Race Weekend Central

Chasing the Final Four: Did NASCAR Get it Right?

Logano, Kyle, Jimmie and Cousin Carl…did the mysterious conglomeration of points, wins and chance called the Chase deliver to NASCAR Nation the right combination of drivers eligible to win the 2016 Sprint Cup Championship? Let’s look at the facts:

Sixteen drivers entered into the Chase back in September.  Some competitors like Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray and Chase Elliot pretty much got into the big show through luck. While Buescher did collect an automatic entry with a win, it wasn’t because his team had a competitive car.  Elliott, McMurray and Dillon managed the feat without a win, simply by performing decently throughout the season.  Those drivers are not part of the Homestead final four.  So far the system worked.

Next we had the drivers who collected a single victory during the regular season.  Kyle Larson finally added a win to his column, but he only had a fair year besides that perfect day. There were splashes of brilliance, but nobody saw the Ganassi team making a run for the big trophy. Tony Stewart grabbed his Cinderella moment in the California sun, but with only half a season to catch up with the competition, that Sonoma victory would be his last of his career, without adding another Cup to the mantle.  What about Kurt Busch? There were glimmers of excellence, but I don’t think anybody was screaming for the elder brother to sit at the head table this year.  Once again, karma seems to have sorted out those that were kind of awesome, but shouldn’t be the 2016 poster child for NASCAR.

Now it gets dicey.  Joey Logano won at the beginning of the summer in Michigan, but otherwise his year has been akin to a yo-yo. He’d finish top 10 one week and crash out or get mired back in the crowd the next.  What has been different this year has been a noted silence out of the younger Penske driver.  He hasn’t been quite as vocal when he faced uncertainty–did that make him seem to be less successful? At any rate, if it hadn’t been for Michigan, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be one of the final four. If he wins it all, quite a few fans will be left feeling unfulfilled.

Kenseth and Johnson both kept the big prize in sight all year long.  While it seemed like the JGR crowd had the 2016 season all sewed up by July, it was more likely that Knaus and Johnson were plotting their final maneuvers to reach the big race.  Color the world unsurprised that the No. 48 team pulled a win out of their hat in Martinsville. Now Kenseth, the silent and smiling member of the Gibbs organization simply approached the end of the year like Jaws.  Unfortunately, a single turn of his steering wheel ended it all, but if he had made the podium, nobody would have been shocked.

How about Truex? While the single car team enjoyed a spectacular start to the year, it all fell apart one the Chase began.  We’ve seen another driver/team combination struggle with play-off jitters.  Denny Hamlin, please step forward. The fact is the pressure isn’t lifted once you are part of the Chase, it just gets worse.  For Truex, the cracks in the smaller organization’s armor gave way under the heightened pressure.  It was a valiant effort. How about the perennial bride’s maid, Hamlin? Well…yeah…we’ve had plenty of years where he didn’t make the big show. No shock there.

Harvick and Keselowski; we can honestly say that if we traded out Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards with those two most of NASCAR Nation probably wouldn’t have blinked.  Which gave a certain validity to these last few races.  Happy and Bad Brad both had very good years, with their machines remaining in the top 10 right up to the very end.  It is the nature of elimination that somebody had to go home.  How the odds fell in favor of the Shrub and Edwards may be more of a reflection of the domination of the Gibbs camp we’ve seen all year long, but not on the singular performances of Harvick or Keselowski.

So, when all is said and done, we’ve actually got a fair representation of the teams that actually deserve a shot at the gold next Sunday. It’s still a bit of smoke and mirrors as to how we got here, but there should be some reassurance that the racing gods haven’t forsaken NASCAR entirely.

Whether we see Jimmie Johnson lift a seventh cup over his head next week or inaugurate a new driver as a Sprint Cup Champion, at least we won’t be handing it to a team undeserving of the award. Thank goodness.

SOMETHING SHINY

 While Alex Bowman is getting plenty of love by the NASCAR community, I figure one more mention won’t hurt. The substitute driver for the No. 88 machine put on one helluva show at Phoenix this past weekend, displaying his rapidly maturing talents.  He grabbed the pole and led 194 laps. The unfortunate contact between him and Kenseth put a damper on the final outcome, but Bowman definitely demonstrated his ability behind the wheel.  Somebody has got to get him a 2017 contract!

 

 

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