2020 was a difficult year for everyone. NASCAR led the charge back from the initial COVID craziness and the fans were thrilled. As the year unfolded for the sport, Kevin Harvick was clearly the cream of the crop. In the playoffs, the Round of 8 saw his team stumble, fall and fail, resulting in him not making the Championship 4.
While 2021 is looking different heading into the penultimate race, the one-race championship format could certainly lead to the same result.
Harvick’s Round of 12 and Round of 8 results were almost all a disappointment. Other than a second at Kansas in the first race of the final eight, he came home 10th, 20th, 11th, 16th and 17th. That futility squashed his hope of a second career championship and has carried over to a terrible, winless 2021.
2021 has been the year of Kyle Larson. Nine wins, 9.2 average finish and a win in every round of the playoffs. He is the first person since Dale Earnhardt to win three straight races twice in a single season since 1987. A win at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 31 would give him four straight heading to Phoenix Raceway and would make him an enormous favorite for the title.
That is where this entire scenario could go horrendously wrong.
Harvick’s collapse unfolded over a six-race stretch. Mistakes, events out of the team’s control and just rotten luck, conspired to prevent the No. 4 from the confetti shower at Phoenix.
Larson is on a roll. He has been the team to beat this season but has gained momentum throughout the playoffs this season. Rather than stumbling, his team is stomping on the throats of their competition. Nearly every week for the past month and a half, except for Talladega Superspeedway, has felt like a battle for who wants to be the first loser.
Fans have lauded the pressure and tension of the one-race championship, but they now almost unanimously voice concern for the potential travesty that could unfold if bad luck befalls Larson at Phoenix.
Martin Truex Jr. has four wins this year for second most in the series. Larson’s nine is more than double that. Larson has six runner-up finishes this year, second to Chase Elliott‘s seven. Larson’s 17 podium results are seven more than Elliott’s. The entire season has been Larson domination and anything less than a title is going to be a huge disappointment for fans of everyone but the driver who benefits from a disaster for him.
The vagaries of racing are what expose Larson to so many potential disasters. A loose lug nut, a cut tire, a faulty bearing, debris on the grill, a lapped car spinning as Larson goes by could all take a historic year and turn it into NASCAR Armageddon.
The fans who despise the playoffs will lose their collective minds if one of those scenarios happen. They need to accept that the best of a season don’t always win titles in a playoff format, and that is what NASCAR uses to determine their champion now. The Patriots went undefeated only to lose the Super Bowl. The winningest NHL teams routinely fail to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup. Just this year in baseball, an 88-win team is in the World Series after knocking off 100-win teams.
Watch this weekend’s race from Martinsville, remembering the disappointment that permeated the race last year. Embrace the dominance of Larson, but accept that, no matter what his season has held, a small piece of bad luck could send the whole year crashing to a heartbreaking finish.
The story that most everyone wants to see unfold is the No. 5 in the champion’s victory lane but, be prepared to accept that the ultimate result has a better chance, statistically, of being someone else hoisting the big trophy.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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