1. Kyle Larson had his chance to race for a championship taken away by an appeals panel
When Kyle Larson took the checkered flag this past weekend in Miami, it could have been one of the biggest victories of his career, one that assured him of competing for a second straight Cup Series championship a few weeks from now.
Instead, it was relatively meaningless.
To be sure, wins are always welcome at the top level of stock car racing, and Larson more than deserved one at Homestead as he clearly had the car to beat. It just rang hollow since he was already out of contention to make this year’s Championship 4.
You may recall it took a series of unfortunate events, to borrow a phrase from a famous book series, for Larson to be eliminated in Charlotte, almost all of which were out of the No. 5 team’s control. But the most crucial, in terms of the championship picture, took place before engines ever fired at the ROVAL.
The off-track action that helped seal Larson’s fate took place on Oct. 6, when the National Motorsports Panel of Appeals decided to give William Byron back the 25 points he was originally docked for retaliating against Denny Hamlin at Texas. Without that ruling, Larson would have been in the Round of 8 even with all his other misfortune — and now in the Championship 4 thanks to his Homestead triumph.
Instead, he’s going to have to content himself with another trophy while Byron, as of today, will get a chance to go for the title in his stead. Was the appeal ruling the right one? Perhaps, but it’s hard to imagine a more significant off-track event that could help decide a NASCAR champion.
And that’s not the only one that’s relevant as the last few races play out …
2. The Cole Custer decision could loom large as well
Another factor in the perfect storm of misery that sunk Larson now has taken on increased significance too. Cole Custer slowed enough at the ROVAL to hinder other cars on the final lap and allow teammate Chase Briscoe to race his way into the Round of 8 on points.
Custer was fined, and his crew chief was suspended indefinitely. But those punishments didn’t really do much to change the fact that he affected the playoff race, as Briscoe advanced and Larson was knocked out.
A week ago, that didn’t feel all that bad. It definitely does now in the wake of Larson’s victory. And heaven forbid Briscoe wins Martinsville and Byron moves up one spot in points, because that would mean two drivers in the Championship 4 that wouldn’t be there if not for rulings of some sort.
Can we consider hypothetical rules decisions as well? Sure, let’s do it …
3. What happens if one of Ross Chastain’s many aggrieved parties look for payback at Martinsville?
Ross Chastain has had a heck of a season. After winning several races in the first half of the campaign, he cooled off a bit during the summer. But he’s found his form again at the best possible time, with consecutive runner-up finishes helping him to second in the playoff standings heading into Martinsville. It would likely take a winner from the other drivers still alive (save for Joey Logano, who already has one this round) and a rotten points day for Chastain to not make the Championship 4.
You know what could easily create that rotten points day? If one of the drivers who feel Chastain wronged them earlier this season decide to take matters into their own hands and get some retribution. What better way to prove your point than to ensure someone who wrecked you gets wrecked at the worst possible time?
In other words, we’re not saying Denny Hamlin would do something like that, but we’re also not not saying it, if you follow.
It doesn’t have to be Hamlin since there were multiple drivers who felt Chastain might have raced them too rough during the regular season. If one of them spins Chastain on purpose, what happens then?
Considering the Stewart-Haas Racing precedent, probably nothing of consequence. The driver will lose points and money in the form of a fine, and the team’s crew chief will likely pay a heavy price. But if NASCAR shows any consistency, if there’s an intentional incident that costs Chastain a spot in the Championship 4, it isn’t likely to change results in a way that would make him whole.
Put another way, why wouldn’t a driver who isn’t still alive for the championship wreck Chastain? They don’t really have much to lose, relatively speaking (though the crew chief might feel differently), while the Melon Man has everything at stake.
Here’s hoping we don’t have to find out, because that would bring on the most critical discipline decision of 2022.
4. It feels inevitable that an off-track ruling is going to shape this championship
The common thread between the first three points this week is that there are now more chances for the champion to be at least partially decided by what’s gone down off the track than there are for someone to simply win their way to the title.
It’s not even clear what would count as “chalk” now, or an outcome completely unaffected by any kind of ruling or appeal. Maybe Logano winning the final race, or Chase Elliott, though he feels like he’s fading at the worst possible time.
This season has had plenty of talking points on its own thanks to the Next Gen car, which has nearly flipped the dynamic of the racing on different types of tracks 180 degrees (intermediates somehow now exciting, short tracks and road courses in need of possible help). There have been downsides as well, led by the potential safety issues.
But if the season ends with everyone talking about how NASCAR or people who handle appeals helped decide the champion, that’s as unfortunate as it gets. Root for Logano? For the good of the sport, you might have to.
5. Can Christopher Bell come up clutch again?
Lest we spend the entire column on doom and gloom, let’s consider one energizing possibility that still remains. Christopher Bell was in a win or go home situation in the Round of 12 and pulled off a clutch victory to advance to the Round of 8. Guess what? He’s in the same place now, essentially needing a win to make the Championship 4.
There’s at least some reason to think he could pull it off. Bell has no career victories at Martinsville, though he has a top-10 finish in Cup and raced well there when he was a Truck Series regular. He certainly proved he could find ways to victory lane at short tracks during his two very successful Xfinity Series seasons.
All of which is to say Bell won’t be a favorite, but we know he has a flair for the dramatic. And if he wins his way into the Championship 4, he would be a thrilling addition to the group racing for a title at Phoenix.
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