Race Weekend Central

Turning Four into One

And then there were four….

As the skies reopened over Phoenix International Raceway, washing out any chance that Sunday’s event might go its full distance, NASCAR Nation found its collective attention narrowed to the names and car numbers of four drivers who survived what had been, thus far, a most unusual racing season.

None of the four had truly dominated the year. Only two had made multiple trips to Victory Lane, their combined efforts totaling seven wins over the course of 35 races.

But one of those two had also endured months of pain, surgery, rehabilitation, and recovery. After missing almost one-third of the 2015 Sprint Cup season, here he was with a 25% chance of winning his first points championship. Granted, his chance was made possible by receiving a waiver from NASCAR, but – ultimately – the driver earned his shot at the title by accomplishing what was expected from him.

There was yet another driver who was in the twilight of his career and on the brink of his fifth title – a stellar career of 93 wins, four championships, millions of dollars, and millions of fans. His 2015 Cup season was punctuated by honors, gifts, accolades, and one oh-so-important win at Martinsville. One more grandfather clock was nice to win, but it paled under the glare of what was possibly yet to come: the coveted Sprint Cup championship trophy.

Another of these four drivers was fresh off last year’s Sprint Cup championship. His accomplishments in 2014 defined him as an unrelenting favorite nearly each and every week. This driver’s stretch of consecutive top-two finishes early in 2015 threatened a record held by the legendary “King” Richard Petty while his team established itself as the strongest in the Stewart-Haas Racing stable. Even when this driver’s competitive determination sometimes led to rumpled sheet metal and ruffled feathers, he tended to deal with such public criticism by racing with even more tenacity.

The fourth of the four was the poster boy for “tenacity”, especially when it came to notching top-ten finishes for his single-car team. He was able to collect 22 for the year, including a much-deserved victory at Pocono Raceway. Not only was the amiable driver a second-generation competitor with a strong Northeastern racing heritage, but he was also an advocate who tirelessly campaigned for improvements in cancer treatment and research on behalf of his devoted long-time girlfriend who was successfully battling the disease.

Making the “Final Four” was anything but easy for these athletes. One had the benefit of making Homestead on the merits of his win at Martinsville, but the other three had to survive an oddly-rainy Sunday in Phoenix in order to make the grade. Winning was not a necessity, but it would have greatly helped any of their causes. As such, it came down to a decision by NASCAR that shortened the race in order to save time, energy, and frustration.

In the end, two of the four managed to secure top-five performances, while the fourth man made it to Homestead with a fourteenth-place finish, boosted by having fewer laps to run and an influx of non-Chase drivers amongst the top-fifteen. Sunday was a matter of single positions and handfuls of points, both of which could have floated in any direction given the lousy weather on such an important night.

Which brings us to yet one more important night: one final night when four drivers will square off amidst thirty-nine other competitors in their search for the 2015 Sprint Cup championship. Will next Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami go smoothly? Will the weather, tempers, and better judgment cooperate? Most importantly, will events be allowed to unfold naturally, free from micromanagement and arbitrary calls by the sanctioning body? Guess we’ll find out next weekend.

Now that we’re down to four drivers with a chance at the title – regardless of how they got there – let’s hope we get to enjoy one great race to end the season. NASCAR Nation seems to be owed as much….

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