Survivor Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers Power Rankings: Week 8

Each week during this season of Survivor, I’ll be ranking the castaways in terms of best chance to win the game. Last week, Jessica was voted off after being ranked No. 9 of the 12 remaining players.

Week 8 Power Rankings: 

1. Ryan (Last week: 2): Ryan is making the same moves as Chrissy, but yet he’s not being talked about or viewed as a target like she is. And now he’s in the majority alliance with good numbers — and has bigger targets with him, to boot.

2. Ben (Last week: 3): He was briefly in the middle, but now Ben has shown his cards by going against Yawa and siding with the majority Chrissy/Ryan alliance. That should protect him for weeks to come, because Chrissy seems determined to work with him and she’s actually a bigger target than he is.

3. Chrissy (Last week: 1): This is the most concerned I’ve been about Chrissy’s long-term game. She showed herself to be too smart last week, which got her a ton of votes, and then she was openly talking game with Ben at a group setting where he was basically trying to shush her. I hope she doesn’t get too cocky and sink her own game by becoming a target.

4. Devon (Last week: 6): He ended up in the majority alliance and showed he is willing to be a leader and make moves (there was one scene where he was sort of rallying the troops). Since he gets along well with people and isn’t a target, he could slip under the radar as bigger threats go home.

5. Lauren (Last week: 8): Even though she’s probably on the bottom of the new majority alliance, Lauren should be safe for a few more weeks now. And that might give her time to make some more inroads and relationships with her new group.

6. Mike (Last week: 4): It’s going to be pretty tough for Mike at this point since he doesn’t have the numbers anymore, but I’ll rank him the highest of those in the minority alliance because he seems like a guy who can scramble (and he still has an idol).

7. Ashley (Last week: 7): She ended up on the majority alliance in the merged tribe. That’s great for her and she’ll probably last a few more weeks, at least. But I don’t see her playing the type of game that would be rewarded by the jury in the end.

8. Desi (Last week: 10): Hey, she won immunity. Nice work! This is the highest she’s been in the rankings all year. But I still don’t see her making it to the end, especially now that she is in the smaller alliance. She seems full of surprises, though.

9. Joe (Last week: 5): Welp, Joe is back down the rankings after misplaying his idol and exposing himself as a target yet again. Now he has no protection and is in the minority alliance. I would guess they will come for him soon.

10. JP (Last week: 11): He ended up with the numbers because he’s a loyal guy, but I’m still keeping him toward the bottom of the rankings because he’s simply not playing the type of game that would result in him winning in the end. No jury would go, “Yeah J.P., we’ll give you the money.”

11. Cole (Last week: 12): This guy. Ugh…


Eliminated: 

Week 1: Katrina (ranked No. 6 of 18 remaining players)

Week 2: Simone (ranked No. 17 of 17 remaining players)

Week 3: Patrick (ranked No. 16 of 16 remaining players)

Week 4: Alan (ranked No. 13 of 15 remaining players)

Week 5: Roark (ranked No. 10 of 14 remaining players)

Week 6: Ali (ranked No. 5 of 13 remaining players)

Week 7: Jessica (ranked No. 9 of 12 remaining players)

12 Questions with Landon Cassill

The 12 Questions series concludes for 2017 with Landon Cassill, who has been in the last-but-not-least position for six consecutive years now. Cassill will end his tenure at Front Row Motorsports this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway and is currently looking for a new ride.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I’m (leaning) more heavily toward working at it than natural ability. There’s a lot of people out there that are just good at everything and I don’t think I’m one of those people. I think I’m good at a lot of things, but I definitely am a person who learns through my mistakes and fixing my mistakes, so I feel like I kind of have to work at it.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I feel like I’ve made that pitch almost every day through my social media activity in the way I communicate with fans. I mean, you just have to meet me at the racetrack and kind of see and understand how I kind of conduct myself, the way my sense of humor works. If you’re looking for a driver on the entertainment side of things, someone you’d like to follow off the track — and I think my on-track story is kind of cool and compelling as well. I think I’ve been through a lot in the Cup Series and had unique opportunities. I haven’t had that breakthrough opportunity yet, so I think it’s kind of, as Mark Martin put it awhile back, I’m kind of coming up the old-school way and I feel like that’s the way I’m doing it. So that’s a cool story to follow on-track.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

I think balancing the work between, “How do I make myself a better race car driver?” but also “How do I market myself?” and “How do I brand myself and spend time on social media?” Things like that.

It’s kind of going back to Question No. 1 a little bit. I work pretty hard on my feedback and my post-race reports and try to reflect on what I did at the races, how I can use that for the next race. Sometimes it’s busywork, like office work, and so much work that you have to get done at a desk. A lot of it is writing; I have an iPad Pro and a pencil and write a lot of my notes, whether it’s on the plane on Mondays or whatever. And it’s time sensitive, too, because I tend to forget what my car did as the week goes on. So I don’t write as well on Wednesday or Thursday after a Sunday race as I do on Sunday night or Monday morning.

So balancing that kind of stuff, getting that work done versus trying to be sponsor-friendly or fan-friendly and keeping up a solid brand and a good personality — because that stuff takes time, too — that balance definitely is a tough part of the job.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Absolutely. Yeah, just form a line and we’ll stop eating our dinner and I’ll sign autographs and take pictures until everybody is through. I do that on Wednesday nights at the Brickhouse in Davidson.

You have a big line, huh?

Yeah. (Laughs) I’m just kidding. I’ve never ever been to the Brickhouse in Davidson, that’s just the first restaurant I thought of.

Yeah, I don’t care. I’m totally fine with it. I really appreciate people who know who I am or know something about me — like if you feel like there’s one thing you know about me and you see me out in the wild, you feel like, “Landon, I want to remind you of this funny thing you did,” or something I did on the racetrack or whatever, I want to hear it. I think that’s cool. That’s the kind of race fan I am: When I see somebody I look up to or admire, that’s how I open a conversation. It doesn’t bother me to meet fans in the wild, in public.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

(Long pause. His public relations representative Shari Spiewak notes he had all year to think of an answer.) I feel like this is important, this is like the story that hasn’t been covered enough. I don’t want to screw it up. I don’t want you to turn around and be like, “Well, actually, it was just written about last week in the New York Times, they did a big special about it in their sports section. Yeah, you’re gonna screw up the whole thing.”

I think we should talk more specifically about how drivers drive, what makes up their driving styles and what certain drivers do compared to other ones to make their cars go fast.

I think that’s a product of two things. I think number one, we don’t necessarily know. I think we do, but in all the money and engineering that we spend in the sport, we spend it all on the race cars because it’s kind of a long-hanging fruit in some ways. Because if we kind of put the drivers in the car and trust that they’re going as fast as they can, why not just build the car to go faster?

But we’ve never really over-engineered the drivers. I feel like there’s speed left in the drivers, learning their techniques and what Kyle Larson does differently than Jimmie Johnson, what Kyle Busch does differently.

And I think the second reason why we don’t talk about this a whole lot is because I think a lot of the way to talk about that and learn more about that is through data, through the feedback that we get back from the EFI and things like that. So I think the teams don’t want to give up a lot of information. But I think it would be really cool if you could get the engineers and the crew chiefs to be a little bit more open about their drivers and what they do specifically, what they do with the throttle, what they do with the brakes, if they’re really erratic with the steering wheel, if they use a lot of steering wheel, if they don’t use a lot of wheel. I think it would be cool to see a breakdown of how everybody drives, what path that sends them and their teams down.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

David Ragan yesterday, and Dale Jr. before that. David asked me if I wanted to go hiking yesterday after we landed kind of early in Phoenix and I didn’t take him up on it. Usually I do. When David hits me up, we usually get dinner every few weeks, something like that, on the road.

In the past, you’ve tweeted a couple of screenshots of you having an incredible amount of unanswered text messages. Why do you not read your text messages? I understand not reading your emails, but how do you explain not reading your texts?

(Laughs) I don’t know. I don’t know, I just don’t open them. Like sometimes if we’re having a text conversation and it finishes and you’re the last person, like if you send the closing text to the conversation and I see it, then I just don’t open it. Does that make sense?

It pops up, so you don’t actually click on the conversation and read it. You just see it come up and you’re just like, “OK?”

And I have my read receipts on, so people know if I read it or not.

So you gotta be careful about that, because you don’t want people to say, “You didn’t write me back.” So it’s easier to say, “I didn’t read it.”

Yeah, kind of. It’s a way to maybe control the situation.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers? Earlier this year, when we were talking about it, you predicted most would say no. It turns out that mostly everybody have said yes. So what’s your answer?

I mean, I feel like we’re entertaining for sure. I think we’re athletes and I think that NASCAR is an entertainment sport. But I don’t know if we’re entertainers.

I feel like professional wrestlers are entertainers, and I don’t want to compare NASCAR to professional wrestling. I think that’s a slippery slope and I don’t want to get in trouble for anything like that. And that’s not what I’m implying anyway.

But I think maybe we can be both. There’s some drivers out there who are not that entertaining — so would you call them entertainers? Or are they more like heavy on the athlete, not as heavy on the entertaining?

I don’t know. It’s up to the next person (in the 12 Questions). Well, I guess we’ll never know! We’ll never truly know the answer because I’m the last person to do that question.

8. This is the question you came up with last year: What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

This is such a good question. It really is. It is one of your all-time best questions for 12 Questions?

It has to be. Not to heap all this praise on you, but that’s one of my favorite questions.

Go ahead, heap all the praise.

So I feel like first of all, I’m guilty of it both ways. I’ve flown my share of birds in my career and I’ve received them in my career. When you take the emotion down and you think about it, I feel like it’s a sign of weakness on both sides.

It’s a sign of weakness if you’re flying the bird — it shows that you’re frustrated with the person behind you, that you’re letting them, whatever they’re doing to you, get in your head. I think back in the times that I’ve done that, and like I regret it every time because it shows I was more concerned being mad at that person, flipping them off, than focusing on the race.

So usually if nothing happens, that’s great, but if something happens, you end up in a pissing match with that guy. Then you just screw up your race because you’re worried about a middle finger. So I feel like it’s a sign of weakness if you’re flying the bird, and I also I feel like it’s a sign of weakness if you’re reacting to somebody who’s flying the bird.

Some people’s policy is, “I’m gonna wreck anybody that flies me the bird.” Well, that’s stupid, because you just let them potentially ruin your day. I mean, you might wreck them and ruin their day, but what if you damage your car? What if you ruin your own day? All because they flipped you off? And so I think it’s a sign of weakness if you fly the bird, and I think it’s a sign of weakness if you have a reaction to someone flying the bird.

When I get the bird, it makes me laugh because it lets me know that person in front of me, I’m in their head now, and it makes me want to keep doing whatever I was just doing to them to get them out of my way.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

No. Not really.

You don’t? Most people said yes this year.

I don’t know. I generally race people pretty fair, but my number one rule of thumb is I do what gets me the best possible finish. So that’s why my knee-jerk reaction to that question is no, because I prioritize myself. And I guess I’m not implying that those other people that say yes would prioritize someone else over their own finish, but I definitely prioritize my finish over everybody else.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

So I had a really cool dinner in England at the Goodwood Festival of Speed with some really cool guys, Dan Gurney and Sir Jackie Stewart. We were all at the same table, so there was maybe 12 of us there. That was a pretty cool dinner. I spent a lot of time with those guys at Goodwood. Those are definitely the most famous people I’ve ever been around.

At the time, I was driving a Chevy on the NASCAR side and my suit had a Chevy emblem on it. Sir Jackie Stewart said, “Oh, you drive a Chevy?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Someday, you’ll be good enough to drive a Ford.”

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

(Thinks for a moment.) I guess I’d like to get better at answering questions on the spot.

These shouldn’t be on the spot, Landon. You helped vet these questions.

I forgot about that. Man, you know, I feel like I have good communication skills, but I feel like I’m not always the best communicator. Sometimes I feel like I can be a better communicator.

That’s what I hear from all the people who haven’t gotten replies to their text messages to you.

Yeah.

12. Last week I interviewed Austin Dillon. He wanted me to ask you: If you could bring three sponsors into this sport to make it better, what would they be and why?

That’s a really cool question. I would bring in some sort of technology company like Apple or Google or Microsoft. And I would hopefully build a deal around accessing their smart people and using that to our advantage on the racetrack, whether it’s like developing artificial intelligence for a simulation program or something like that. I think that would be cool, so definitely one of the major technology companies.

I would definitely like to have Whole Foods as a sponsor because the discount card at Whole Foods would be great. That would be useful for me and my family.

And beer sponsors always seem to work out pretty well, too. I think it’s nice having a beer sponsor.

Now the question that you are going to ask is going to an unknown person before the Daytona 500 next year — provided I’m still employed by all my patrons. What is something I can ask somebody going into the Daytona 500 next year?

Kind of going off of the answers to one of the questions earlier, I wanna know: What is your driving style? That’s kind of my question. But I want them to answer specifically:”Do you use a lot of brake? Do you get to the gas earlier than most?” I’m curious what your driving style is.

So essentially, “From what you know from comparing yourself to other drivers, how much brake do you use, how quickly do you get to the gas, how do you make it through the corner compared to others?” Something like that?

Yeah, I think so. It would be useful to know if they drive the car loose or tight, but I don’t know how they’ll answer that. But yeah, I’d like to know, “How much data do you look at and what does that tell you about your driving style?” How about that?

Thank you for joining us, and I truly hope we are doing this together next year at Phoenix, which meant you would have found a ride.

Do I have to be a full-time Cup driver to do the 12 Questions?

No, definitely not, but it would just be convenient.

Would you do 12 Questions with a used car salesman?

Sure.

There we go.

What If? Nine Homestead columns that never got published

My former editor at USA Today, Heather Tucker, came up with a smart idea when NASCAR began its winner-take-all championship race in 2014.

With all the craziness and unpredictability in the immediate aftermath of the race, Heather asked if I would submit four pre-written columns — one for each championship scenario — before the green flag ever waved.

That way, my editors would have some analysis to post as a placeholder while the reporters ran out to pit road and gathered material for post-race coverage.

This was a challenge, but also something I ended up looking forward to each year. It became a test of trying to anticipate what something would mean if it happened — and it was sort of fun to think about the possibilities.

Obviously, three-quarters of the columns were never published/posted because they were about events that did not occur. They are more worthless than the losing team’s Super Bowl merchandise.

But I thought you might get a kick out of scanning through them, so here they are.


2016

Carl Edwards, 2016 Sprint Cup Series champion

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Go ahead, Carl Edwards. Flip out. After 12 full NASCAR seasons, you’re finally a Cup champion at age 37.

It’s been a long road for the Missouri native famous for backflipping off his car in celebration. A former substitute teacher who once handed out business cards to every car owner in sight at Midwest short tracks, Edwards now stands at the pinnacle of the biggest racing series in North America.

The journey was not without heartbreak along the way. Edwards had previously finished second in the championship two times, but none more notable than his 2011 battle against Tony Stewart. That year, he had the best average finish ever in the Chase – but still lost on a tiebreaker after 10 grueling weeks.

How interesting, then, that Edwards became a champion in Stewart’s final race as a NASCAR driver.

Though Edwards is no longer a young gun, he has a chance to help NASCAR bring in some new fans thanks to his camera-friendly persona and marketability. He will be a fine ambassador as champion, joking around during TV appearances and always making sure to say the right thing, representing NASCAR the best way he knows how.

The championship, which is the second in a row for Joe Gibbs Racing, also validates Edwards’ decision to leave Roush Fenway Racing after the 2014 season. It only took Edwards two seasons to win a title for Gibbs and Toyota, and Edwards finished the season with his most victories since 2008.

It will be fun to see Edwards share in the joy of his celebration with fans. He may even follow through on his promise to finally join Twitter – which he said he would do if he won the title. Edwards has always given his race trophies away, determined to let others share in his success.

The Sprint Cup, though? He might just keep that one for himself.

Joey Logano, 2016 Sprint Cup Series champion

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Welcome to the Logano Era.

You might not realize it yet, but a new moment in NASCAR arrived Sunday with Joey Logano’s first NASCAR championship, which he clinched Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

At age 26, it will almost certainly not be Logano’s last. In fact, he’s just getting started.

Think about it: Logano likely has 15-20 more years of being competitive in NASCAR if he chooses to do so and stays healthy, and it ultimately might the Team Penske driver – not Jimmie Johnson or anyone else – who gets to eight championships first.

Yes, we’re serious.

Logano would be a good candidate to become the new face of NASCAR after the current crop of 40something drivers – Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – say goodbye in the next five years or so. Jeff Gordon is already retired, and Sunday was Tony Stewart’s last race.

The only problem is, the fans don’t like Logano. They think he’s a spoiled and arrogant, and don’t appreciate how he’s taken on the established drivers – with aggressive, hard racing.

Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski have routinely gotten more boos than even Kyle Busch in recent years, as the Team Penske drivers both value winning above hurting anyone’s feelings. It’s paid off, as team owner Roger Penske now gets to celebrate a Cup championship along with his IndyCar title in the team’s 50 th anniversary season.

But Logano’s detractors couldn’t be more wrong about Logano as a person. Outside of the car, he’s warm and friendly, a true delight to those he encounters in daily life. Other drivers make fun of his constant squints, which are because he’s constantly smiling and laughing.

If NASCAR is able to put that side of Logano on display now that he’s a champion, the sport will be better off – especially if he continues to win. Logano won’t be a popular winner for now, but perhaps he can use this opportunity to win over some new fans.

Kyle Busch, 2016 Sprint Cup Series champion

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Make it two in a row for No. 18.

Kyle Busch became the first driver to repeat under NASCAR’s elimination-style Chase for the Sprint Cup format, taking his second career title at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. In doing so, he called into question the conventional wisdom this format creates unpredictable outcomes.

After all, Busch seems to know exactly what he’s doing.

Busch is now the first driver to win back-to- back titles since Jimmie Johnson won five straight from 2006-10. Who could have ever imagined that Busch would master this minefield of a Chase format after constantly coming up short in the original version?

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver used to be out of the running by November every year, but he seems to have adapted to the new format. Busch had an even better Chase this year than he did last year, putting forth consistent finishes week after week en route to his second title.

And Busch, only 31, might just be getting started. He probably still has 10 or 15 competitive years left – if he chooses – which makes him a threat to quickly become one of NASCAR’s all-time champions. Who’s to say he can’t make it three in a row next season?

NASCAR fans have seen Busch mature before their eyes. The punk who intentionally took out Ron Hornaday seems to be long gone, replaced by a more level-headed driver. He still gets angry when things don’t go his way, of course – but the meltdowns aren’t YouTube-worthy embarrassments.

Perhaps it’s fatherhood that’s mellowed Busch. Perhaps it’s the comeback from a broken leg and foot last year. Perhaps it’s just a steady progression and the influence of his wife, Samantha, and those positive forces around him.

Either way, Busch’s performance hasn’t suffered. He’s better than ever on the track, and now puts himself into an elite group of multiple championship winners.

2015

Martin Truex Jr., 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When factoring in preseason expectations, Martin Truex Jr. may have just become the most out-of-nowhere champion in NASCAR history.

If anyone claims they thought Truex would have a shot to win the Sprint Cup Series title this season, they’re lying. The Caesars Palace sports book had Truex as a 250/1 underdog at the start of the year – by comparison, Danica Patrick was 150/1 – and not one person in the 100-member industry survey known as the “Century Poll” picked Truex to win.

Even entering this weekend, the Furniture Row Racing driver was largely an afterthought in comparison to Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

But everyone was wrong. Truex beat them all, and now he’s the 2015 NASCAR champion.

It’s been quite a journey to reach this point.

He entered the Cup Series with high expectations after back-to-back Xfinity Series titles in 2004 and 2005, only to win one race in his first seven seasons.

At Michael Waltrip Racing, he made the Chase in 2012 and won a race in 2013, setting himself up for another Chase berth. He seemingly raced his way into the show at Richmond International Raceway, but it turned out MWR manipulated the results to get him in.

He was removed from the playoff and his team crumbled in the aftermath of the scandal. Sponsor NAPA left and Truex lost his ride.

The New Jersey native landed at Furniture Row, a single-car team from Denver, last year. But there was no success to be found.

He suffered through the worst year of his career, finished 24th in the standings and looked like an absolute non-factor. At the same time, longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and Truex struggled to balance his personal and professional life.

This year, though, there was magic to be found. Furniture Row blossomed with new crew chief Cole Pearn, and Truex opened the season with top-10 finishes in 14 of the first 15 races – including a stirring victory at Pocono Raceway in June.

A summer slump made Truex drop off the radar, but he showed signs of strength again once the Chase started. He didn’t finish worse than 15th in any of the races leading to Homestead, and that turned out to be enough to advance through each elimination round on points.

It’s also been a positive year for Pollex, who has just three more chemotherapy treatments in her battle to beat cancer. She and Truex are some of NASCAR’s most philanthropic people, and their annual Catwalk for a Cause event – featuring children with cancer – is one of the highlights of the NASCAR calendar.

Now, the couple will be able to toast to good health, a turnaround year for both – and a championship.

Kevin Harvick, 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – In the end, the fastest car won. Again.

Kevin Harvick made it two straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, capping off a season in which he typically showed up at the track as the car to beat.

Though Harvick only had three wins entering Homestead, he could have had four, six — maybe even eight more. He compiled an astonishing 12 second-place finishes prior to Homestead – the most of any driver since Bobby Allison in 1972 — while crushing his previous career highs for top-five finishes, top-10s and laps led.

It was a much more dominating season than in his first championship run, which came during his debut season at Stewart-Haas Racing. Paired with crew chief Rodney Childers, the No. 4 was the favorite entering the championship weekend — and the season itself.

But to pull off a repeat, Harvick had to be fast enough to avoid the many pitfalls that come with the Chase for the Sprint Cup. A playoff that has often turned wacky and wild took out many contenders through odd circumstances, but it somehow couldn’t prevent Harvick from winning for a second straight year.

Harvick’s Chase this time was far less smooth than his first championship year. He opened the Chase by getting crashed by Jimmie Johnson, then punching the six-time champion during a conversation in the driver motorhome lot.

The next week, he dominated at New Hampshire Motor Speedway but ran out of gas and left without comment. That left Dover International Speedway, where he again dominated and scored the victory in a must-win situation – only to be accused by competitors of intentionally damaging his car during the celebration.

At Talladega Superspeedway three weeks later, Harvick’s engine was about to blow up on a green-white-checkered restart. But just when it looked grim, Harvick triggered a multi-car crash – some drivers said intentionally – to end the race and preserve his spot in the next round.

But it still wasn’t easy. At Texas Motor Speedway, he had to drive the last 100 laps holding a broken shifter in place with one hand. That summed up his Chase overall: Managing to perform despite facing more adversity than most other drivers.

In the end, Harvick made it through to Homestead and was able to perform in a high-pressure situation yet again. The 39-year-old might be known as “The Closer,” but he should also be known as Mr. Clutch.

Jeff Gordon, 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Jeff Gordon’s mere presence as a contender in NASCAR’s championship race was a fairy tale in itself – not only for Gordon and his team, but for NASCAR and its fans.

As everyone knows, not all fairy tales have a happy ending. But this one did.

Gordon became a member of the most exclusive club in sports on Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, joining the likes of John Elway and Ray Lewis as legends who went out on top, retiring from their sport as champions.

But Gordon’s achievement on an individual level might be even more impressive. In some ways, it’s the ultimate mic drop.

Fourteen years after the “Drive for Five” began, Gordon is finally a five-time Sprint Cup Series champion. He crossed the finish line first among four Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers in NASCAR’s championship race, electrifying a sold-out crowd filled with people who traveled from all over the country to see Gordon’s last race.

Homestead was already going to be a celebration of Gordon’s career and legacy. A certain Hall of Famer and one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers ever, Gordon helped take the sport to new heights on a national level with his personality and marketability.

Now it’s a celebration of all that and more – and unlike Gordon’s career, the party isn’t going to end any time soon. This is probably the greatest feel-good moment in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, just months after his father was killed at the same track.

Certainly, the other drivers will be disappointed to come up short. But everyone knew how big it was to be part of Jeff Gordon’s last race. Kyle Busch repeatedly referred to Gordon as his childhood hero this week; Kevin Harvick said he was holding back from his normal head games out of respect to Gordon.

In terms of larger-than-life personality and character, Gordon might only be matched by Richard Petty — whose own final race was Gordon’s first.

As Gordon’s career wound down this season, there was debate over his greatest achievement. Most settled on a victory in the inaugural Brickyard 400, or perhaps the four titles.

But what just happened at Homestead might top them all.

“I mean, that’s lifechanging,” Gordon said Friday when asked about the mere possibility of winning the title. “I’m sure it’s been done in some sport, but I don’t think it’s ever been done in this sport.

“That’s too much for me to think about. I have no idea. It would be the best one I ever did, I can tell you that.”

Pinch yourself, NASCAR nation. Now it’s real. As it turns out, some dreams do come true.

2014

Joey Logano, 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Joey Logano’s nickname at one time was “Sliced Bread,” as in the best thing since.

But that moniker got moldy and was eventually dropped when the first four years of his NASCAR career made him look more like a bust than a budding star.

As of Sunday night, he doesn’t need to worry about a nickname anymore. Now Logano can simply be called “champion.”

Logano’s Sprint Cup Series championship, clinched by beating three other drivers in the first-ever winner-take-all finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, marks the first of many championships for the Team Penske driver.

He’s only 24 years old – the same age Jeff Gordon was when he won his first championship – but is already in his sixth full season. Drivers often seem to get better with age and experience, peaking in their late 30s.

That should frighten Logano’s competitors, because it means he probably has two decades of racing left if he stays healthy. With that much time, and with already so much talent, Logano could become the next Jimmie Johnson.

But first, he’ll have a championship to celebrate and a brand to build. This will elevate his profile, which is currently nonexistent beyond NASCAR circles. Logano wasn’t one of last year’s 10 most popular drivers and, despite major sponsors like Shell and Coca-Cola, isn’t a recognizable name in the sports world.

That should start to change now that he’s a NASCAR champion – and happens to occupy the demographic NASCAR seeks as well. Though Logano often hears boos during driver introductions due to past clashes with veterans such as Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, he’s actually an affable happy-go-lucky kid who can usually be found with a smile on his face.

Logano’s life is about to change, though. He’ll carry the mantle of champion into a busy offseason in which he plans to marry fiancée Brittany Baca on Dec. 13 (she picked the date 12/13/14 to make it easy for him to remember).

Legendary driver Mark Martin said Logano “can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR. I’m positive. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

That was in 2005. Logano was 15.

Nine years later, the champ is just getting started.

Denny Hamlin, 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – To win his first championship, Denny Hamlin just needed to Be Like Mike.

With friend Michael Jordan on hand for support, Hamlin exorcised his personal demons from choking away the 2010 title and won his first career NASCAR title Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, known to call his shot, repeatedly emphasized how confident he was in his car and ability at Homestead prior to Sunday’s race. But he wasn’t the favorite, since Hamlin had scored just one top-five finish in the Chase for the Sprint Cup prior to the finale.

Ultimately, Hamlin came through and delivered on a promise he made to Gibbs as a kid in 1992: He’d someday drive for JGR and win a title for the former football coach.

Thanks to Hamlin, Gibbs now has more Cup titles (four) than Super Bowl rings (three). And according to Hamlin, everyone should have seen this coming.

When NASCAR changed the Chase for the Sprint Cup format in January, Hamlin immediately decided the new rules were made for him.

He slid into a booth at his favorite restaurant , eyes poking from beneath a baseball cap, and laid out how his championship would happen. If he could survive the first two rounds, the third round – featuring some of his best tracks – would be almost a sure thing.

And then there was Homestead, which Hamlin said was perhaps his favorite track – even more than Martinsville Speedway.

Apparently, more people should have listened. That’s exactly how the championship unfolded – and now Hamlin can stop getting questions about whether he has the mental fortitude to deliver in a clutch situation.

After all, it was just four years ago when Hamlin coughed up a lead in the final race, letting the pressure get to him as Jimmie Johnson won the title instead.

This time, Hamlin was determined to relax and have fun. He told friends and family not to talk about racing but keep the conversations casual and light. He spent Saturday night at an early birthday dinner instead of locking himself in his motorhome.

The soon-to-be 34-year-old might not be done yet, either. He’s quietly been one of NASCAR’s top drivers since JGR plucked him from the Late Model ranks and then elevated him to Cup in 2006.

With a championship under his belt and the confidence to know what he can do under the new Chase format, Sunday’s championship might not be his only one.

Ryan Newman, 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion

(Note: I wrote this under the assumption that if Newman won the title, he wouldn’t do so by winning the race. I almost got burned on this one.)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The tortoise beat the hare.

Ryan Newman didn’t have the fastest car, the best team or the most resources this season. He didn’t have the statistics, either – no wins and just four top-five finishes entering NASCAR’s championship race.

But it was Newman, not his heavily-favored competitors, who emerged victorious Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion.

He is perhaps the most unlikely NASCAR champ ever, the result of a new system that was supposed to emphasize winning but instead produced the first winless champion in series history.

The merits of Newman’s title will be debated for years. But whether or not he was deserving in the traditional sense, Newman started the season under the same rules as everyone else – and beat them all.

Newman and his Richard Childress Racing team survived three elimination rounds — they used consistency to make it through – and then beat the faster cars of Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin straight up in the championship race.

Every other driver had the same opportunity as Newman, but he’s the one who pulled it off. In that sense, it’s not his fault that NASCAR has a winless champion; he did what it took to win the title.

But NASCAR should absolutely make a tweak to the format to ensure this situation never happens again. The best solution might be to say no winless driver can qualify for the four-driver championship race unless they’ve won at least one race by the end of the Eliminator Round.

That way, consistency can be rewarded for 35 races but it would stop short of letting a winless driver become champion.

Of course, that ship has sailed now. Newman is somehow NASCAR’s new champion, and everyone involved with the sport will have to take a closer look at how exactly this could have happened.

Honest opinion on the Denny Hamlin/Chase Elliott incident at Phoenix

My Twitter mentions have been on fire since last night, when I dared mention there wasn’t much difference between what Denny Hamlin did at Martinsville and what Chase Elliott did at Phoenix.

Many of you are absolutely incredulous over this take, questioning my sanity/judgment and openly accusing me of somehow being a Hamlin Fanboi.

I understand why people might think the situations are different: Hamlin appeared to completely wipe out Elliott at Martinsville, while Elliott gave Hamlin a couple warning shots before running him into the Phoenix wall (some of you dispute Elliott even did that, which means we’re just not going to agree on this one).

But here’s where I’m coming from on this:

— In a format where making it to the final race is all that matters, Hamlin took away Elliott’s chance at Martinsville. It doesn’t matter all that much whether Elliott got moved up the track, got spun or got outright crashed in that situation, because the result was essentially the same — a shot at Homestead was denied. By the way, Elliott has gotten a completely free pass for doing the same thing to Brad Keselowski at Martinsville; his execution may have been better than Hamlin’s because Keselowski didn’t wreck, but the thought was the same: I’m going to move him out of the way.

In a format where making it to the final race is all that matters, Elliott took away Hamlin’s chance at Phoenix. Hamlin didn’t wreck the moment Elliott forced him into the wall, but the contact resulted in a tire rub that was like a time bomb that exploded a few laps later. Some of you argued Hamlin should have just pitted — so it’s somehow his fault — but pitting under green in that situation would have ended Hamlin’s chances just like the wreck did. Either way, once Elliott drove Hamlin into the wall, it was Game Over for Hamlin. Elliott couldn’t have calculated what the end result would be in that situation, but his thought was the same: I’m going to move him out of the way.

I truly believe drivers don’t know what’s going to happen after they make contact — whether it’s going to cut someone’s tire or spin them or what. For example: Hamlin wasn’t trying to outright crash Elliott at Martinsville (what would he gain from that?!); he was trying to do the same thing Elliott did moments earlier to Keselowski. But the combination of Elliott getting on the brakes and Hamlin trying to move him at the same time resulted in a spin.

Again, most of you feel differently about that. We’re not going to be able to come to an agreement if so.

But no matter how you view it, I don’t know why people would want to argue Elliott didn’t get his revenge on Sunday. He totally did! Fans clamored for Elliott to do something in retaliation, and he delivered.

“A wise man once told me that he’ll race guys how they race him with a smile on his face, so that’s what I did today,” Elliott said. “I raced him how he raced me, and that’s the way I saw it.”

But now many of you are saying it was different because he didn’t straight up crash Hamlin in the moment, whereas Hamlin did that to Elliott at Martinsville.

Whaaaaat? The outcome was the same!

Hamlin denied Elliott’s chance to make Homestead three weeks ago, and Elliott got his payback when Hamlin was in position at Phoenix.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s Round 3 elimination race at Phoenix Raceway…

1. That’s why we follow NASCAR

There are times throughout these long NASCAR seasons where we might question our passion for this crazy sport. There can be infuriating decisions, ho-hum races or feelings of discouragement when politics or economic realities creep into what should be an escape from reality.

But days like Sunday? Those are the races that keep us all coming back.

The final stage at Phoenix had so many emotions and so much drama that it almost didn’t even seem real at times.

You had Chase Elliott tapping Martinsville foe Denny Hamlin and eventually putting him in the wall, which led to a cut tire that ended Hamlin’s championship race hopes (which had seemed near-certain just moments earlier).

Then there was Elliott making a bold move to the front, putting himself in position for what appeared to be both a stirring first career victory and a championship berth.

And then, after all of that, there was Matt Kenseth — in likely the second-to-last race of his career — somehow tracking Elliott down despite not having clean air and making a pass for what was probably his final career win.

At the same time, that sequence of events improbably put Brad Keselowski into the championship race despite not having the kind of weekend that normally would advance a driver out of Round 3.

So no matter which side you were on (Elliott fan? Kenseth fan? Ford fan? Somewere in between?), you likely felt some level of both elation and disappointment as waves of excitement rolled through the final laps.

That’s the kind of emotional payoff that makes spending three hours of your Sunday in front of the TV all worth it.  It’s a wacky sport at times, and there can be intense frustrations that come with it.

But when NASCAR is good, it’s really good.

2. A popular win

Obviously, an Elliott victory would have been absolutely massive for NASCAR. The stands might have about fallen down with cheers had the young driver ended up winning the race and moving to Homestead. The marketing department would have had to work overtime all week to hype up a young star going for his first title in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race.

But to see Kenseth win? For the sold-out Phoenix crowd, that might have been the next best thing out of the available options (Earnhardt wasn’t in contention, though he did finish 10th).

The image of Kenseth standing on top of his car, looking to the heavens and then pumping his fist like he won the championship is an image that will stay with everyone long after Kenseth’s career ends. It’s a great final shot for his Hall of Fame highlight reel someday.

It was also somewhat of a cathartic moment — not just for Kenseth fans, but longtime followers of the sport. Like Kenseth himself, many fans have felt pushed out of NASCAR as the sport completely cycles. There’s a different racing format, a different championship format, different rules and now different drivers.

So the idea of Kenseth not being able to exit with what seemed like a proper sendoff? Well, that just wasn’t very satisfying to longtime fans who have continued to stick around.

At least Earnhardt has had a full year to say goodbye and soak up the appreciation — or #Appreci88ion — from the tracks and his supporters.

Kenseth hasn’t. And though it can be argued he wouldn’t have wanted the fanfare anyway, he deserved some sort of ending that would help cushion the blow.

Sunday was it.

Those new guys who have come along and pushed drivers like Kenseth out of the sport? Well, Kenseth tracked one of them down — despite being more than double his age — and made a winning pass late in a crucial race. Some of the young drivers did end up in victory lane at Phoenix, but it was just to shake Kenseth’s hand.

So let the record show the oldest full-time Cup driver could still get it done as his career came to a close. Beating the next generation in the process had to be a pretty satisfying moment for the old guard.

3. What’s next for NASCAR

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over what will happen after Earnhardt retires next week. Whose sport will this be?

The focus has been so much on the Young Guns that everyone seems to have overlooked the likely reality: The upcoming years will be dominated by drivers who are already regular winners in the Cup Series.

It’s not Elliott or Blaney or Kyle Larson or Erik Jones who are going to fill the shoes of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Earnhardt in the immediate future; they’re not winning enough races to pull that off yet.

The torch has already been passed, and all you have to do is look to three-quarters of the championship field to see where it went.

Drivers in their 30s are ready to feast. Martin Truex Jr. is 37 and could easily race for five to eight more years. Brad Keselowski (33) and Kyle Busch (32) are in the prime of their careers with perhaps a dozen years left. Denny Hamlin is still only 36.

The younger drivers will get there eventually, and certainly the glimpses of speed this season are promising.

But until they figure out how to beat the older drivers in crunch time situations, they aren’t going to be able to truly take over the sport.

4. Championship preview

If you asked me to name the three grittiest, most cutthroat racers in NASCAR, I’d say Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Keselowski. Three former champions and drivers who can capitalize on any sniff of an opportunity to win.

Well, guess what? They’re racing each other for the title and going up against a driver in Truex who has had the most speed all year long.

This is an incredible championship field, to be honest. I’m really excited and anxious to see what happens and how this plays out.

Obviously, the two Fords are going to be at a speed disadvantage to the Toyotas. It’s been a Toyota season — and particularly a Truex season on the 1.5-mile tracks.

But crazy things happen in these races (remember when the fourth-best car of the title contenders won last year?), so it’s really anybody’s race.

That said, I’m going with Busch. The primary reason is I picked him before the start of the playoffs and it would be dumb to switch picks now, but I also think his combination of speed and otherwordly talent could come in handy on a late-race restart that might decide the title.

Between the championship race itself and the final races for Earnhardt, Kenseth and perhaps Danica Patrick, Homestead is going to be a truly memorable day.

I can’t wait.

5. What about Hendrick?

Before we go, let’s put a cap on Hendrick Motorsports’ season.

First of all, Elliott is going to be just fine.

Don’t worry that he’s not closing out races yet. He will figure it out in time, and then the wins and championships will come.

These playoffs have been an incredible stretch for Elliott, and he established himself as a fan favorite during that time. He’s finished second in almost half of the playoff races, emerged as the Good Guy in the Martinsville situation (even though he moved Keselowski), was labeled the People’s Champ at Texas and got his revenge at Phoenix.

Elliott will be the Most Popular Driver after Earnhardt leaves. And really, he was the best Hendrick car all season.

And that’s why I’m not as sure about Jimmie Johnson.

There’s no question Johnson is still an elite driver. But the 48 team looked off for most of the year — Johnson has the worst average finish of his career — despite winning three times early in the season.

And when you think about it, last year wasn’t very good for the 48 team, either — until he came out of nowhere to win the title, which masked many issues.

Johnson never finished a season with fewer than 20 top-10 finishes until last year, when he had 16. This year? He has 11.

The 48 team is headed the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, Johnson is 42 years old and will be the oldest full-time driver once Kenseth and Earnhardt retire.

So if the 48 is going to get back to its winning ways, how much time does it really have before Johnson, Chad Knaus — or both — move on to the rest of their lives.

In some ways, that sets up 2018 as a defining season for the 48 team’s future.

DraftKings Fantasy NASCAR picks: Phoenix playoff race

I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission.

Last race’s results: Did not play in Texas due to it being blocked at the track.

Season results: $102 wagered, $104.50 won in 26 contests.

This week’s contest: Cannot play due to Arizona state law.

Phoenix picks: 

— Kyle Busch ($11,100): You need a hammer to rack up the laps led, and whoever you pick is likely going to make or break your day. I’m betting on Busch because he had the second-fastest 10-lap average in final practice — as well as the second-fastest single lap — which makes him perhaps the best of the Toyotas.

— Clint Bowyer ($8,700): He’s awfully expensive for the value, but he starts far back (20th) and seems to have a decently fast car (11th-fastest in 10-lap average for final practice).

— Jamie McMurray ($8,500): McMurray was fifth-fastest in 10-lap average for final practice, and he could move up from his 13th starting position to get a couple position differential points in the process.

— Ryan Blaney ($8,200): He doesn’t have the fastest car, but whoever wins the pole has often gotten enough laps led to make it worth picking them this season. Plus, Blaney comes at a lower price than other polesitters. If he can lead a bunch of laps early in the race, it could be an easy pick for you.

 Kasey Kahne ($7,400): He had the eighth-fastest 10-lap average in final practice and has shown decent speed throughout the weekend. He should contend for a top-10 finish, so you could pick up a few points after he starts 17th.

— Michael McDowell ($5,800): This is a pure money/position differential play. He’s cheap and might be able to improve from his 28th starting position, plus he has extra motivation racing in front of friends and family in his hometown. That’s about it, although Chris Buescher ($6,600, starts 31st) is another good candidate for that strategy.