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 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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. Didn’t see that coming

It’s not like Kevin Harvick was an upset winner at Texas, but his victory Sunday was definitely a surprise.

Did you expect him to win? I didn’t.

First of all, Harvick had never gone to victory lane at Texas. So there’s that.

But who would have legitimately picked Harvick to win at a 1.5-mile track when those races have been completely dominated by Martin Truex Jr. lately? It’s not like Harvick or his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates had a bunch of wins since moving to Ford, either; the only victories for SHR this season had been Harvick’s road course win at Sonoma and Kurt Busch’s restrictor-plate win in the Daytona 500.

So when Harvick tracked down Truex and passed him like it was nothing? Wow! That was both a show of power and an unexpected outcome — although crew chief Rodney Childers noted the team has been bringing more speed over the last month.

“I feel like we should have won more races this year,” Childers said. “It’s disappointing. I don’t like to lose. It’s been a hard year. So to finally get one back into victory lane, to feel like we have something we can race with the last four or five weeks, (that) has been impressive to me.”

Maybe everyone wasn’t paying enough attention as the No. 4 team crept back toward winning again. Guilty as charged here.

But either way, Harvick and Childers have served notice they’re back and are capable of winning another title.

After all, you never want to let the hard-nosed Harvick get a whiff of potential victory if you’re one of his competitors.

2. Truex vulnerable?

Almost immediately after the race, Martin Truex Jr. — unprompted — tried to get in front of the potential storyline that his team had somehow lost momentum by finally failing to win a 1.5-mile track race.

“People are going to say, ‘Well, I think the balance of power (has shifted)’ and ‘Did Harvick steal our confidence by beating us at the end?'” he said. “All that Voodoo stuff I’m sure will be brought up.

“The bottom line is our last run we weren’t as good as we needed to be. We got beat, but we still did what we needed to do. … To think we came up eight laps short…is pretty good.”

It’s true Truex has been dominant on 1.5-milers (he’d won four in a row and six overall this season), but his playoffs have been a bit odd compared to the regular season. Where Truex won 18 stages in 26 regular-season races, he’s won just one stage in the eight playoff races.

That’s a bit misleading considering he has three wins in the playoffs, but it still could be a sign the team isn’t unloading as fast off the truck as it was earlier in the year.

Yes, Truex will still be the favorite going into Homestead no matter what. But Harvick tracking him down and passing him late in a playoff race on a 1.5-miler shows the 78 team is certainly beatable in the right circumstances.

3. Last One In

In theory, there are five drivers fighting for one spot at Phoenix. Personally, I think it’s more like two.

Brad Keselowski currently holds the final playoff spot by 19 points over Denny Hamlin. I think the race will come down to those two.

Sure, Ryan Blaney is within range — he’s only 22 points behind Keselowski. But although the Wood Brothers Racing driver has two top-10s in three Phoenix starts, I don’t see him outrunning the other two drivers by enough points to make it.

Then there’s Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott, but it’s hard to imagine either of them winning outright — which will be a must next week.

So the battle is likely between Keselowski and Hamlin. And even though he’s behind, I’ll give the edge to Hamlin.

Here’s why: If you recall, Toyota drivers dominated the two New Hampshire races this summer — those drivers led 589 of 601 laps at NHMS this year — and that track is a 1-mile flat oval that is the most similar to Phoenix.

With stage points playing such a factor in the standings these days, I can envision Hamlin running in the top three and chipping away at Keselowski’s lead before the halfway point — then outrunning him in better equipment at the finish.

Nothing against Keselowski, but it just seems like the better bet is the team that has consistently shown more speed.

4. The Levy Was Dry

Barring a Johnson or Elliott victory at Phoenix, Chevrolet is headed toward being shut out from Homestead for the first time in the existence of the new format.

Chevy had two entries among the final four the first two years of the championship race, then had one entry last year. Toyota has had at least one driver every season — and will now have at least two for the second straight year — and Ford missed 2015 but had one in the other two seasons.

Even though we know Hendrick Motorsports has been down this season, it’s still jarring to think of no Chevrolets running for the title — especially since many people viewed Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson as a lock to make it.

A lot of people are banking on the new Camaro changing Chevrolet’s fortunes next year, but I’m not sure it will be that simple.

 

5. Daydreaming

Hey, remember last week at Martinsville when the race was totally awesome and featured thrilling battles for the entire 3.5-hour event?

And remember how energized everyone seemed after so much excitement and drama that showcased the best of what this playoff format has to offer?

And remember how the race was so good that we talked about it for the like whole week?

Yeah.

Me too.

Highlights from Friday press conferences at Texas

A quick roundup of the media center happenings Friday at Texas Motor Speedway…

Chase is still pissed

Chase Elliott, who has been declared as the “People’s Champion” by Texas Motor Speedway, made it clear he is still upset with Denny Hamlin following their incident at Martinsville last week.

“Definitely not happy about it and I don’t think a whole lot has changed,” he said. “But no, I am not going to answer your questions about whether I am going to get him back or not. Don’t even ask, because you are not going to hear it from me. Just don’t go there.”

OK then!

But Elliott did answer some questions about the incident, saying he’s not out of the playoff picture on points despite being in a 26-point deficit to the cutoff position, that the fan support after Martinsville was “definitely unexpected” and the People’s Champ banner was “definitely strange.”

Elliott also said he hasn’t paid any attention to the Martinsville fallout this week, only turning on the TV to watch Netflix and refreshing his Twitter so he could see college football news, because “as you all know, the Georgia Bulldogs are ranked No. 1 right now in the country.”

“I was more consumed with that than this other stuff,” he said.

Blaney on Harvick: NBD

Ryan Blaney shrugged off the post-Martinsville discussion with Kevin Harvick that included jabs at the end of the conversation.

“We weren’t happy with each other,” Blaney said. “Both of us had our conversations and what we were upset about. I felt like we handled it fine. It was a stern talking-to (from Harvick).

“I have a lot of respect for Kevin. He helped me a lot when I got started a couple of years ago. It is just Martinsville racing, pretty much. We had a talk and I think we are fine. I am sure we are over it. Those (jabs) were just to reassure that we were good.”

Dale Jr. got a horse (kind of)

You knew Eddie Gossage was going to go big on the Dale Jr. retirement gifts, and he definitely did by riding a horse into the media center.

But the horse wasn’t actually a gift — it was to signify the track is sponsoring a therapy horse in Earnhardt’s honor.

As far as actual gifts, Gossage gave Earnhardt the top of the scoring pylon from his first Texas win, lit up with a No. 8. That was a pretty badass present, actually.

And to finish off the gifts, he gave the Earnhardts a custom-made baby stroller in the shape of a pink car.

Bubba — and NASCAR — get a sponsor

NASCAR had been working to help Richard Petty Motorsports find sponsorship, and a deal with mortgage brand Click n’ Close was apparently the result of those efforts.

RPM announced it will have three races of sponsorship from Click n’ Close, and NASCAR announced the brand will become the “Official Mortgage Provider of NASCAR.”

Anyway, Click n’ Close will sponsor RPM’s No. 43 car for the Daytona 500, as well as a Phoenix and Texas race next season. So although RPM has a ways to go to fill out the car with sponsorship, at least it’s now three races closer.

As a side note: The car was unveiled as a Ford, but Ford put out a statement before the news conference saying it has not received a commitment from RPM to return to the manufacturer next season.

Jimmie Johnson isn’t worried

Despite having the worst season of his career — at least in terms of average finish (15.5) — Johnson says he can make it to Homestead after entering Texas three points below the cutoff.

“I do feel good about getting in,” he said. “I think we are all just so used to momentum and we haven’t had that extremely high positive momentum, race-winning momentum on our side just yet. One thing I know about our team is when we get hot — and we can get hot quick — great things can happen.”

Also…

In news that didn’t take place inside the media center, Team Penske announced Miller Lite is reducing its sponsorship of the No. 2 car from 24 races to 11 next season.

That’s a big yikes, considering Miller has been such a longtime and loyal sponsor.

But Discount Tire will step up to fill the void on Keselowski’s car next season, sponsoring 10 races — including the Daytona 500 and Homestead.

One reason not to hate Cup drivers in the lower series

When Kevin Harvick announced he was running the K&N West Series race at Sonoma, I thought it was pretty lame.

Seriously though — what was the point? It’s not like he needed road course laps under his belt like Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez or Ryan Blaney (who were also in the race). And it would have been an upset if Harvick didn’t win. So why take away from young, up-and-coming drivers’ opportunity to showcase their talent?

As it turned out, Harvick didn’t take away from them at all — it actually put a much bigger spotlight on one of the K&N drivers.

Harvick should be applauded for how he’s used his victory to essentially raise the profile of 22-year-old Will Rodgers, who was Harvick’s K&N teammate and finished second in the race.

A Maui-born driver who moved to California as a kid, Rodgers won the pole and led the first 26 laps before finishing second. He is fourth in K&N West points after Saturday’s race.

But let’s say Rodgers had won and Harvick wasn’t in the race. He wouldn’t be making an appearance on Harvick’s Sirius/XM Radio show tonight, wouldn’t have gotten to sit on the No. 4 team’s pit box on Sunday and wouldn’t have made relationships like this:

 

So even though Rodgers was denied his first career win, the publicity and connections gained through racing with Harvick might have been a victory in itself. After the race, Harvick business manager Josh Jones even offered to point Rodgers in the right direction with sponsorship.

Rodgers came to the Sonoma tweetup on Sunday morning and said despite finishing second, he was honestly feeling pretty good about how everything unfolded. After all, if that outcome ended up being his big break, it’ll be the biggest non-win he’ll ever get.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Sonoma race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway…

1. Harvick’s legend grows

It’s hard to be known as one of the greats while competing in the Jimmie Johnson Era, because many of the wins and championships end up getting hogged by the No. 48 team.

But let’s not overlook what Kevin Harvick continues to do at age 41.

After winning for the first time this season, the versatile driver now has victories at every Cup track but Pocono, Texas and Kentucky. Sunday was his 36th career win — which is fourth among active drivers — and he has the second-most wins to Johnson this decade.

At the same time, Harvick has switched teams and now manufacturers during his run — which can sometimes make for a setback in performance. In fact, it probably should have cost him much more speed than it did this season — but everyone took it for granted Harvick and Childers would be winners again soon after changing to Ford.

Internally, though, Stewart-Haas had a lot of work to reach victory lane again on a non-plate track.

“I can say this now, but I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “… One day, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point. But it’s a huge undertaking.”

The cars have been fast again, though, and for the most part Harvick hasn’t missed a beat. That could set the No. 4 up as a title threat again when the fall rolls around.

2. Clean and green

After a controversial debris caution last week at Michigan, the final stage of the Sonoma race was caution-free — this despite several spins and off-course cars.

It seems crazy to think there could be 55 laps without a caution at Sonoma — where drivers are sliding all over the place and running into one another — but that’s exactly what happened.

No one was complaining about the lack of a debris caution, though. Several competitors found it refreshing, including Brad Keselowski — who praised NASCAR’s “restraint” on Twitter with a thumbs up emoji.

“Good for NASCAR, man,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had addressed the topic on his podcast. “I think they heard the voices last week. There were some opportunities for sure for them to throw some yellows without much of a gripe from anyone, and they let it play out. That’s a race in my book.”

Tony Stewart, one of the vocal critics about the caution at Michigan, praised NASCAR for essentially swallowing the whistle.

“It’s so easy for cars to go off track here and it happened all day long,” Stewart said. “A couple cars even spun out and kept going. So there was a lot of opportunity where we could have gotten that debris caution or whatever during the race, but it was nice to see the race actually got to play out.”

Stewart chided the Joe Gibbs Racing cars for trying to get NASCAR to throw a debris caution after pitting, calling it “gamesmanship” on their part.

“They’re smart; they know how to play the game,” Stewart said of JGR calling for the caution. “I’m glad NASCAR didn’t bite on that one today.”

3. Strategy race

One of the great things about Sonoma — and there are many — is even if the race goes green for an entire half of the event, that doesn’t mean it’s boring.

In addition to the curbs and esses and hills and hairpin turn, the strategy makes the race enjoyable. Unpredictable is a positive thing in racing, and Sonoma certainly fits that description. It’s why only one active driver — Kyle Busch — has more than one win here.

The stages only added to the strategy this year. Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said he agonized over it in the nights leading up to the race.

“It’s been trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do, how many tires do we have laying in the pits, when should we pit, when should we not, do we go after the playoff points in the first stage or do we not or do we pit early,” he said.

That certainly enhances the viewing experience, because it jumbles the field and creates different leaders (there were a race record 10 on Sunday, along with a record 13 lead changs) with all the various strategies.

“I had no earthly idea what was going on,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I passed so many cars. I don’t even know what strategy won. It was very difficult to know what was going on from inside the car. I would assume that caused a lot of great viewing and entertainment that was fun to watch, but I had no clue what was going on out there.”

4. Hang up on the ringers

For all the talk about road ringers, the Cup regulars shined once again. These heavy, bulky stock cars are very difficult to drive and require some level of mastery that someone parachuting into the series can’t match.

Every driver in the top 10 — Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray — was someone you would expect to see run in that spot on any NASCAR track.

The highest-finishing driver who might be a surprise was Michael McDowell, who finished 14th — but he’s 26th in points and drives these cars every week (and won an Xfinity road race). A driver with a road racing background can definitely shine more than an oval (like AJ Allmendinger) — but not unless they are used to the cars.

The ringer results on Sunday weren’t all that impressive. Road racer Billy Johnson — fresh off Le Mans — finished 22nd in the No. 43 car. Boris Said finished 29th, Alon Day was 32nd, Kevin O’Connell 33rd, Tommy Regan 34th and Josh Bilicki 36th.

Granted, those drivers weren’t in great equipment — but it still shows a racer with Cup experience would be a better bet for road course substitute duty than a driver who hasn’t had much stock car seat time.

5. More bad luck for Kahne

With all the SAFER barriers at tracks these days, it’s a bit of a shock when a car has a hard hit with a concrete wall. But that’s what happened to Kasey Kahne on the last lap of the Sonoma race following contact with Kevin O’Connell — who was two laps down.

I caught up with Kahne after the race when he visited his team — and destroyed car — in the garage. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin also arrived to check on Kahne and survey the damage.

“No. 15 (O’Connell), we were going down the frontstretch taking the white flag and he turned left and went to my (inside),” Kahne told me. “Then I was going to his right and like right before we got to the corner, he just turned right into me and just shot me into the wall.

“It was weird what he was doing. I hope something broke on his car, but I’m not sure it did.”

Kahne acknowledged he was shaken after the hit but said he started to feel better following the ambulance ride to the track’s medical center.

“My right shoulder and right side took all the impact,” he said. “I feel good now, but I’ll be sore tomorrow. That was a pretty good shot.”

It’s just more misfortune for Kahne, who seems to have something go wrong for him every week. He ended up finishing 24th after the crash, but before that he had fresh tires late in the race and enough speed to pass eventual winner Harvick and unlap himself.

Kahne is 21st in the standings — 122 behind Clint Bowyer, who is the current cutoff on points thanks to the variety of different winners this season.

Kasey Kahne explains his last-lap crash to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin after the Sonoma race. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

Someone at FOX Sports has big balls

Television broadcasting is hard. REALLY hard.

The professionals make it look easy, but it takes true talent to be able to think of something, make that something come out of your mouth without tripping over your words and then actually provide insight — all while some producer is giving instructions in your earpiece.

So when FOX Sports turns over its entire Xfinity Series broadcast at Pocono to a bunch of amateurs, it’s going to be must-see TV.

Now, these aren’t just any amateurs — they’re experts in their field — but FOX’s concept is a fascinating experiment. From the booth to pit road to the Hollywood Hotel, all of the “talent” will be active Cup drivers.

These drivers all have experience in front of the camera, which definitely makes a difference. It’s not like they’re going to be blankly staring into your TV.

But still, they’re going to struggle with all the things required of a professional. Getting to a commercial without leaving too much dead air? Throwing from one reporter to another on pit road? Setting up a replay?

It could be a total mess. Or it could be one of the best and most enjoyable broadcasts in years.

Either way, you sort of have to tune in, right?

It’s fun to picture Kevin Harvick as a play-by-play guy, trying to wrangle Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano as analysts. Then there will be Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones trying to describe pit stops and interview wrecked drivers. And Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin will make small talk in the Hollywood Hotel while keeping the show moving.

That’s the plan, anyway. How exactly is this all going to work? I’m as curious as anyone — and I can’t wait to see what happens. My guess is a lot of viewers feel the same way.

So nice move, FOX. We’ll be watching.