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.

News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car

What happened: William Byron, age 19, will be named as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car starting in 2018, according to (in order of reporting) SportsBusiness Journal, SBNation.com and Motorsport.com. The team has not officially announced the move (and I haven’t personally confirmed it, but I don’t doubt those who have). Byron, who grew up playing NASCAR video games but did not start racing until five years ago, will replace Kasey Kahne, whose departure from Hendrick was announced Monday. The racing prodigy is currently a rookie in the Xfinity Series, where he is second in points with three wins for JR Motorsports — this following his seven wins last season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.

What it means: The face of Hendrick Motorsports has been dramatically altered in the last few years. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (combined 137 Cup victories) have been replaced with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron (combined zero Cup victories), who have an average age of 21.3. Byron will now be a full-time Cup driver after just one year each in Trucks and Xfinity — and that seems like an awfully quick move, similar to the rapid ascents of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Byron is unquestionably talented, but it would have been nice to see him run another full season of Xfinity before getting promoted to Cup — something even Jimmie Johnson indicated last month. “At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up,” Johnson told a small group of reporters at New Hampshire. “If you look back at past history, like a Joey Logano scenario, it just takes time. I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. … I think I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put in. They’re super talented, it’s just a lot of pressure to put on those guys.”

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even if Byron was the likely replacement after the team said Kahne was out, it’s still quite noteworthy that Hendrick continues to use young and relatively inexperienced drivers to fill its seasons considering veteran drivers like Matt Kenseth are on the free agent market. It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick was the most sought-after destination for established drivers who had already won many races. Now the seats are being snatched up by drivers who are unproven at the Cup level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shed some light on why this might be the case for Silly Season in general, and it makes sense again in this scenario.

Three questions: Can Byron continue to immediately adapt and win at the next level, as he has done in each series along the way up the ladder? Since it turned out OK for Logano and Larson in the long run, what are the real risks of moving him up too soon? Who will replace Byron at JRM now that he will be vacating a championship-caliber seat in the Xfinity Series?

Related: Here are my 12 Questions interviews with Byron from 2016 and from 2017.

 

The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway…

1. Lesson learned

Remember two weeks ago at Dover, when FOX foreshadowed Kyle Larson screwing up his chance to win on a late-race restart before losing to Jimmie Johnson? Larson’s lack of closing ability was starting to dog him to the point where his failures were becoming predictable late in the race. And that’s the sort of thing that really messes with some drivers.

“You always kind of have in the back of your mind all the races you lost on restarts,” Larson said Sunday.

Fortunately for Larson, he was able to close out a race when he needed to — and that shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of his confidence. If Larson has learned from those situations and has now adapted to the point where the can convert those opportunities to wins, then the rest of the field should be pretty nervous.

Larson is a title contender, no doubt. However, there remains plenty of room for him to improve before the fall. He’s won three races in a row on the 2-mile ovals — August Michigan 2016, Fontana 2017 and Sunday at Michigan again — but those are his only three career wins.

Given his talent level, Larson can and should expect more. The next item on the agenda is to win on a smaller oval to start building momentum for the playoffs.

2. Fountain of Youth

NASCAR now has had young drivers win three of the last four races, with Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney winning for the first time and Larson winning for the third. In addition, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s first win was only five weeks ago.

It’s been an exciting time for NASCAR to have such a surge of energy and enthusiasm from its victory lane winners, and now the sport just needs these fresh faces to keep winning. Victories by Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and perhaps Daniel Suarez all seem possible in the next couple months.

And that’s the best thing NASCAR can hope for right now. No matter who the driver is, the same face in victory lane always seems to get old quickly. It’s the whole sense of, “Ugh, that guy again.”

It’s not that fans don’t like greatness, but any form of racing is the most fun when you have no idea who is going to win. That’s been the case lately, and it’s helped build a relatively positive vibe as the midseason lull in the schedule approaches.

3. Delete debris

Debris cautions remain one of NASCAR’s great frustrations for both fans and drivers. Officials would do themselves a favor by really making this a priority before the playoffs begin in a few months.

Late-race cautions of any kind can dramatically alter the race, as was the case at Michigan when a caution came out with 20 laps to go. The official reason was “Debris Frontstretch,” although it was never shown to viewers (at least that I saw).

After the debris caution, there were two more cautions for crashes involving a total of six cars — three of them under the Stewart-Haas Racing banner. So it’s no wonder team owner Tony Stewart was frustrated by the initial caution.

“It’s a shame that so many drivers and teams day (sic) was ruined by the results of another ‘debris’ caution towards the end of the race today,” he tweeted.


“Debris” was in quotes, which isn’t much of a hidden message. But is he wrong? If NASCAR isn’t more transparent about why it calls debris cautions, these questions will persist.

Officials have said in the past they can’t always show the debris because sometimes a driver has either hit it or it moved after it was initially spotted. With all the technology available today, though, you’d think it would be in NASCAR’s best interest to make sure it works with FOX or NBC to show what its officials are apparently seeing — or at least tell the viewers what the debris was. And if the TV cameras are unable to find it, was the debris really worth a caution?

That leads to another point: NASCAR continues to need to get more consistent on why it calls for these yellows. There was a debris caution for a plastic bag on the track on lap 7 — but not one for a cowboy hat on the track later in the race. And was the final debris caution worth it? We don’t know.

Until this is resolved, fans and drivers will continue to take a cynical view of how NASCAR calls a race — which is most likely a disservice to the officials who really are trying to be fair.

4. Joe Gibbs Racing is going to be OK

Through 15 races, the dominant team of the last two seasons has yet to reach victory lane. That seemed crazy after five races, let alone 10 and now 15. Heck, there are only 11 races left until the playoffs start.

But the Joe Gibbs Racing cars are clearly improved from their early-season struggles, so we shouldn’t wait until one wins to declare the team is “back.”

Just look at Kyle Busch. The increasingly frustrated driver has led at least 19 laps in each of the last six races (and 40 or more in five of those), where he only reached double digits in laps led during three of the first nine events.

Similarly, Denny Hamlin has finished 12th or better in seven of the last eight races — but did that in only two of the first seven events.

So the JGR cars are qualifying better, running closer to the front and generally showing up with better performances. Yeah, the team might still have some gains to make, but let’s not pretend it’s as far off as it was a few months ago.

5. Apps are amazing

I watched the Michigan race with a group of NASCAR fans in the Portland area, and three people were using NASCAR RaceView on their phones to follow the race. Two were listening to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s audio and watching his progress and another was doing the same for Kasey Kahne.

Each of them knew when a caution was out before it aired on TV and they were generally more informed about the progress of the race than anyone else — even those of us scrolling through Twitter.

Forgive my ignorance, but these apps must have apparently come a long way in the last couple years. I used to occasionally use Sprint Cup Mobile when I wasn’t at the track, but the radio chatter was so far behind the actual race that I gave up after while. Apparently I need to try again because these days, the apps seem to have made enough progress to really be relied upon as a second screen.

Of course, this gives people another reason to not watch the actual race on TV — they can go anywhere and use these apps if needed, just like Twitter — but as long as they’re still engaged in the sport, perhaps that’s what matters to NASCAR.