The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR championship race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway…

1. Truex gets his due

Ladies and gentlemen, Martin Truex Jr. is a NASCAR Cup Series champion.

It’s too bad we can’t send messages from the future back to our past selves, because it would have been almost impossible to believe that a few years ago.

In 2014, Truex wrapped up his first season at Furniture Row Racing with a single lap led. He finished 24th in points. And he had two career wins to his name at the time.

Now he’s the dominant car of the past two seasons, with 12 wins and 4,062 laps led in that span. Plus he’s got a championship to go with it.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but due to his career history (two wins in his first nine seasons) it’s been easy to just say, “The cars are just that good” when talking about Truex’s success. Since he didn’t win much until Cole Pearn showed up as crew chief and Furniture Row improved, Truex probably hasn’t gotten enough credit as a driver.

That should change after Sunday night. Kyle Busch was chasing him down — with what appeared to be a better car — and stalking him in case there was even the slightest bobble in the 78 car.

“Then I could try to pounce,” Busch said. “But that never happened.”

Truex drove a flawless 20 laps and showed he’s worthy of being in the conversation about the sport’s best drivers.

Toyotas are elite, but as Brad Keselowski noted: “He’s still beating the other Toyotas, so he deserves credit for that.”

Good point, right? And that’s not lost on Truex.

Yes, he’s basically driving a Joe Gibbs Racing car — just tweaked by Furniture Row. But he’s beating all the JGR drivers with it.

“That’s the coolest part of it, is showing people that you’ve got it, that you can do it,” Truex said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to have the same thing as somebody else and beat ’em with it.”

And Truex was especially pumped about out-driving Busch, who he called “one of the best drivers ever.”

“To beat him,” Truex said, “was awesome.”

2. This Bud’s for Dale

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the media about his goals for the weekend — I just want to finish all the laps, he kept saying — it turns out he was only telling part of the story.

There was a reason behind the wish: He wanted to turn his No. 88 car into a mobile Whisky River, right there on pit road.

“That’s why I kept saying, ‘Man, I hope I finish all the laps,'” he said with a grin. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s really why I was saying that. Everyone says, ‘Who are you going to miss the most?’ and it’s my family. (The 88 team) is my family. We are so close.

“I told them, ‘The one thing I want to do is finish the race, and we’re going to drink a beer together.’ That’s the only thing that kept coming to my mind about what I do when I get out of the car: I want to have a beer with my guys. I want to have a moment with them that sort of closes it up for us.”

So there they were, Earnhardt and the members of the 88 team, using the car as a bar and chugging Budweisers in the middle of a mob scene on pit road. If it was possible to have an intimate moment while surrounded by a couple hundred people, they had it.

Earnhardt and the crew posed for selfies, tossed beers at each other until the coolers were empty and raised toast after toast.

Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyy, they yelled in unison, holding their cans to the sky.

“Standing around the car and the heat coming off the car and drinking them cold beers — they were so cold, they had them in those Yeti (coolers), man. Those things are so awesome,” Earnhardt said. “That’s what I wanted. I said, ‘Whatever I do after the race, I don’t care about anything else — I just want to have a beer with my team.'”

It was one of the most unusual postrace scenes in NASCAR history. But it was the first step toward normalcy — something Earnhardt is craving after a weekend he called “weird.”

All the various things swirling around Earnhardt — his retirement from the Cup Series, the upcoming birth of his first child, his best friend winning the championship, his team’s Xfinity Series success, his new job with NBC Sports — it all played into it.

“I’ve got this job next year that I got to get ready for that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I know nothing about it. I’m freaking out,” he said. “There’s just so many things happening for me. I mean, what the hell!? It’s ridiculous what’s going on in my life. So I can’t put my emotions about finishing my Cup career in a capsule. I can’t single it out.”

So what’s next? A hangover, Earnhardt predicted. But then he hoped for an uneventful week ahead.

“It’s been an amazing weekend,” he said. “I’m ready to go feel normal, though. I’m ready to go just do nothing for awhile.”

He looked at the group of reporters. His team had left — the celebration was over for now — and Earnhardt lingered on pit road, willing to fill reporters’ notepads with golden quotes like he’d done so often over the years.

“But I’ll miss all y’all,” he said. “And I’ll be back because of that.”

With that, Earnhardt smiled, gave a thumbs up and disappeared into the crowd of waiting fans one more time.

3. Like a punch in the face

The primary reason for Kyle Busch not being able to catch Truex in the final laps, Busch said, was a tough battle with Joey Logano.

Busch had been on his way toward the front and easily passed Kevin Harvick, but then he reached Logano. That pass proved to be a lot tougher.

Logano took the top lane and pinched Busch down; Busch had to back out of it, reset for a couple laps and try again.

“Just wasting too much time with him,” Busch said afterward. “He held me up. He was there blocking every chance he got, so got a real buddy there. But that’s racing. That’s what happens.”

Logano’s move was subtle, and perhaps it was nothing more than racing hard for his own victory — but it does raise questions.

For example: Did Busch’s ongoing rivalry with Logano teammate Brad Keselowski play a part in the hard racing? Or perhaps did lingering ill will between the two — Busch did punch Logano in the face earlier this year, after all — have anything to do with it?

There aren’t any quotes from Logano on the post-race transcripts about that, but I’d love to know whether that played a role.

If so, it’s just another example of the entire season building toward the pinnacle that is Homestead.

4. Keselowski the politician

Leave it to Brad Keselowski to get one more shot in before the offseason begins.

Keselowski stumped hard for NASCAR to help Ford after claiming Toyota got too much help with its new nose this season.

If you missed it, here are his comments:

“When that car (the new Camry) rolled out at Daytona and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there were two reactions. One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it, and, two, we were impressed by the design team over there.

“With that said, I don’t think anyone really ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt a little bit like Formula 1, where you have one car that kind of makes it through the gate heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.”

Keselowski concluded by saying he assumed Chevrolet “would be allowed to design a car the same way Toyota was” in terms of the new Camaro — and Ford doesn’t have any plans for a redesign.

“If that’s the case, we’re gonna take a drubbing next year,” Keselowski said.

Honestly, I don’t have any problem with what Keselowski said. He’s very calculating and certainly knows his words will get picked up and echo around the garage.

He also knows he’s going to get criticized for whining or being a loudmouth, but he’s willing to sacrifice that in order to get his point across.

If it helps, and the talk somehow generates rule changes in Ford’s favor, then it will all be worth it.

5. Thoughts on 2018

There’s going to be plenty of time to reflect on this season and what next year might bring, but here are a few thoughts on what lies ahead.

The biggest storylines heading into Daytona next year will be NASCAR’s new identity — Life After Dale, so to speak. The hype and marketing push for the young drivers will be even bigger than this year, and the pressure will increase on the likes of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to produce.

On the track, there will be much talk about whether the new Chevrolet nose with the incoming Camaro can somehow help the manufacturer gain on Toyota. If not — and with only minor changes to the 2018 rules package — there’s no reason to think Truex and the JGR drivers can’t dominate again next season.

Overall, the goal for 2018 should be to determine a floor for NASCAR’s long slide. Attendance and ratings will almost certainly be down every week — a natural side effect of the most popular driver leaving — so that’s just going to be a fact of life. But the sport should look at that and say, “OK, this is the low point; now we rebuild.” Use it as a launching point for a new era and get on track toward strengthening NASCAR’s health for the next generation.

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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts from Sunday’s playoff race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. The heavyweight contenders

Many of the races this season turned into a battle between Martin Truex Jr. — the dominant car of 2017 — and Kyle Busch, his Toyota teammate who has plenty of speed but perhaps not quite as much as the 78.

That was the case again on Sunday at New Hampshire. Truex and Busch combined to lead all but one lap (!!!) of a 300-lap event (Kyle Larson led the other one during pit stops in the break between Stages 1 and 2).

And although it looked like Truex might end up dominating had he not been caught up in the Lap 150 pileup, Busch happily said his team made gains on its chief rival for the championship.

“Today was a good catch‑up moment for us,” Busch said. “Obviously they’ve been so fast all year long. … But it was going to come down to that again and who was going to be in the lead, who was going to have the opportunity on restarts and whatnot to control the field.”

Many fans insist they are sick of Toyotas, which is bad news for them, because this domination doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. The four Toyota drivers in the playoffs are all in the top six in points, and only Kyle Larson has shown he can consistently challenge them.

So Busch vs. Truex is the battle to watch for now, and it’s actually pretty interesting. For example: Busch gained five playoff points on Truex during Sunday’s race, which puts Truex at 59 and Busch at 36.

That’s only a 23-point difference. So if the third round comes around and it has three different winners with one spot available on points to advance to Homestead, that could be determined by a Truex vs. Busch battle. And 23 points between them isn’t even a half-race.

Everyone seems to treat Truex in the finale as a given — and it’s highly likely — but it’s not going to be a cakewalk if he has to deal with Busch in a points race.

2. Finally, some points drama!

It’s been awhile since anyone had to worry about the points picture going into an elimination race — after all, points were not a factor at Richmond this year — which means Dover next week will be a welcome sight.

Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are tied for the last spot (the tiebreaker is best finish in the round) after Stenhouse and his team had a gutsy comeback after struggling all day.

Stenhouse, one of many drivers looking completely wiped after an unseasonably hot and humid day, said he “felt like we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week.”

“We just couldn’t find speed, couldn’t find the handle on the car,” he said.

But after making up a few spots late in the race — thanks to consecutive cautions that put him back on the lead lap — Stenhouse gained valuable points that could put him in a showdown with Dillon and Ryan Newman (who is one point behind both drivers).

“It makes you feel good,” Stenhouse said. “We needed to make up a little bit and made up a little bit at a track that I didn’t think we were great at all weekend.”

As for Dillon, he was also optimistic about Dover after surviving Sunday with a 19th-place finish.

“Just have a good run like we did last year,” he said. “Go run in the top five and we’ll probably make it.”

Dillon also avoided what could have been a playoff-ending incident for himself when he made contact with Kevin Harvick to trigger a multi-car wreck at lap 150.

“He kept coming left, and I was in the gas,” Dillon told me after the race. “He bobbled and I hit him, and it was over. When he got loose, I connected and it hit him. I barely tapped him. I lifted after, but nothing I can do at that point. Hate it for him and hate it for (Kurt Busch).”

Busch, collected in the wreck when he rammed Harvick, is 15th in points — but too far back (-17) to hope anything but a win will get him in. Same with Kasey Kahne (-21), who said he hadn’t seen the points but wasn’t surprised to hear he was in 16th after a broken track bar.

“It’d be pretty tough” to make it now, Kahne said.

3. Hands off!

Thanks a lot, 24 team.

That’s probably what the rest of the playoff crews were thinking after NASCAR made them stand away from the cars for at least five minutes after the race — a new policy in reaction to Chase Elliott’s crewmen being caught on video removing tape from the spoiler last week.

Inspectors appeared to take a much closer initial look at some of the playoff cars than typically happens immediately after the race. At most races the last couple years — since NASCAR began stopping all cars on pit road instead of having them go back to the garage — crewmen go over the wall and approach the cars as soon as they pull to a stop.

But NASCAR obviously felt that might be an opportunity to mess with something before post-race inspection — the 24 team proved that — so now that won’t be happening for the near future.

If it was annoying for the pit crews, though, it was also irritating for the media. The cars were parked against the pit wall and no one —reporters, crewmen or public relations representatives — could go past the halfway point of pit road. Many drivers simply got out of their cars, saw no one was waiting to talk to them, and walked away.

Hopefully, NASCAR can figure out a solution to wrangle the playoff drivers for at least a moment before they disappear into the crowd. Otherwise, the sport might miss out on some much-needed emotion after one of these upcoming races; if there was a confrontation between drivers on Sunday, we likely would have missed it.

4. Goodbye, Loudon

The final New Hampshire fall race was fairly typical of most other New Hampshire races in memory. And that’s not really a compliment.

This is a great area with wonderful people who are true, passionate race fans, and they have a fantastic track for some cars.

But those cars don’t include the Cup Series, which has long struggled to put on a decent show here.

“It always lends to exciting moments; we had one today,” Kyle Busch said. “Sometimes the racing, though, is a little strung out with this place being so hard to pass.”

Busch called it “frustrating to race here sometimes” and explained in detail why that’s the case, if you want to dive in:

“It’s just not lending itself to being able to be right on top of or right close to the guy in front of you, because you just get so tight when you’re behind that guy. And you build air pressure in the front tires and you slow down and that guy drives away from you, and then you kind of accordion back to the next guy, he’s catching you thinking he’s going to pass you and then he gets tight, and it kind of goes back to the next guy.”

Look, it’s not like the Las Vegas race — New Hampshire’s replacement — is going to be that much more compelling. But it gives NASCAR a chance to open the playoffs in a high-profile market and then keep a short track (Richmond) as the second race, all while keeping an event at Loudon in July. So with apologies to the locals who love this place, that’s not the worst development.

5. Common sense solutions

Let’s talk about the NASCAR dunce cap penalty for a second.

Until the race — and until Richard Petty and Richard Childress got a bunch of national attention for saying they’d fire employees who kneeled for the anthem (just the publicity NASCAR needs!) — the biggest story of the weekend was Joey Logano serving a penalty on pit road for the entire final practice session.

It’s silly that it got so much attention, but it’s what fans were most interested in (I can see the numbers). So the media reported it and Dale Earnhardt Jr. reacted to it and it became a thing.

Yes, other drivers have served longer penalties under this policy (up to 60 minutes, where Logano’s penalty was 50), but those were in practices where they eventually got on the track for some laps.

That’s why Logano’s punishment seemed so wacky: He sat in the car on pit road for the entire practice session and never got on track.

When odd things happen in this sport, it often seems to catch NASCAR by surprise. After all, they are tasked with enforcing the rules and put in a very difficult position by teams trying to push the limit in every little area — and so officials are viewing it as doing their jobs.

So I feel bad for NASCAR in that sense, because what should be justice ends up ricocheting back at them and turns into a pie in the face. But the penalties they come up with could use a little work in the public eye.

If NASCAR wants to have a team miss practice, just make the team park the car in the garage and put a cover on it so crew members can’t work on it. But don’t make the driver sit in there — that comes across like they’re shaming a troublemaking child.

Or maybe NASCAR can increase the punishment by doing things like making a team serve its penalty at the end of Stage 1 — which would impact the race itself.

NASCAR’s heart is in the right place, because it has to keep teams in line. But maybe there’s a better way to do that.

Joey Logano forced to sit in virtual penalty box at New Hampshire

At one point, as Joey Logano served a full-practice penalty in his car on pit road, his pregnant wife Brittany approached the car.

She leaned over the pit wall and put her hand up to the window net, which was within reach. Her husband did the same from inside the car.

“She was laughing (and said it) was like I was in jail, you know?” the driver said afterward. “I said, ‘It’s kind of like that, actually.'”

Logano said he had “time for a lot of thoughts in there” during his 50-minute penalty for failing pre-qualifying inspection four times on Friday — “mainly that it’s a total joke.”

NASCAR requires drivers serve their “practice hold” penalty in the car on pit road, buckled into the car with full safety equipment — and several other drivers had 15- or 30-minute punishments on Saturday.

But a driver had never missed the entirety of final practice before this. It made it look like Logano was serving a time out with a virtual dunce cap on his head as the other cars drove by.

And maybe that’s the point. NASCAR has ratcheted up the penalties as teams continue to mess around in inspection and not present their cars that are within the rules from the start.

But this penalty in particular seemed absurd because it wasn’t just a chunk of practice — it was all of it. So Logano just sat there and never turned a lap.

“I just think it makes the sport look dumb,” Logano said. “It’s kind of a joke. I don’t get it, personally. I think we can accomplish the same thing in a more professional manner.”

Logano said he understood the reason for a penalty, but said there was “no reason to sit out there.”

“Keep us in (the garage) or something,” he said.

He laughed.

“But coming from the guy who just sat in the car for an hour, sweating, it might not be the best thing to say,” he said.

Logano said he wasn’t too uncomfortable in the car — he ran his helmet fan and had several bottles of water — but wished he could have done something more productive with his time.

“I would have signed autographs or something,” he said of the fans milling near pit road. “I had nothing better to do. I was looking to get something out of it.”

But Kurt Culbert, NASCAR managing director of integrated marketing and communications, tweeted the penalty was fitting of the infraction.

 

The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s regular season finale at Richmond Raceway…

1. Why Larson’s win was important

Before his win Saturday night at Richmond, Kyle Larson had won four races in his career — three this season — but each victory had been on a 2-mile track (either Fontana or Michigan).

Larson certainly doesn’t lack for confidence, but this will help heading into a playoff that will require excellence on several different types of tracks. Now Larson has proof he can win on different kinds of tracks at the Cup level (not that it was really that much of a question, but it can’t hurt) — and now that includes short tracks,.

“Everybody says I grew up short-track racing, but this is way different than sprint car racing on a short track,” he said. “This is really, really slow, heavy braking, off the throttle a lot, taking care of your tires — where in a sprint car on a quarter mile, you’re still wide open a lot of times depending on how the track is.

“This is different, and I’ve had to learn a lot. I feel like I’ve definitely gotten better at it.”

Next on Larson’s to-do list: Win on a 1.5-mile track. He actually has the third-best average on 1.5-mile tracks this season — the tracks that make up half the playoff races — but Martin Truex Jr. is far ahead of him.

That will likely have to change if Larson wants to snatch the title away from Truex like he took the win at Richmond.

2. Regular season champ

NASCAR did not celebrate Truex’s regular season championship (which comes with a trophy and 15 playoff points) last week at Darlington after he clinched because they wanted to save it for Richmond. According to the post-race plan, Truex was even set to have his own burnout celebration in Turn 1 while the winner (if it was a different driver) celebrated in Turn 4.

But the only thing Truex did in Turn 1 was crash into the wall on the last lap — thanks to Toyota teammate Denny Hamlin — which was most unfortunate. It’s no wonder he was cranky afterward about how everything played out and wasn’t exactly in a mood to celebrate.

Here’s a sampling of Truex quotes after the race:

— “I wish we could have got the trophy last weekend. I mean, tonight sucks, plain and simple.”

— “It’s ridiculous there’s a guy out there that shouldn’t even be out there, 20-some laps down, riding around. As slow as he is, he can’t even hold his damn line. It’s ridiculous. He scrapes the wall, they throw a caution with one to go. That’s not what racing should be.”

— “Somebody obviously wasn’t paying attention (to the ambulance) or wasn’t doing their job properly, and in my opinion at this level, it’s inexcusable.”

So Truex was salty, but obviously he had every right to be that way. As Larson said, Truex “should have probably have like 10 or 12 wins if things would go his way more often.”

Truex will go into the playoffs with 53 playoff points, which is pretty decent, but it’s only a 20-point lead over Larson. It would have been 30 had he won at Richmond.

So it’s no wonder Truex couldn’t bring himself to smile while accepting the regular season championship trophy. That late caution was a 10-point swing, and it will be worth remembering later in the fall.

3. No fairy tale ending

I guess we all saw this coming, but it’s still a shame that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be competing in the playoffs during his final season. After Jeff Gordon made it to Homestead in 2015 and Tony Stewart had a road course win fall into his lap to make the playoffs last year, it just seemed destined that Earnhardt would win at some point in the first 26 races. Sadly, that wasn’t the case despite a good run on Saturday night.

What didn’t we see coming? Joey Logano missing out on the 16-driver field. Logano was my preseason championship pick, and his team’s downfall is the most surprising flop I can remember in the Chase/Playoff Era. He opened the season with eight finishes of sixth or better in the first nine races — including five straight top-fives — and then completely fell off the map after the encumbered Richmond win.

Ultimately, Logano finished second on Saturday night. But that was just his third top-five since the last Richmond race. He missed the playoffs by 100 points.

And how about Clint Bowyer? Honestly, it was a pretty solid regular season; his average finish of 14.8 is his best since 2013. I mean, the guy finished 11th in points and missed the playoffs! That just speaks to how unusual this season has been with five winners below him in the standings.

By the way, it was fun to see Erik Jones make a run at what would have been an incredible victory at Richmond. He didn’t make the cut (despite being 13th in points during his rookie season), but don’t worry — he will be part of the field for years to come after this.

4. Someone call 911

Let’s hope NASCAR got its one crappy officiating night out of the way before the playoffs, because that was — as our president would say — “not good.”

First, there was the caution toward the end of Stage 1 which was officially thrown for “Smoke.” Not Tony Stewart, but smoke from Matt Kenseth’s tires when he was trying to avoid hitting Danica Patrick. That was an awfully quick trigger for a group of officials who previously insisted it takes time to call a caution (like at Daytona and Indianapolis as cars were crashing).

Second, the ambulance on pit road. Yikes. Martin Truex Jr. said the safety vehicles were running alongside the cars down the backstretch, so NASCAR had plenty of time to figure out what was going on. NASCAR said it told the ambulance to stop, and the directive was not obeyed. But typically, race director David Hoots runs a much tighter ship than that. It was not only a safety hazard, but Matt Kenseth ultimately could have missed the playoffs because of it. Thankfully, that situation didn’t play out — but again, “not good.”

Third, it might have been worth holding off calling the race-altering caution for Derrike Cope. That was a judgment call and likely a caution in many circumstances, because he did brush the wall. But this was the final laps of the regular season when NASCAR has put such an emphasis on playoff points this year — and it changed the winner.

NASCAR warned drivers to “let it play out naturally on the racetrack” in the pre-race drivers meeting, so it doesn’t feel right that three questionable calls occurred in the hours afterward. Let’s hope that was the last officiating controversy of the season.

5. Championship predictions

So here we go. It’s time to make some picks.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott will be eliminated in the first round, with Kasey Kahne, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray advancing to Round 2 but falling out after that.

Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski will come up short of making it to Homestead, which will leave Truex, Larson, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin as the final four.

In the end, despite the presence of Homestead ace Larson in the championship race, Kyle Busch will use a late restart to win his second career title as Truex once again suffers bad luck after a dominating race.

News Analysis: Denny Hamlin’s Darlington sweep ruled encumbered

What happened: Both of Denny Hamlin’s wins last weekend at Darlington Raceway came while his team was breaking the rules. After further investigation at its R&D Center, NASCAR found Hamlin had two encumbered victories at Darlington — for similar violations in the rear suspension. On the Cup side, Hamlin lost 25 points (meaningless) and the five playoff points he got for the win while crew chief Mike Wheeler received a two-race suspension and a $50,000 fine. To make matters worse, the runner-up driver in the Xfinity race — Joey Logano — also had an encumbered finish.

What it means: NASCAR penalties are not tough enough. Encumbered finishes by race winners are becoming more frequent, which means teams must not fear the consequences like they should. Even though he loses the playoff points, Hamlin gets to keep both of his wins despite his team basically cheating. That looks terrible, but this will never change until NASCAR starts to take the win away — which should have been the policy for a long time now. It’s also ridiculous to think Cup drivers not only made the Xfinity race a bore-fest (until the last lap), but they were whooping the Xfinity regulars by driving cheated-up cars the whole time. What a joke!

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. It should be a lot higher, but this is sadly becoming more commonplace. For example: Hamlin has two Xfinity wins this year and both were encumbered finishes. After you get beyond the headlines, these penalties are relatively hollow.

Three questions: When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars? When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars? When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars?

The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol Night Race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway…

1. Kyle Busch drinks his haters’ tears

At a Toyota appearance on Saturday morning, a fan in attendance stood there and gave Kyle Busch one long, continuous middle finger.

“I know I’m number one,” Busch told the fan. “I’ve been number one the past two nights.”

So then the fan gave him a double bird.

“All you’re doing is solidifying what I already know,” Busch said.

Like the greatest of wrestling heels, Busch has gone full villain this season as he’s come to terms with the fact he’s never going to be the most popular driver. It doesn’t seem to bother him anymore — and yes, it definitely did at one time — so he’s soaking up the hate instead.

As Busch was showered with boos from the 100,000-plus fans at Bristol after completing the three-race weekend sweep, Busch cupped his ears for more. Then, as the volume increased, he flashed three fingers — not Three for Dale, but three for the sweep.

To add insult to their injured feelings, Busch then climbed on top of his car, parked right on the frontstretch, and swept the roof with a broom.

“I’m sure they’re still booing and whining and crying all the way home tonight. They’re driving home mad,” he said later, then smirked. “So people, be careful.”

For Kyle Busch Haters, a group of people that probably rivals the size of Junior Nation, this weekend was absolutely disgusting. He dominated two lower-series races with glee (“In your face!” he yelled on the radio after winning Trucks) and then whooped everyone in the Cup race.

But I’ve got to confess something: The more Busch irritates people, the more hilarious I think it is. Seriously, Busch haters get SO twisted up when he wins and their livid reactions are so disproportionate to the outrage over everything in the real world that it’s just flat-out funny to me.

The hate is so commonplace now, it doesn’t affect him. He’s used to it, and he might even thrive off it.

Personally, I think he’s the most interesting character in NASCAR these days. And even though he can be a pain in the ass at times, I sure am glad he’s around to give me something to write about and talk about.

2. Yes, he’s that damn good

To those who truly despise Busch — even you have to admit we’re watching one of the great talents of all time, right?

I mean, check out this tweet from Kyle Larson from Saturday night:

Could Kyle Busch actually be the GOAT, as Larson’s tweet suggested? I can only speak in NASCAR terms on this, so you can debate sprint car drivers and other racers Larson may be including in the conversation. But in NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson has won six more championships, Jeff Gordon won a lot more races and Tony Stewart was more versatile as far as winning in different types of cars.

And yet, when it comes to sitting in the stands and watching which driver wheels the car the best, I think Larson may be right: Busch may be the best pure talent of his generation.

Yes, of course he’s driving the best cars in the lower series and makes it seem easy when he has a speeding penalty and gets back to the front in 50 laps (probably because it is easy for him).

But when he does it in the Cup Series, against the best drivers and teams, and makes it look like he’s back in an Xfinity race? Well, that’s damn impressive. It just is.

Busch now has 40 Cup wins, which tied Mark Martin on the all-time list. And he’s only 32! He probably has 10 more years in his prime to rack up more victories.

I’m not advocating for people to start liking Busch, because his attitude and demeanor and lack of grace are massive turnoffs to many fans in a sport where drivers are often judged on personality as much as results. And I’m also not suggesting people start enjoying what they’re seeing, because people need someone to root against.

But as a longtime Denver Broncos fan, I compare it to Tom Brady. I can’t STAND Brady, but I still recognize he’s probably the best quarterback ever (which is painful to admit).

So you truly have to respect Busch as one of the best and appreciate what we’re seeing. And if you can’t, your bitterness is getting in the way.

3. Erik Jones making big gains

Remember earlier in the season when the No. 77 car looked fast every week but always had something bad happen? Those days seem gone now.

Erik Jones has six DNFs due to crashes this season — many of which were not his fault but some which happened after he put himself in bad positions. But Jones really seems to be finishing races lately.

He’s reeled off four straight top-10 finishes, including a third at Michigan and now a career-best second at Bristol. And he led a race-high 260 laps during nine different times in the race, which is pretty impressive.

It’s a shame he’s likely going to miss the playoffs, because he’s coming on really strong at the right time. But I have a feeling he’ll be a playoff fixture in the future, though.

4. More frustration for Dale Jr.

At the tweetup on Saturday, a few of us started daydreaming about what it would be like if Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Bristol race.

Can you imagine? It would be even better than the 2001 Pepsi 400! The whole stadium would go freaking nuts!

Goosebumps.

But that was just a fantasy, because Earnhardt never had a chance after being way off in practice and qualifying 31st.

“I couldn’t find any speed out there,” he said afterward. “Whatever we got wrong came from the shop. You’re not going to fix it on that racetrack from pit road. We just missed the setup, big time.”

The struggles Earnhardt experienced all weekend at Bristol reminded me of the Lance McGrew Era. Personally, I thought it was the most frustrated I’d heard Earnhardt on the radio this season, but he disagreed.

“It’s frustrating every week, you know?” he said. “I don’t know how to quantify frustration. I don’t know how to measure it. None of it is good. We want to compete and run well this last season. I don’t want to be out there just packing it in. It’s a lot of work to run 23rd, I’ll say that.”

Earnhardt deserves a better ending than this season is shaping up to be, similar to what Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart got.

Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like that might not happen — and that sucks for everyone.

5. Two to go!

It’s almost playoff time, and the picture is getting a bit clearer now that there are two races left where upset winners are a rarity.

Actually, I’m having a hard time seeing how the 16 drivers currently in the field change after Darlington and Richmond (you can see the standings below).

There are only three spots left, and it’s not close on points at all. Clint Bowyer is 58 points out — nearly an entire race — and he’s the only driver within 100 points (Joey Logano is 117 points out).

So that means someone like Logano would have to win Darlington or Richmond to get in. And really, is Logano even running well enough to do that right now? It doesn’t seem like it, even though he’s great at Richmond and had the encumbered win there in the spring.

There are no more upset winner type tracks, which lessens the chances Jones or Daniel Suarez could pick up their first career victories in the next two weeks.

Anyway, I think you’re already looking at this year’s playoff field, which is below.

——-

PLAYOFF PICTURE

By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with two races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +69

15. Matt Kenseth +61

16. Jamie McMurray +58

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -58

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)