Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: A Meaningful NASCAR Finale

In 35 races so far this NASCAR season, we’ve seen the sport’s matinee idol perform well, but not spectacularly in his first season with a top team. We’ve seen an amazing stretch of races where a champion who scored the most points last season went winless. We’ve seen a cocky young superstar explode for eight wins, dominating the circuit until hundreds of points were given to other drivers to bring the field even with him, which was followed by his team’s prompt and sudden collapse.

We’ve seen the picture of cool and focused once again hit the switch when the playoffs started, to close in on a certain third straight title for only the second time in the sport’s history.

The season has been another infamous one. The word “weepers” was introduced to the sport’s lexicon for the first time. The sport and its tire manufacturer combined to put on arguably the worst event in the sport’s history at the most fabled track in motorsports. The sanctioning body told its participants to stop complaining about having to drive a top-heavy snowplow. And to no one’s surprise, restrictor plates once again obliterated the championship hopes of at least two drivers.

We are now in the waning moments of another season that has brought some more damage to the reputation of a sport that, incredible as it is to think now, was once on the verge of replacing the NFL as the national pastime. In just four short years, the NFL has become completely safe.

And now the story of the 2008 finale is that Jimmie Johnson has virtually wrapped up his third straight title. Johnson needs only to finish 36th, without leading a lap, and that’s with Carl Edwards winning the race and leading the most laps, a possible but only remotely likely occurrence. If Jimmie finishes 43rd – if he starts and parks – Edwards still needs to finish second (and lead the most laps) or better to take the title.

See also
Happy Hour: Is Jimmie Johnson's 3-Year Run as Good as Cale Yarborough's Was?

So the championship has not actually been recorded, but the final race of the season is what sports folks call a formality. Just enough to divert your attention from anything else, but hardly enough to put you on the edge of your seat.

A finish like this, of course, is perfectly possible without a Chase, although the Chase was supposed to eliminate it. More common in the pre-Chase years (aka B.B. – Before Brian) was a clinched title by Homestead. Some frowned on this. This viewer didn’t.

With the Cup already hoisted a week before the last race, the season ended with one final show, meaningless in the championship respect but still meaningful in every other. Every team wanted to go out on a high note. Every team wanted to find a little more speed for next year. And every team had nothing to do but win.

One of the best races at Miami, if not the best, was the 1 B.B. (2003) Ford 400. The week before, Matt Kenseth held the last Winston Cup in the air following 35 races of scary consistency. In a year where Roush Racing suffered more than its share of broken engines, Kenseth managed to keep his equipment intact and finish in the top 10 nearly every week.

But in this race, Kenseth and the No. 17 team early on finally succumbed to the engine failures that had plagued the rest of his team all season. The champion was out of the race and no longer the story. Homestead became the Bill Elliott Show.

The sport’s most popular driver for 16 straight seasons had announced his retirement from full-time racing. True to a nature that was as humble as his racing ability was awesome, there hadn’t been a lot of fanfare, unlike Rusty Wallace’s “Last Call” or Mark Martin’s “Salute To You”-“I’m Not Done Yet”-“If Brett Favre Can Do It, So Can I” or “Just Let Me Prove I Can Do Better Than Jeff Gordon In Similar Equipment.” Awesome Bill was simply running one more full-time race for Evernham Motorsports before young phenom Kasey Kahne took over.

Whether the team busted their butts that week or Elliott just had one more chance to prove himself is unknown. It was probably both. But there it was, the popular retiring champion veteran smoking the field throughout, leading 189 laps and seemingly on his way to a sure victory in his last full time race. Certainly, it was the feel good story of the 2003 season. The writers started typing “What A Finish! Bill Elliott goes out in a blaze of glo…” and then BLAM! Down went the tire.

On the last lap.

It was as if God stepped in and said, “Don’t get any ideas, Bill. It’s time.”

Elliott left full-time NASCAR racing leaving no doubt that he could still do it.

And Bobby Labonte brought the green No. 18 machine to the checkered flag, scoring his second victory of the season. In that race, that rare but noteworthy anomaly in racing happened: the race winner led just one lap.

And somehow, even if you were an Elliott fan, you didn’t get too upset. Elliott did go out in a blaze of glory, in a different way. He had whipped the field in his last hurrah, and lost the race through no fault of his own, to a just slightly less sturdy tire than he needed to finish the job. If you wanted to take the opportunity, you can point to the 2003 finale and say, “only Goodyear could (blank) up such a great story.”

You could argue that the following season’s finale was more captivating, with Kurt Busch’s blown tire coming off at an absolutely perfect time for the caution to come out, saving his day and his eventual championship. Had it come off two seconds later, Johnson would be chasing his fourth title right now. Sometimes in racing, when it’s your year it’s your year, Chase or not.

I won’t argue with people that thought that was the best ever Homestead race. But the previous year’s showed that with the champion crowned, there was an all new dynamic. And still great reasons to watch.

This viewer might prefer that Jimmie had already won it, and now there is only the last burnout – the last chance for Wonderboy to nail one down in 2008; the last chance for the Biff to add to his Homestead trophies; the last chance for Smoke to grab one more checkered flag for the Home Depot No. 20; the last chance to see one more backflip from Cousin Carl in 2008. With nothing else on the line. Thanks for watching everyone. Hope you enjoyed the final NASCAR event of 2008.

Maybe it’s just me. But that might be more fun than watching to make sure that a team with seven wins this year can manage to nail down a 36th.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • So it’s official, if you saw and believed the newsletter Thursday morning – Teresa Earnhardt and Chip Ganassi have announced their engagement, and they will probably be running Chevys. Now how in the world is Chip going to change all of the cars in his shop from Dodges to Chevrolets? Anyone got a putty knife?
  • Also in the Thursday newsletter was the announcement that BB&T, a banking institution, will be sponsoring Clint Bowyer’s car for 11 races next year, including the All-Star Race. Maybe they have some extra cash lying around from the bailout.
  • There will probably be some blurb in the pre-race show about this being Tony Stewart’s final race in the Home Depot 20. But I am taking the opportunity to focus on the future. Joey Logano may have looked unimpressive so far in his few Cup starts, but so did Kyle Busch in his 2004 runs. The kid’ll find it. Rookie of the Year next year almost certainly, unless Scott Speed and Red Bull step up their program.
  • Is it me or can we say at the end of 2008 that the broadcasts have improved? It seems like there’s less extraneous garbage and the commercial breaks are shorter with the green flag out. They still focus on Jimmie a lot, but that’s hardly to be unexpected, what with him beating everyone and whatnot. I’ve slammed all the networks quite a bit in the past, but it just seems things are a little better lately. Feel free to correct me on that if you think I’m wrong.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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