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 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.

Monte Dutton: Money Can’t Buy Love, But It Works Pretty Well With Speed

By Monte Dutton

Resistance is futile. Martin Truex Jr.’s season is a wildfire, out of control, fueled by drought conditions elsewhere.

The Bank of America 500 came down to an overtime finish matching the indomitable Truex against a host of NASCAR immortals — genuine, would-be and arriving soon — who didn’t have a chance.

Denny Hamlin, who started the Charlotte Motor Speedway autumn race on the pole, said that where speed was concerned, Truex had it — and has it every week — in reserve, with whipped cream and cherries on top.

Truex’s sixth victory of the season was an excellent time to make that argument. Truex qualified 17th on Friday. Only twice — both times on plate tracks where it doesn’t much matter — has he qualified worse. Seventeen times Truex has started on the front two rows.

Many observers, including virtually all those who describe races electronically, thought Truex starting 17th suggested a certain susceptibility to grim defeat. More likely, he was just having a little fun.

Cole Pearn, the unassuming crew chief, said they sure messed up in qualifying and added that it was evidence of “how close everyone is.” He couldn’t keep his face completely straight.

Say whaaaaaaaaaaat?

A lot of the Truex case has been tagged as evidence for how far away everyone else is. On the two laps noted for a green, a white, and a checkered flag, Truex’s Camry laid close to a second (.911) on Chase Elliott, and even young Elliott couldn’t beat himself up too much for that.

Yeah, I mean, it’s nice to run in the top five solidly,” Elliott, who has done it two weeks in a row and three of the last four. “Obviously, you hate to run second because that means you were close to first, but hopefully we’ll have our day sometime.”

In two late-race restarts, Truex’s Toyota took off as if it were a blue streak. On second thought, it was a blue streak.

If the season has a mystery regarding Truex, Pearn, Barney Visser, Denver, Colo., and Furniture Row, it is why hasn’t the team won 16 races instead of six?

The winner’s press conference seemed ridiculous. Most of the questions asked what made the team so strong, and most of the answers were because of how great the competition was. The question may have many answers, but that one isn’t it.

For what it’s worth, the answers to all questions regarding strength — by Truex, Toyota, the team, the State of Colorado — are not to be found in the conspiracy files, either. The grapes of Ford and Chevy wrath are sour. The overwhelming reason for Toyota supremacy in NASCAR, circa 2017, is not that NASCAR’s best and brightest have been paid off. Nor is it that its engineers are double-aught spies from the Organization Formerly Known as the KGB.

A NASCAR legend named Banjo Matthews, now looking down from heaven at Toyota with serenity, is associated with a slogan: “Money buys speed. How fast you want to go?”

The Toyota answer: Pretty damned fast. In NASCAR, the way one tells that a company has barely limited money is when said company says it doesn’t. It’s the same principle as chalking up a football team’s 59-0 victory to the incredible level of the opponent’s “athleticism.”

In modern-day NASCAR, points don’t mean much, but it doesn’t look bad on a resume that Truex has led them 13 weeks in a row.

Know what? Strip away the high level of pontification that often accompanies press-conference questions, and Truex is a straight shooter. Six victories, given his and his team’s performance week after week, from the high banks of Talladega to the flat concrete curves of Martinsville, are damned near the Marty Truex minimum.

“We could have won 10 or so,” Truex said. “That’s a realistic number. Winning six seems ridiculous, though. You don’t worry about the ones that got away.”

No. That’s Chase Elliott’s role. His day will come. At age 37, Truex knows some things that Elliott doesn’t  at age 21.

Editor’s Note: Longtime racing journalist Monte Dutton covered the Charlotte race for this website. If you’re interested in more of his racing-related work, check out his novels “Lightning in a Bottle” and its sequel “Life Gets Complicated.”

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Dover International Speedway…

1. Learning from the best

Chase Elliott often beats himself up even after a good day, so coughing up a lead of more than four seconds over the final 60 laps left him understandably devastated.

After pulling onto pit road, Elliott took his helmet off and covered his face with his hands while sitting in his car. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson quickly arrived in hopes of letting Elliott vent a few curse words without the cameras around, and the two chatted for several long minutes — though the seven-time champ acknowledged there was little he could say in the way of comfort.

Elliott, who now has five career runner-up finishes without a victory, said Busch “did a better job than I did” and cited his “lack of performance” and “failure” in executing.

It might be painful for Elliott fans to hear this, but he’s right: This is big-time auto racing, and Elliott didn’t deliver when it really counted. People can feel bad for him and tell him not to beat himself up so much — and he’s certainly a sympathetic figure after several heartbreaks. But the reality is he got schooled by the best in the game.

Johnson said he told Elliott the Dover race is typically won by sticking to the bottom of the track. That’s the case 95 percent of the time, Johnson said, and “lapped traffic probably played a bigger role in it than anything” for Elliott.

But that wasn’t the whole story. Because as the leader approached, Busch later said, Elliott needed to change his line.

“When you are Chase and you have been leading for that long and you’ve lost that amount of distance to the car behind you, you’ve got to move around,” Busch said in response to a question about what Elliott could have done differently. “You can’t give up four seconds of the lead and not do something else. I feel like that’s kind of where they lost it today.

“I don’t know if he was getting communication from his spotter or his crew chief or somebody just saying ‘Stick to the bottom, stick with what has got you to this point,’ but that was obviously bad advice. He should have moved around and searched for something and tried to pick off cars and traffic as quickly as possible.”

Again, we can all tiptoe around the facts because they’re uncomfortable and people want Elliott (who got some of the loudest cheers in driver introductions) to succeed and be a regular winner on the circuit. And he may very well become that, but races like Sunday will serve as painful lessons on his road to success.

“The best guys at these type of tracks aren’t scared to move around, even if they’re making decent lap time,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. “You’re not going to pass the guy if you’re running in his tire tracks, so you have to be able to move and find something different.”

2. Don’t hate the player, hate the game

Speaking of lapped traffic, no one should be upset at Ryan Newman for holding up Elliott in the final laps. Newman was two points short of advancing to the next round and raced his guts out in an attempt to get in position to make up spots — should something happen in the final laps.

So expecting him to suddenly pay a courtesy to the leader in that situation, especially since Newman always races hard, just isn’t reasonable.

In that regard, Jeff Gordon’s comment to Newman after the race that resulted in a minor incident was unfortunate — but understandable given the emotion of the situation.

Gordon, despite being a FOX Sports broadcaster, is still heavily invested in Hendrick and the No. 24 team. So he apparently couldn’t help himself in the immediate aftermath of Elliott’s loss (Gordon said something sarcastic along the lines of “thanks for the help”).

Naturally, Newman didn’t appreciate the comment.

“You don’t think I was racing for my own position?” Newman said. “Just watch what you say, man.”

Gordon tried to defuse the situation by saying Newman took his words the wrong way.

“You said it as a smartass,” Newman said.

Newman was right to object to the statement, and I’m guessing Gordon felt bad. The two later made up in the garage, according to tweets from writer John Haverlin, so it’s just another moment that can be chalked up to the emotion of an elimination-style playoff.

3. Quick sand

What’s the fastest way to make up ground in a crucial playoff race? Well, one way is to stay out and hope for a fluke caution.

That’s what happened to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. during Stage 1. He was one of five cars that had yet to pit when Jeffrey Earnhardt spun out coming to Dover’s tricky pit road and nailed the sand barrels, causing a red flag.

That trapped all cars a lap down with the exception of those five — and it turned out to be a huge benefit for Stenhouse.

Just like that, Stenhouse went from seven points out of the cutoff line for Round 1 to more than 30 points in the clear. And by being able to having good track position for the rest of the stage, Stenhouse was able to finish fourth and gain seven stage points — something his rivals Austin Dillon and Newman weren’t able to get.

Ultimately, he advanced by less than the amount of those stage points — meaning that was a pivotal playoff moment.

“The feeling is lucky, really,” Stenhouse said.

He’s right, but in a survive-and-advance format, sometimes that can make all the difference.

By the way, Stenhouse’s good fortune could give him an opportunity that goes beyond just making it to Round 2. Talladega is the middle race of this round, and Stenhouse has won the most recent two plate races. What an upset it would be if he could be among the final eight drivers this season.

4. Saying goodbye

None of the four cars eliminated — Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne or Kurt Busch — were serious title contenders, so their departure isn’t much of a surprise.

Even though the Richard Childress Racing cars finished ahead of them in the round, Kahne and Busch were probably the two who most people would have had advancing based on the strength of their teams. I actually predicted Kahne would make a mini playoff run after getting a fresh start following his Indy win, but it wasn’t to be.

Busch is probably the most puzzling of all. He started off by winning the Daytona 500 but never was much of a factor after that despite Stewart-Haas Racing having decent speed with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

“Winning the Daytona 500, you always see the jinx that happens afterwards,” he said. “We experienced it. There’s a lot that goes on with it. My car never had the handle in it this year; I was always loose in, tight on exit.

“I don’t know why we had that so bad this year.”

It’s definitely weird and hard to explain, as Busch’s average finish declined from 12.0 last year to 16.2 so far this season.

5. Who’s the favorite?

Three Chevrolets and one Ford were eliminated from playoff contention, leaving each manufacturer with four cars remaining.

There are four Toyotas (Truex, Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth), four Chevrolets (Kyle Larson, Johnson, Elliott and Jamie McMurray) and four Fords (Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Stenhouse and Ryan Blaney).

Truex remains the favorite, of course, but Busch has now gained 10 playoff points on the No. 78 car in the last two races. He’s now just 18 behind, which could come into play if the teams have to race for the last spot in Round 3.

Honestly, it’s hard to predict and I’m just as unsure about who has the championship edge as I was when the playoffs started three weeks ago.

My pre-playoff picks included Truex, Busch, Larson and Hamlin — with Busch as the champ. So I guess I’ll stick with that for now, although it seems to be constantly changing.

“Week to week, you can probably change your favorite,” Busch said. “Early on the first third of the race, I probably would have said Larson is your new championship favorite. But you’ve got to let these things play out.

“I still think it’s 78, 18, 42 — and there’s different distances between us every week, depending on how we run and what all kind of goes on.”

There’s still so much left to be decided, and now it gets a bit more intense as Round 2 begins.