The Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the Sprint Cup Series at Phoenix
No one could have imagined the level of excitement and interest the new Chase format has created.
Along with making the racing more competitive by emphasizing the importance of winning, the new format makes the fans look forward to the race's after show. It’s like experiencing the encore at one of those giant stadium shows where they save the fireworks for the last song.
There were plenty of fireworks after Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
That brings to mind a couple of questions. First, is this new Chase format fair to the original 16 drivers? And how can we be one race away from the finale and still have two winless drivers challenging for the title?
After the team haulers left the infield at Texas, Joey Logano emerged as the new points leader. What does that mean for the race to the finale? And does the rest of the Sprint Cup field still matter on race day?
These are the things we will be talking about in the week leading up to the penultimate race of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season at Phoenix this Sunday.
Let's start with what has been dubbed “The Brawl.”
Boys Have at It...to a Point, Fellas
Everyone and his uncle has an opinion about what transpired after the checkered flag flew Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
What it was, simply stated, was the passion and competitive energies that make NASCAR racing so entertaining boiling over and spilling out into living rooms all across America, live and in living color. Especially the colors purple and red, seen on the cheeks and swollen lips of Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski.
From where I stand, both drivers were wrong and both were right. The fact that there was a brawl (OK, I’ll call it that—it does fit) on live television that resulted from a racing incident, similar to one we’ve all seen dozens of times before, is a testament to how well the Chase is doing. And it’s a dose of some much-needed “look at me now, mommy” attention that NASCAR has been longing for since the economic downturn.
The mere fact that morning news and entertainment shows on every broadcast and cable network showed video of the brawl and talked about it—and I even heard one of the hosts say, regarding the brawl, "That is going to make me watch more NASCAR”—is almost surreal.
There had to be a party going on at NASCAR’s headquarters in both Daytona Beach and Concord, North Carolina, because of all the media coverage that the brawl got.
Boy, this new Chase format is almost making Brian France look like a genius, isn’t it?
Important questions remain: Will America tune in this coming weekend when the show heads west to Phoenix? And will the final four include a driver without a win?
There Are Still Two Winless Drivers in the Chase
I’m pretty sure that when the final touches were being made to the new Chase format, there was one person who stood up in the room and suggested that the champion could end up being someone who hadn’t won a race all season.
Hopefully everyone else listened to him (or her).
It may happen. Both Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth are winless heading to Phoenix.
If the champion is one of those two drivers, we can expect that NASCAR will have prepared an effective spin document that not only emphasizes how well the newly crowned champion performed during the Chase, but how well he will represent the sport in the coming year.
There will be no talk about the victories that helped bring him to the title.
I'm not saying that either one of these two drivers wouldn't make a great champion. It's just that I've got this winning thing, you know, kind of stuck in my mind.
I struggle to find the right word to describe a championship format that relies so strongly on winning to move a driver forward into the next round and also allows for a driver to continue to play the system, race for points and claim the title without a win.
No, the word I’m looking for here isn’t ironic.
It’s something else. It begins with "B" and ends with a "T," and there's plenty of it on a cattle ranch.
Questions Remain About the New Chase Format
Kevin Harvick has three wins and sits in last (eighth) place in points. Brad Keselowski has six wins this season and sits seventh in points. Carl Edwards has two wins and sits sixth.
Between them, they have 11 wins, which is one more than the win total of the drivers currently sitting first through fourth in points.
Is this new Chase format fair? And while it does reward winning, does it do it at the expense of a driver’s season as a whole?
Admittedly, the new format has raised some questions. It has also made these last eight races more exciting and made the post-race fireworks especially interesting.
But in an attempt to change the rules so that Jimmie Johnson didn’t continue to win the championship every year, did NASCAR go too far, and does it need to bring things back a notch or two in the opposite direction?
The driver who wins the championship this year will determine the answer.
Jimmie Johnson Silences Critics with Convincing Win
Just when we thought they were finished and heading in different directions, the most successful driver and crew chief combination of the modern NASCAR era, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, make a statement.
They may be out of contention for the championship, but they’re not about to roll over and play dead, either.
Johnson led a stunning 191 of 341 laps Sunday en route to his first win since Michigan in June.
Crew chief Knaus admitted after the race that he was glad the team’s mini-slump was over
“It was difficult. My confidence was definitely low,” Knaus told the media in the post-race press conference in Texas. “I know Jimmie's (confidence) was definitely low. You know, look, winning cures a lot of things, but the proof is in how we react beyond this point, how we go to Phoenix, how we produce there, how we go to Homestead, how we race there. Those will be the true tales of where we're at.”
Phoenix is certainly a race this team can win with this newly found confidence. Johnson has four wins there. The real test, as Knaus points out, comes at Homestead, where Johnson is winless.
Bottom line: The sport's best driver is still winning, despite the *Mark Twain-like treatment by the fans and the media.
*He's the guy who said, "The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
Kyle Busch (nearly) Makes It a Sweep of the Weekend at Texas
Let’s start with the good stuff.
Kyle Busch won both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Friday and the Nationwide Series race on Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.
The NNS win was the 100th for Joe Gibbs Racing and the 70th for Busch personally in just 294 series starts.
Now the bad news.
“We were a bag of everything today,” Busch told his manufacturer’s representative after the Cup race on Sunday. “Man we were so bad. I don't know what happened to us from yesterday. We fought all day long. The guys prepared this thing. I appreciate all the effort—all my guys. They did a good job. It's good to continue to fight like that and bring home a top-five."
In spite of his opinion of how his day went, Busch finished fourth.
For the 10th time in his NASCAR career, Busch attempted “The Triple,” only to fall short again by not winning the Cup race Sunday. He did win all three races once—at Bristol in August 2010.
Winning all three races almost sounds easy after you've won the first two. But racing at the Sprint Cup level is a huge jump up, and even a driver of Busch's talent struggles to complete a trifecta.
A late-summer slump hurt this driver's Cup efforts after an up-and-down season that saw Busch go on several mini-streaks. It's not out of character for Busch to want to go out swinging and attempt a win at either Phoenix or Homestead, both of which are challenging tracks for him.
Expect to see Busch in the mix in the final laps of these next two races.
Joey Logano Sits Atop the Mountain—For Now
It may not have been his most impressive performance of the Chase, but Joey Logano left Texas Motor Speedway with the points lead, courtesy of a 12th-place performance and a difficult afternoon by many of his fellow Chase drivers.
After falling deep in the field with less than 30 laps remaining, Logano pushed his way to the front, often racing three-wide while doing so.
Earlier in the race, Logano fell victim to a lengthy pit stop, caused by a lug nut that fell into one of his wheels. Logano kept his cool and displayed the poise of a veteran in handling what could have been a far more difficult situation.
“We were able to salvage something decent out of tonight,” Logano said in a post-race interview with his manufacturer representative. “We were a top-five car and possibly a winning car if scenarios played out right.”
With five wins this season and one race remaining before the finale, Logano is sitting in a comfortable spot. Unfortunately, Phoenix and Homestead, the two remaining races, are two of his worst tracks.
A true test of his championship meddle will be if Logano can win at either track. I'm figuring he'd prefer that it be at Homestead.
Yes, Virginia, There Are Still 35 Other Drivers in the Race Sunday
Aside from having an excuse to post a gratuitous photo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. that will have his fans stop to read this page, it’s time once again for me to mention that there are still 35 other drivers in the field every Sunday.
You might not know that by the way that ESPN broadcasts the race. There’s little mention of drivers not in the Chase, unless its Junior, Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart.
Occasionally, we’ll hear the name Jamie McMurray. That’s because McMurray’s team is peaking at the wrong time of the season. But he needed to deliver this kind of performance mid-summer. And we’ll also hear the name of his teammate, rookie Kyle Larson, who is having one of those remarkable years that will be remembered for years to come.
Then there’s also Brian Vickers, Paul Menard and AJ Allmendinger. All three are having solid late-race runs, with plenty of top-10s sprinkled amongst the three of them. Unfortunately, it's come too late in the season to make a difference.
Finally, there’s Danica Patrick, who seems to have her name mentioned over the air no matter how she’s doing. The crew chief change hasn’t shown much of a difference in her performance yet. And it likely won’t until next season. She’s doing much better than most had assumed she would at this stage in her career. Even her teammate, Harvick, has said that she’s racing at a disadvantage because of all of her years in open wheel race cars.
So let’s not forget the regular drivers out there who have done a pretty good job of staying out of the way of the Chase drivers. And, in the cases of Junior and Johnson, won a race too.
And the Champion Is...
In a preseason slideshow, I predicted that Harvick would win the championship. I'd like to think that as the 2014 season winds down, my prediction might still come true. However, Harvick suffered a serious setback at Martinsville that may end up proving to be too difficult to overcome.
While I still stand by my prediction, and there is still hope going into Phoenix, the track at which Harvick won early in the season, I must say now that the driver whose momentum appears to be pushing him toward the title is Jeff Gordon.
Gordon may be sitting fourth in the points, but that wasn't of his doing. When you step back and look at the remaining drivers in the Chase, two drivers stand out—Logano and Gordon. One of those two drivers will be the 2014 champion.
Between them, I give the nod to Gordon. Both drivers have had incredible seasons, and on the few occasions when they were racing each other for the win, they both raced clean. But both have shown that they can get down and dirty if that's what it takes to win.
I give the nod to Gordon because of his experience and the heat with which the flame of desire to win this title burns deep within his soul. Gordon knows this is likely his last shot at winning a Sprint Cup championship, and while he doesn't expect it to be handed to him, I believe it is his title to lose.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis