pit crews to repair damage quickly and get back on the field of play.  Many drivers, including Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano, soldiered on despite damage to their vehicles early in the race, with Logano netting a 4th place finish for his efforts.

Conversely, risk and reward are on full display.  Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi #1 Chevy, made an ill-advised dart for pit road to refuel, eerily like being on the interstate while crossing three lanes of traffic without a turn signal, and paid the price.  Now, the Chip Ganassi playoff contender sits at the bottom of the standings, desperately needing a win at Kansas Speedway to avoid elimination.

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, waves to the crowd on his driver introduction lap prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, bids farewell to his legion of fans at Talladega Superspeedway prior to the race. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Most satisfying, in the post-race conversation, the sport’s fan base is not griping about aero push, the leader running away from the field, or the advantage of the Toyota powerplant.  Instead, fans are chattering about the actual competition on the track, the drama of the playoffs, and the final lap sequence to the checkered flag.

Genuinely, I ‘m now a superspeedway convert, captivated by the lore of these tracks’  legacy in NASCAR.  Liking such races may be heretical for racing purist.  The action is pure mayhem at times.  Yet, Talladega is a great equalizer, putting the emphasis more on the driver and the choices made with the wheel, rather than the mechanics of the car.  For drivers, somebody will surely be mad at you at the end of the race, and that’s ok.

Next year, NASCAR’s playoffs will be spicier with a mile long concrete monster (Dover International Speedway), Talladega Superspeedway, and Kansas Speedway comprising the 2nd Round elimination segment, along with the twist of the newfangled Charlotte road course concluding the 1st round playoff eliminator.  For enthusiasts desiring a shift away from the dominance of tedious 1.5-mile ovals, such an assortment will surely ramp the drama meter in 2018.  Count me in!

By Ron Bottano (@rbottano)

Share your take: Does Talladega deserve a place in the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @racingunplugged

NASCAR Playoffs: Is Jimmie Johnson a Championship Contender?

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

One week before the NASCAR playoffs begin, and the whispers have intensified, “Will the real Jimmie Johnson reemerge in time to capture the Cup?”  While the seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup champion won three races in quick succession earlier this year, Johnson’s customary summer swoon has been in full effect.

Since his last victory in June at Dover Speedway, Johnson’s best result is a 10th place finish at both Michigan and New Hampshire.

Vegas oddsmakers still respect Johnson’s championship prowess, favoring the Team Lowe’s Racing driver to make the Championship four finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, along with Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kyle Larson.

Uninspiringly, Johnson is a paltry 10th in the current regular season point standings, having managed only three top 5 finishes, all wins from earlier in the year.

Still, Johnson has embarrassed his doubters before, those who unwisely dismiss Team Lowe’s Racing chances for capturing the Cup trophy yet again.

The prevailing wisdom is that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus rely on the regular season to tune up and refine their best car equipment for the Championship run.  Once the playoffs commence, Team Lowe’s Racing will simply “flip the switch” to transform into playoff shape.

Johnson last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Johnson’s last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Additionally, the prevalent blend of intermediate speedways in the ten-race playoff stretch are right in Johnson’s and Knaus’ wheelhouse of performance expertise, the type of tracks where Johnson has captured over one-half of his 83 career wins.

Yet, there is a novel “X factor” that Johnson must contend with in this year’s playoff.  Certainly, Johnson knows how to win on the circuits in the playoffs.  However, Johnson has yet to master the unique stage racing format introduced this season that awards bonus points for performance within three race segments, which may prove crucial to moving through this year’s playoff eliminations.

To capture provisional stage wins, drivers must qualify well to maximize their opportunity to run up front early and score the cherished extra bonus points.  Currently, Johnson has only one stage win this year, while playoff contenders Truex Jr and Kyle Busch have 17 and 10 wins, respectively.

Uncharacteristically, Johnson has genuinely struggled to qualify well this year, as revealed when comparing this year’s performance with his seven previous Championship seasons:

  • During his Championship runs, Johnson’s average qualifying spot was 9.8. Conversely, in 2017, Johnson has lacked speed, with an average starting position of 17.3.
  • In four of his previous Championship seasons, Johnson ranked 1st in season laps led, and never outside the top six in the other three seasons. This year, Johnson ranks a pedestrian 10th in laps led, and hasn’t led a lap since Daytona in July.
  • More concerning is Johnson’s 2017 average finish of 17.0, evidence that the Hendrick Motorsports #48 is not progressing up through the field in most races, which has classically been a perennial strength of Johnson’s prior Championship runs.

There is little question that the entire Hendrick Motorsports stable has lacked speed, as all four drivers (including Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chase Elliott, and Kasey Kahne) have struggled to run up front this year.  While Elliott leads the Hendrick organization with an average finish of 13.7, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr are both edgy, with average finishes that fall outside the top 20.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe's team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe’s team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

It is possible that the loss of Hendrick Motorsports’ former Chevy “alliance” partner, Stewart-Haas Racing, (which switched to Ford powerplants for 2017) has impacted the robust data set that the Hendrick organization could draw upon to improve on-track performance.

Additionally, the front-running teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing have capitalized on the new Toyota Camry to generate more speed over the season, while Hendrick Motorsports’ outdated Chevrolet SS platform originally introduced in 2013 will be replaced by the Camaro ZL1 for 2018.

Recently, Johnson was quizzed about where he currently stands under NASCAR’s new point system.  Johnson candidly replied that he had “no idea”, and that he just seeks to go hard every time he straps in the car and deliver the best result with the equipment provided.

Of course, no driver wins every time they strap into the car.  Racing streaks come in waves, in a sport that depends on the synergistic connection of car, crew and driver all coming together.  Race teams in the garage are always looking to improve this combination, and that’s called competition.

In the past, Johnson has habitually made it look almost too easy in securing Championships through dominant playoff runs, displaying a cool, confident demeanor that sometimes does not resonate with the old school stalwarts in NASCAR’s fan base.

This year, should Johnson overcome the hurdles of a new playoff format and an underperforming car to secure a record eighth Championship, he surely should be revered by fans for his grit and tenacity, as Johnson will undeniably stand atop NASCAR’s Championship pinnacle.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Jimmie Johnson make it to the Championship 4 Final Round? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

Joey Logano Must Gamble for NASCAR Playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR's playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR’s playoffs

Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Penske Racing Ford, is down to his final two racetrack spins of the regular season.  And the odds may be more stacked against him making the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup playoffs than your winning the latest Powerball drawing.

Logano’s struggle to qualify for the playoffs is arguably the greatest shock of the NASCAR season, given that Logano made it all the way to the final round of Championship 4 drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2014 and 2016.

Even though Logano won at Richmond Raceway in April, that victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

Mathematically eliminated in terms of points, Logano is in a must-win situation to qualify for the playoffs with only a return to Richmond and Darlington Raceway left in the regular season.

Two weeks ago, Logano confessed at Michigan International Speedway to being desperate, but felt the final stretch of regular-season tracks was a good fit for his driving style.

Yet, at Bristol where he has won twice previously, Logano wrestled his way to a 13th place finish in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, lacking corner entry stability and having to rebound from being a lap-down by utilizing the free-pass.

Since the Richmond penalty was announced, which included a loss of team points and crew chief suspension for two races, the momentum has been sucked out of the #22 team.  In his last 14 NASCAR Cup races, Logano has led only 7 laps.

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Back in February, Logano was on top of the world, as he, crew chief Todd Gordon, and sponsor Shell signed contract extensions running through 2023, delivering the team stability that Roger Penske craves.

Logano, saying it was a day he would never forget, proclaimed, “When a seven-year deal is thrown in front of you, obviously you jump on that opportunity to go out there and win championships together.”

So, will Logano be able to cash in on victory lane in either of the two remaining regular season races?

Richmond is the better bet of the two tracks, given Logano has won there twice (including the “encumbered” April win).  His average finish of 8.9 over last 10 races is 2nd among active drivers.

Darlington, with its odd egg-shaped design and legend as the “track too tough to tame”, is a definite shortcoming in Logano’s repertoire.  His average finish of 18.4 is 17th best among active drivers, including just two top-5’s in eight starts.

Logano maintains optimism, asserting “Every moment becomes more and more important on the racetrack, and that’s ok.  That’s where you find out what you’re made of, so I’m all right with that.”

Logano is spot-on.  The #22 team has had its back against the wall before and Team JL has delivered.

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

However, right now, the Penske Fords just haven’t been fast enough and appear off.

Penske’s two teams of Logano and Keselowski can crank a fast lap time in practice and qualifying, but they’re just not drivable in race conditions, either due to a shortfall of aero downforce or mechanical grip in race conditions.

Luck, of course, plays a big factor, and a shrewd pit call by master crew chief Todd Gordon could rescue the day at either track.  But, time is now the enemy, and this perplexing season may leave Team JL with mixed emotions given its early season success, followed by its recent struggles.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Logano make the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

 

Battle of the Beach: IndyCar Wins Long Beach Grand Prix

2017 LBGP Winner James Hinchcliffe

2017 LBGP Winner James Hinchcliffe (image credit: Gary Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

With Formula 1, as well as IndyCar, ready to return from their mid-season breaks, the silly season news continues to flow.  Instead of drivers, the latest bulletin revolves around the signature Long Beach Grand Prix that has been a staple of the IndyCar schedule since 1984.

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach remains the longest running street race in America, having sustained 43 consecutive years.  While the inaugural Long Beach GP featured Formula 5000, F1 arrived in 1976 and stayed until 1983, when IndyCar took over.

For IndyCar, the Long Beach Grand Prix has been a bonanza, boasting crowds of more than 180,000 over the extended weekend, remaining the 2nd most popular IndyCar race on the circuit, and providing a giant April precursor to the pageantry of the Indianapolis 500 in May.

Given its 2018 contract expiration with the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach (GPALB), the Long Beach City Council apparently felt compelled to bestow a $150,000 project to accountancy KPMG for an assessment of competing proposals to host the street race in 2019 and beyond, given an expressed overture to bring F1 racing back to the Beach.

John Watson of McLaren won the last Formula 1 race at Long Beach in 1983

John Watson of McLaren won the last Formula 1 race at Long Beach in 1983

Two primary motives caused the Long Beach City Council to open the bidding process: 1) F1 exudes worldwide prestige, and 2) the insider beating F1 drum was none other than Christopher Pook, the visionary founder of the original race back in 1975.

Fortunately, the KPMG report reached the conclusion that the current GPALB is the “most qualified” firm to run the race, snubbing Chris Pook and his World Automobile Championship of California.  The report left no doubt that the WACC proposal was truly wacked.

Bluntly, the entire undertaking seemed ludicrous and hollow from the beginning.

First, the exorbitant investment required to accommodate F1 racing would never have made economic sense for a city of Long Beach’s prominence.  Hosting F1 would have necessitated construction of a semi-permanent garage and pit complex.  Additionally, a reconfigured circuit would require costly expansion for the widened track and safety runoff areas that are necessary to host F1.  It would be insanely expensive, impacting the City with dramatic venue changes.

At the end of the day, what costs the city money…costs the taxpayers money, and most of its citizens are currently stretched.

Secondly, the reason the Long Beach Grand Prix is so successful is the assortment of events and activities, which feature a casual, laid-back vibe.  Many of its attendees are not hard-core race fanatics, but are destination entertainment seekers.

These thrill seekers come for the evening concerts, variety of concessions, and spectrum of races, such as IMSA, Stadium Super Trucks, Pirelli World Challenge, and Formula Drift.  The Long Beach race is a tepid melting pot, and offers something that everyone can partake and find enjoyment in.  And the ticket prices are affordable enough to attract the broad masses.

Chris Pook, founder of the original Long Beach Grand Prix

Chris Pook, founder of the original Long Beach Grand Prix

More basic, the WACC bid raised more questions than answers around broadcast rights, sanction fees, etc.  It just seemed unfeasible that WACC could negotiate all of that, honestly.  The death knell was the acknowledgement by WACC that they could not mobilize to host a race until 2020, which would have left the city with a schedule gap and no race calendared for 2019.

And yet, Pook expressed dismay, saying “We’re disappointed.  I don’t understand; apparently the financials weren’t taken into consideration.”  Perhaps that because no realistic numbers were truly on the table.

With the selection committee’s recommendation firmly in hand, we anticipate the full Long Beach City Council will bless these findings when they meet this week and begin negotiations in earnest with the GPALB for a new 2019 contract extension, assuring IndyCar’s leading role in this signature series.

However, one thing is certain: The City Council, having played poker with the best of them, can be expected to seek a more alluring deal with the GPALB, including perhaps a higher rights fee associated with rents for Convention Center and ancillary facilities, as well as neglected road infrastructure repairs and improvements.

Perhaps if we are blessed, this increased cash flow will provide the City of Long Beach with payback of its $150,000 study cost.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Should Long Beach have stayed with IndyCar or pursued F1? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

NASCAR: Winning Isn’t Everything, Growth Is

Bubba Wallace captured the Camping Series Truck win at Michigan

Bubba Wallace captured the Camping Series Truck win at Michigan

NASCAR’s top three race series delivered action-packed finishes in Michigan and Ohio, yet the meter continues to stall on NASCAR’s growth quandary.

Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, made a brilliant, daring set of moves, splitting the front row on a restart in the Pure Michigan 400, to seize the race win, where drivers soared into the oval banks at entry speeds of 215 MPH.

Also at Michigan, The Camping World Truck Series put on a showcase of drafting and passing over the final ten laps, with almost foregone, but not forgotten, Bubba Wallace capturing the victory with a gutsy inside dive into the corner in the final laps.

And another “super-sub” driver, Sam Hornish Jr. delivered a precision driving clinic to win on the highly technical Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Despite superb finishes and surprise winners, there’s unfortunate irony that these three drivers currently lack full-time sponsorship to fund their 2018 racing careers.

Earlier this year, Wallace knew his NASCAR XFINITY Series ride with Roush Fenway Racing was ending because sponsorship dollars weren’t available to sustain it. He’s been in limbo, a young potential star trying to stay relevant, taking a one-off ride in the Truck Series where he last raced full-time in 2014.

Hornish is primarily a substitute Penske Racing driver for the XFINITY #22 team when full-time Cup drivers Joey Logano or Brad Keselowksi can’t cover the ride.

Hornish, a NASCAR regular whose had mixed success, captured a strong win at Mid-Ohio

Hornish, a NASCAR regular whose had mixed success, captured a strong win at Mid-Ohio

Kyle Larson, while sitting solid in the Chip Ganassi Racing Team stable, recently had sponsor Target Corp announce a complete bailout on auto racing after this season. Larson’s success in the Monster Cup Series wasn’t enough to keep Target committed to motorsports. The Minneapolis-based superstore left Ganassi’s IndyCar team last season after a 27-year run, and now departs NASCAR after 16 years at the end of this season.

No doubt that Larson, one of NASCAR’s most promising future hotshoes, will secure a new sponsor (or set of sponsors); yet, it’s still disappointing to see a major long-time sponsor like Target step away from the sport’s future stars.

Underscoring the challenges, Kevin Harvick, 2014 Cup Champion, attacked Dale Earnhardt Jr’s reputation, claiming that Junior’s popularity “has stunted the growth of NASCAR.” Basically, Harvick’s contention is that NASCAR’s most popular driver doesn’t win enough.

For a driver that leads his fan base with both class and humility, Earnhardt Jr admitted the words were hurtful in his final racing season.

So what actions (aside from tweaking playoff formats and aero package rules) might be ways to ramp the next wave of NASCAR growth. Game changers are hard to find, but let’s start with a few far-reaching ideas:

New Tracks: For starters, more road courses. As a minimum tweak, add one more road course to NASCAR’s premier Cup Series, and put it somewhere in the ten-race playoff season. Road courses, like Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen, have been among the best attended and most exciting races over the past several years. These challenging circuits put the driver’s skill to the “eye test”, where the course dynamics really showcase racers being on the edge of grip and performance,

The Next Manufacturer Entering NASCAR: Still pending, yet adding a new partner beyond Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota would validate that investing in NASCAR is worth the return. The auto industry is global, and NASCAR continues to stress that “conversations with other manufacturers” are ongoing. A recent NASCAR Fan survey sought out opinions on several auto makes, likely gathering intelligence to share with potential new partners.

Kevin Harvick claims that Earnhardt's departure is stunning the growth of NASCAR.

Kevin Harvick claims that Earnhardt’s departure is stunting the growth of NASCAR.

NASCAR’s acknowledgement that they are aggressively pursuing new manufacturers leads to rampant speculation, but getting a European powerhouse like VW, or a brand known for its racing prowess among enthusiasts like Mazda, could go a long way to stimulating new interest in the series. The long-standing rumor that Dodge is eyeing a comeback continue to persist as well. Any of these would be welcome and broaden the series appeal.

Team Headquarters: Virtually all Cup teams are based in North Carolina. That leads to a provincial view of the sport. Yet, a satellite team like Furniture Row Racing, based in Denver, with a successful, affable driver like Martin Truex Jr., is a platform for stimulating new fan interest in the local community.

In other sports, many fans affiliate with their local sports teams. Yes, having drivers from other regions and countries builds interest, but seeing a few teams mimic the FRR model in other parts of the country, particularly in the Western US, could generate additional attention and coverage of the sport. Surely, there are logistical challenges, but it can be done.

Future Stars: Highlighting the fresh up and coming drivers that connect with the next generation of fans in unconventional ways. Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Bubba Wallace have not only showcased their driving talents, but have ability to connect with fans in newfangled ways through social media that share their interests beyond the core racing experience.

Adding diversity to the equation, Daniel Suarez, 2016 XFINITY Champion (who hails from Monterrey, Mexico) is currently leading the Monster Cup rookie of the year stats, having quickly made the jump to the #19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota when Carl Edwards abruptly retired. Suarez continues to improve every race, amassing four straight top 10 finishes until being unceremoniously being taken out at Michigan in a wreck. Suarez is young hotshoe who exhibits the infectious enthusiasm that Helio Castroneves inspires in the Verizon IndyCar series.

Sure, these ideas need prioritization, and require collaboration among all of NASCAR’s stakeholders, including sponsors, competitors, the sanctioning body, track operators, and fans. But it’s a better place to start than pointing fingers at NASCAR’s most popular driver.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

NASCAR: Monster Lessons from The Daytona 500

Kurt Busch searched for his first Daytona 500 win and got it.

Kurt Busch searched for his first Daytona 500 win and got it.

With the kickoff of last weekend’s Daytona 500, NASCAR is back on the track after having undertaken a radical transformation of its race series during the off-season.

The Daytona 500 garnered substantial attention for multiple reasons: All three series featured the new three stage race format, where both regular season and playoff points are available. Secondly, Speedweeks showcased the return of the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr, after being sidelined for the second half of 2016 with a concussion. Additionally, the Daytona 500 featured the debut of Monster Energy as the entitlement Cup sponsor. Without a rush to judgment, several lessons stood out from the crowd.

Segment Racing Might Not Charm Fans with Short Attention Spans

With the Camping World Trucks, Xfinity, and Monster Energy Cup series all in action at Daytona, we witnessed extended lapping breaks between segments. When combined with the clean-up from wrecks, all three races required a lot of couch time. Both the Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup races produced over 100 miles of total caution flag lapping, with the Daytona 500 approaching 3 ½ hours in duration.

While only a limited sample, some drivers, as well as fans believed that several “big ones” in the early stages were a result of overly-aggressive driving and a lack of patience sometimes needed in restrictor plate racing. Leave it to Jimmie Johnson, 2016 Series Champion, to sum it up after being wrecked out with a 34th place finish: “Just a lot of aggression, way too early in my opinion.”

While the segment racing may ramp up the in-race excitement, it is still a foreign concept to explain to a new fan and will take time to accustom to for old-school fans as well.

Bring Your Calculator to Understand the New Point Math

The new Segment format can create some wacky point outcomes. Kevin Harvick ended up finishing 22nd at the conclusion of the Daytona 500, but thanks to his segment two win, he is 4th in overall regular season points. Some fans are still having trouble getting their mind around that one.

Under the new point system, a driver that finishes 3rd in all three race segments would mathematically outpoint the race winner, if the race winner fails to place in the top 10 in the first two segments, even though winning the race is arguably the most important outcome.

No doubt the TV partners’ on-screen point graphics are going to get a workout as the regular season winds toward the 10-race playoff later this year.

The Monster Energy Girls created quite a stir throughout the Daytona 500 week. Image Getty Images

Ford in the Championship Hunt This Year

Ford last won a NASCAR Cup championship in 2004. With Kurt Busch winning the Daytona 500 in Ford’s inaugural race with the recently-converted Stewart-Haas team, Ford teams showed speed throughout the weekend, with six of the Top-10 finishers in a Ford, as well as the victory of Ryan Reed in the Xfinity Series race the day before.

Last year, Ford-backed teams won only 20% of the Cup races, with almost all those wins captured by the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. With the switch of Stewart-Haas’ four teams from Chevrolet to Ford, expect Ford to ramp up the win total, as already evidenced the Kurt’s Busch’s maiden victory.

Monster Energy Will Not Generate an Immediate Boost

Aside from pockets of outrage over the Monster Girls’ attire that was not firesuit approved, Monster Energy is taking a studious approach to ramping up its activation with the sport. Perhaps this is partly attributable to the partnership coming together late last year, even though NASCAR had been seeking an entitlement sponsor for almost two years.

NASCAR’s expectations are high that Monster can ideally attract a younger, “edgier”, demographic and raise the excitement level at events. So far, there has been no television advertising directly promoting the connection between the sport and the beverage company.

Monster Energy representatives have said they are still developing an understanding of the marketplace and letting fans adjust to a new Cup sponsor. Perhaps smart, given that NASCAR core fans are a passionate bunch. However, let’s keep the faith that we hear more about Monster Energy’s commitment to the sport than the heat around the female attire in victory lane, which is still more than most NFL cheerleaders showcase.

Ratings Up, Perhaps Due to the Dale Jr Bump

The Daytona 500 sold out in the week leading up to the race, no doubt driven by the star power return of Dale Earnhardt Jr to the track. Earnhardt Jr qualified on the front row for the start of the Daytona 500, and demonstrated his prowess early in the week by leading 53 of 60 laps in the precursor Can-Am Duels.

Fox Sports’ coverage delivered a 7% ratings bump over the 2016 event, but that’s starting from a low base. Overall, TV ratings are nowhere close to where they were a decade ago for NASCAR’s premier event.

It remains to be seen whether this initial viewership and attendance interest will lead to a renaissance for NASCAR over the course of the 2017 season. The next few races, featuring a new aero package and continued segment racing, will be more evident of whether viewers are intrigued by the changes and willing to tune-in based on driver Brad Keselowki’s bold assertion that the new format will showcase “the best racing you’ve ever seen.”

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano.

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson Swipes 7th Sprint Cup Championship

during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 16, 2013 in Daytona Beach, Florida

7 Time Sprint Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson had never won at Homestead-Miami Speedway, despite having amassed 80 Sprint Cup career race wins. But then again, Johnson had never needed to win at Homestead in his past quest for Sprint Cup titles.

On Sunday, Johnson forever linked his legacy to both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time Sprint Cup champions by capturing the checkered flag in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Seven titles in the past 11 seasons is surely a stellar triumph across any sport. For a true barometer of Johnson’s greatness, look towards next year’s Daytona 500 when race cars will roll on the grid.

Johnson will be NASCAR’s only multi-Championship driver when the green flag flies to open the 2017 season. No other active driver will even have two Championships, with the recent retirements of both Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Truly, this surreal, fairy-tale ending sprung from the shared Chase elimination playoff format that now applies to all three of NASCAR’s top racing series: Sprint Cup, XFINITY, and Camping World Trucks.

NASCAR’s Chase playoff can be simply exhausting and exasperating. When this Chase playoff was first introduced at the Sprint Cup level in 2014, I didn’t care for it.

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On Sunday, Johnson forever linked his legacy to both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time Sprint Cup champions by capturing the checkered flag in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

However, seeing the Chase play out once again this year, I have been painstakingly assimilated as a convert, like the invasive Borg from the Star Trek television serial.

Watching an entire season of the Sprint Cup Championship come down to a final race restart for the Championship 4 drivers, instead of tracking “points racing” tallies, was truthfully just like reveling in a playoff game where anything can happen and the outcome was hazy until the very last lap. Drama delivered, for sure!

Maybe NASCAR has nailed it here after all, in the era of short attention spans. For the third year in a row, the Championship 4 “winner take all” finale delivered strategy, amusement, drama, and controversy, after Joey Logano dropped low on the track and Carl Edwards threw the block, wrecking both drivers and effectively parting the seas for Johnson’s quest for a “come from behind” victory.

Consider that the cream rose to the top in all three Championship series finales:

  • In the Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200, Johnny Sauter secured his first Championship over his 13-year racing career with a gritty third-place finish at Homestead-Miami, with the other three Championship contenders finishing 7th, 8th, and 9th.
  • In the XFINITY Series, Daniel Suarez took the checkered flag in Ford EcoBoost 300 to capture the XFINITY Series championship. With the win, Suarez became the first International NASCAR champion of any touring series once the Mexican-born driver nabbed the title. The remaining three Championship contenders finished 3rd, 6th, and 9th, but were running in the top 5 throughout the day.
  • In the Sprint Cup Series, with 60 laps remaining in the Ford EcoBoost 400, the Championship 4 contenders were clustered together with Logano 2nd, Edwards 3rd, Busch 4th, and Johnson 6th. With 10 laps to go, the Championship 4 were still tightly packed among the top six running positions on the track. When the final race results were racked, Johnson was crowned both the Homestead race winner, as well as Sprint Cup Champion, for the third year in a row under the revitalized Chase format.

But while purists may continue to whine about the playoff format, maybe these fans just require a little more time to “soak in”.

For an unknown, inexplicable reason, the Chase elimination playoff elevates the Championship racers to showcase their cadre of talents in a “winner takes all” battle that compels drivers to take big risks for big rewards, and not rest on their point cushions.

Whether you’re a proponent or not of the Chase playoff format, greatness was delivered by Johnson. Revel in it during the short offseason!

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano.

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