After the showdown at Talladega last weekend, I found myself astonished and speechless, given the dilemma of processing the spectacle that we witnessed on high banks in the final laps. So much transpired on the track that I considered seeking counseling. But the best advice I embraced was to simply “Let It Go”. I’m done with the Dega drama and ready to watch the final four 2016 Sprint Cup races play out.
The NASCAR circus now moves onto Martinsville Speedway for 500 laps on the tight half-mile oval known affectionately as the “paperclip”, with many simmering storylines. Like Talladega, Martinsville showcases intimate close quarters racing where drivers will be able to reach out and touch one another during the entire race. For those racers who have been keeping a mental checklist, the circumstances are ideal for a little bump and grind payback.
Villains and heroes have now emerged, in what had seemed a sedate season until the Contender round of the Chase played out. One of the unique obsessions within NASCAR is that each driver is able to build a reputation that the fans can partake in. With that mindset, I size up the forthcoming Eliminator Round contenders based on the character they have chosen to play in this latest round of theatre. The pressure of the Chase has demonstrated its ability to bring out both the best and worst in the drivers. Claims Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Crispy M&M Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
First, the Villains:
As the reigning Cup Champion, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet, was accused by at least four other drivers of triggering the 11-car accident at the end of Sunday’s race to avoid being eliminated from the Chase. NASCAR, however, said a review of the incident failed to show Harvick did anything intentional, and he also rejected his competitors’ claims.
Kevin has shown his icy demeanor, having confronted Jimmie Johnson earlier in the Chicago Chase race when he felt Johnson drove him wrong. On the Talladega incident, Harvick showed no regret. “They can look at it 100 different ways, but you can’t quit. You can’t roll over and be done with it and say, ‘We tried our best.'” And so Harvick remains tight-lipped, perhaps having already said too much on the radio to raise suspicions about his intention on that final restart (or was it the second final restart; I’m still unclear).
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Team Penske Ford, is exposing his greed, having become the first driver to sweep all three races in a Chase playoff round and the first Ford driver to win three successive Sprint Cup races since Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace did it back in 1994. Likewise, Logano eliminated NASCAR’s perennial favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., after Junior led the most laps and seemed poised to take the checkered on the final restart until the caution flag flew. Finally, Logano’s “spin and win” move on Kenseth in the final laps of Kansas two weeks ago surely alienated the entire Joe Gibbs Racing contingent of drivers, with two of those drivers hungry to push him aside in order to secure their own first title.
Kyle Busch’s taunting attitude and smug demeanor, together with his ridiculous knack of winning in all three of NASCAR series, make him an extremely reviled dude. Of course, it’s easy to dislike a driver who has supernatural talent when it comes to driving a stock car. This week, Busch stirred up the NASCAR nation by spouting off on Jeff Gordon’s chance of winning his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship in his final season by saying: “I don’t see Jeff Gordon winning it this year, I just don’t see him going to Homestead and being able to beat the 4 (Kevin Harvick), (or) the 22 (Joey Logano) right now. Straight race to do that, to beat them, I don’t see that.” Massive speculation from a driver who seems to implode at some point in every Chase he has qualified for.
Lastly, Brad Keselowski is always outspoken and has cultivated an image of a brash outsider excluded from the inner circle, a “blue-collar” driver who has been to the school of hard knocks and paid his dues along the way. Brad is hungry for validation as he looks for his second Sprint Cup Championship to establish his true legacy. In last year’s Eliminator round, Keselowski got into a fight with Jeff Gordon on pit road at Texas Motor Speedway after Keselowski’s aggressive move up the middle while Gordon was leading on a restart in the final laps. “Bad Brad” still isn’t remorseful for the move he pulled on Gordon last November at Texas; in fact, he’s impressed and would surely try it again.
Now, the Heroes:
Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is still seeking his elusive fifth championship in his final season. He has been close several times, but has not won a Cup championship since 2001. Gordon has had a challenging year, having not yet won a race. Yet, for his legion of “Rainbow Warriors” fans, a victory and Championship would be a stellar walk-off for a driver that has given so much to NASCAR.
Kurt Busch has been flying below the radar screen, in contrast to the drama swirling around his Stewart-Haas teammate Harvick. Busch, driver of #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, is running quite well with solid top 10 results, but has stayed out of the limelight given his past PR antics. For a former Cup Champion who lost his Team Penske ride as a result of his hot-tempered attitude, this season has been a renaissance, culminated by adding a new sponsor for next year. With his fiancé, Ashley Van Metre, accomplished in the art of moving in high cotton circles, he’s marrying someone every bit his equal. Everyone loves a comeback story, and Busch’s would be stellar.
Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet, is another comeback story, in more ways than one. Truex lost his MWR ride in 2013 after the Richmond Chase cut-off race debacle, at first believing he had qualified for his first Chase, but subsequently docked 50 points to squelch his Chase playoff qualification. As he recalled, “I pretty much said, ‘Oh crap.’ It was like getting punched in the face. You just didn’t see it coming. It came out of nowhere”. Then consider that Truex has stood securely by the side of his long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, in her battle and recovery from ovarian cancer. Running for the only single car team in the Chase, many counted Truex out at the beginning of the Chase, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He is the classic underdog that has already conquered insurmountable odds.
Carl Edwards, driver of the #19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, has been running in the shadows. While his teammates Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth have been flaming in the sport’s headlines, Carl has kept a low profile and let his on-track performance do the talking. Heck, Cousin Carl doesn’t even have a Twitter account; how much more low profile can you get? Edwards is famous for flashing that majestic smile and is one of the best sponsor pitchmen in the business. As a sentimental favorite, Edwards is the same guy who showed true sportsmanship in congratulating Tony Stewart on his 2011 Cup Championship, after Edwards was heartbroken by losing on a point tiebreaker in the final race of the season. He took a big chance this year to leave Roush Fenway Racing and join Joe Gibbs Racing, and it just might payoff with his first Cup Championship.
With the curtain now rising for the third act, NASCAR is racing forward at wide open throttle since its visit earlier this year to the historic Virginia short track. If this week’s race plays out like the spring installment at Martinsville, we should be in for a thrilling race, and perhaps a few clashes both on and off the track.
By Ron Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged