The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR championship race at Homestead

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway…

1. Judging worthiness

After a season dominated by three drivers whose appearance in the final race seemed inevitable, it was someone else who ultimately won the NASCAR title.

For many fans, accepting Joey Logano as champion may be difficult — not only because he’s irked them over the years, but because he wasn’t the best car of the season.

Logano was tied for fourth in wins, fourth in top-fives, fourth in laps led and tied for third in average finish. Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch won eight races apiece and Busch ended up with the best average finish of any driver since 2007 — but finished fourth in points.

I’m not here to make the case for Logano as the Driver of the Year. He wasn’t. And that’s despite scoring the most points in the 10-race playoff, which might have won the title under the previous Chase format.

But the bottom line is this: Logano IS a worthy champion in 2018. And by that I mean he did everything required of him in this format, as did Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick (two wins as opposed to Christopher Bell’s seven).

They were great when it counted. And that’s what matters these days.

You may not like it or get nostalgic about the days of a season-long title race ensuring the best driver and team win, but Logano checked every box required of a champ these days.

He won the three times when it mattered — once to lock himself into the playoffs, once to advance to Homestead and once to win the championship. He went up against the best competition, beating the toughest field in the five-year history of the winner-take-all race. And he produced in the clutch, passing Busch and Martin Truex Jr. after the final restart.

That’s what it takes these days. Busch sharply said the most successful season of his life — with eye-popping stats! — was “all for naught.” And you know what? He’s right. It doesn’t matter in this era, which rewards great timing over great seasons.

No, Logano didn’t have the resume of a traditional champion. He even said if you asked 20 weeks ago, he would have said making the final eight was the goal.

But there’s not much traditional about NASCAR in 2018, if you haven’t noticed. It’s probably best to accept that for the sake of enjoying the sport. And if you’re holding on to the hope for a return to tradition, I’ve got news for you: Things are only going to change more in the years to come.

2. Logano as champ

In some ways, Logano is the perfect champion for NASCAR to sell to the masses.

He’s an aggressive racer on the track but one of the nicest, most giving guys off it. He’s wholesome and family-friendly. He’s personable and a Millennial.

The only problem is…the majority of NASCAR fans don’t like him! He received more boos than Kyle Busch several times this season, which is saying a lot. And that impression isn’t about to change now that he’s champion, so it’s sort of a lost cause to try and sell him to current fans. But perhaps NASCAR could use him to appeal to the casual fan rather than the hardcore fan who he’s already offended by clashing with their favorite drivers.

Either way, there’s a lot more to come for Logano. Jimmie Johnson didn’t win his first championship until he was 30. Logano is 28 and has 10 years of experience plus a title and 21 wins under his belt.

I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say Logano will win at least three championships and 30 more races before he’s done. Fans might need to quietly jump on the bandwagon while there’s still room, lest they risk having to watch a driver they can’t stomach continue to rack up trophies at the expense of their preferred racer.

3. Keselowski’s caution

When asked directly if he thought Brad Keselowski intentionally caused a caution to benefit Logano late in the race, Truex crew chief Cole Pearn didn’t outright dismiss the notion.

“It’s possible, for sure,” he said. “Who knows? Whatever. It is what it is.”

Keselowski made contact with Daniel Suarez while they were part of a near-four-wide situation, sending Suarez spinning. At the time, Logano was last among the playoff contenders and it looked like Truex was en route to winning the title.

Pearn wasn’t the only one in the garage who considered the possibility of some funny business with that caution. But I’ll be honest: I can’t see it.

When the caution happened, it was Busch — not Logano — who seemed to benefit the most. Busch needed that caution on his desperate pit strategy and that moment appeared to put him in position for a championship.

So do you really think Keselowski would have caused a caution that could have made a champ out of his rival? I don’t.

4. Going Home

Despite the lack of cautions for the first two and a half races of the weekend, Homestead-Miami Speedway is easily the best intermediate track in NASCAR. If only they could all be that way, right?

If they were, NASCAR probably wouldn’t be going to the extreme step it’s taking with the 2019 rules package. Whatever we’ll see next year, it’s a good bet it won’t look much like what we saw Sunday.

Like a lot of you, I’m worried about what the future holds with the racing. Was this the last “real” championship race? I’ll wait and see before judging.

But if I’m going to look back on this pre-pack-racing era in a few years or read this in 2023, I’d like my future self to remember this: The racing was great and thrilling at times, but not often enough. The cars and the tires and the track surfaces could occasionally combine to put on a good show, but not always.

That said, it felt like the drivers who won in this era were rising to the top based on their talent more than luck or chance. It felt like we were witnessing greatness. I’m worried we won’t have that same confidence about drivers of the future because of the rules package.

5. NASCAR is entertainment

This has seemed like a dark year in the world and in our country. It’s tough to turn on the news without feeling depressed about the latest bad story and it seems like we’re increasingly divided as Americans.

Oddly, that’s an opportunity for NASCAR. That’s because this is entertainment, the chance to escape all the crap that drains our energy in real life. NASCAR can be something that brings us together and makes us feel good, which would benefit everyone.

But NASCAR has yet to successfully take advantage of that fact, because there’s an endless cycle of negativity around NASCAR itself. And so often it seems self-inflicted, which is maddening.

From headline-stealing penalties to the dumb controversy of the week to any variety of off-track news, NASCAR seems like it can’t get out of its own way sometimes. If you can’t tell, I feel exhausted by it.

My wish for the future is NASCAR figures out a way to make this sport fun again. The drivers too often seem miserable, the teams upset, the media (myself included) overly critical, the fans angry. There doesn’t seem to be much joy about what goes on in this series.

And that’s a shame. Because as much as the ratings have fallen or attendance has slid, there’s STILL a lot of good things happening here. NASCAR should be uplifting, not a downer for the people who love it and invest time in it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If anyone has ideas on how to break that vicious cycle, let me know. I’m listening.

NASCAR fan follows Cup Series circuit for full season

Contessa Nyree made it to Homestead-Miami Speedway, her 37th Cup Series weekend of the season. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

After nearly 12 years, Contessa Nyree decided she had enough of being a lawyer in Manhattan. Mentally and physically exhausted by the job, Nyree saved up enough money to temporarily walk away from both the working world and New York — with enough in her bank account for an adventure or two.

Nyree eventually moved out of her 400-square-foot apartment, sold her furniture, packed all of her remaining belongings in an 8-by-10-foot storage unit and hit the road with two suitcases.

Her destination? Every track — and almost every race — on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit in 2018.

With the exception of the fall Richmond race (which she skipped to attend her godson’s baptism in Wisconsin), Nyree attended 37 Cup Series events this season — as well as the companion Xfinity/Truck Series races at those tracks and the Eldora Truck race.

She did it all on her own dime, receiving no freebies, discounts or extras from NASCAR or any of the tracks.

“I’m really happy I did it,” Nyree said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “It’s been an awesome trip. And not only the tracks, but I got to visit places like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls for the first time. There’s a lot of cool things to see in our country.”

Nyree drove to the majority of the races in a used 2015 Toyota Prius she purchased after leaving New York (there’s no reason to own a car in the city, after all). She estimates between the Prius and the cars she rented on the few trips that required flights, she drove approximately 40,000 miles.

There were times when she questioned herself, as well as some long and lonely days on the road. She spent her 40th birthday in September flying from Indianapolis to Las Vegas for the first playoff race.

It could be very tiring,” she said. “Not only the actual driving, but doing the planning, making sure I have my race tickets, have my hotels, where am I going to eat? You’re responsible for every single bit of your day, but without a base. Doing it while not having a home right now was difficult.”

“But then I’d go to the race weekends. I love the sport and I enjoy being at the racetrack. That would bring me back to, ‘This is why I’m doing it.'”

There were also a few headaches along the way, like when a few tracks sent tickets to her brother’s home in Wisconsin — currently her legal address — instead of leaving them at will call. But for the most part, the trip went smoothly.

Though she’s been a fan since 2005 — she cheered for Tony Stewart until his retirement, when she became a fan of Wood Brothers Racing — Nyree said she’ll remember much more than just the races themselves.

When I think back to any race weekend, it’s the random race fans you sit and talk with,” she said. “As fans, we all sit down and talk to each other — whoever is next to you to eat or in the stands. And you might not get their name or see them again, but you can talk racing.

“I’ll remember my experiences at the track more than anything, like my first time in the Neon Garage in Vegas or last weekend at ISM — their infield is amazing from a fan perspective.”

Although doing such a trip was expensive — particularly without any income — Nyree said traveling to races is more possible than many fans think because “there are ways to do it cheaper without feeling cheap.”

Her tips for fans include staying 45-60 minutes from the track (she said most of her hotels this season were under $150 per night) and looking for deals on the track’s websites (she would purchase her tickets anywhere from two months to two weeks out from the race).

So what’s next? Nyree is not sure what 2019 holds, but she has one more stop on her NASCAR tour before the year ends: Champions Week in Las Vegas.

“I’ve traveled from Feb. 6 until now,” she said. “I can’t not do Vegas.”

12 Questions with Landon Cassill (2018)

For the 37th and final time in 2018, a driver answers the same 12 Questions from this weekly interview segment. And for the seventh year in a row, Landon Cassill occupies the last-but-not-least position. As a note, Cassill helped refine the questions before the season in hopes of making sure they were driver-worthy. Now it’s Cassill’s turn to answer them.

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

The funny thing is, I have this belief about dreams:  Nobody cares about your dreams. Isn’t that the truth? Like, I do this to my friends and I do it to my wife. She’ll start telling me, “I had the craziest dream last night,” and I immediately go, “I don’t care.” I don’t give a shit. I don’t care about your dream. But you know how people are with telling their dreams, they continue to tell their dreams anyway. So the entire time I just continue to respond with, “I don’t care about your dream. I really don’t care.”

Just right off the bat.

I just don’t care. I don’t care.

But people will go, “Hey, damn, the craziest thing happened last night, I was here…”

…I don’t care. Your mother was there, but it wasn’t your mother, it was actually your aunt.

And you’re just like, “Sorry.”

And she was talking to you, but her lips weren’t moving, and it was insane. Yeah, I don’t care.

It’s kind of like when somebody tells you about their fantasy football team.

I don’t care. I don’t care about your fantasy football team.

Like, “Dude, I have these three receivers!”

I don’t care. Sorry. You drafted Jason Witten and you shouldn’t have because whatever…I don’t care.

So you approved this question to be on the 12 Questions, basically, and you endorsed it — and yet you don’t care about it.

Well, I feel like the answer to my question was good content. So isn’t that why we’re here? We’re here about the content.

But I will tell you the recurring racing dream that I have had my entire life.

I don’t care.

Exactly. That’s the point. Nobody cares. But since you asked the question, I’m going answer it.

I don’t know how often I have racing dreams, but I do have one recurring racing dream, and it is actually a footrace. I’m at the racetrack and the starting lineup with the rest of the competitors and it’s a 300-lap race, but I’m running. And I’m running in a tight circle. It’s not a big track either; I’m not like running a marathon. It’s like a tight little footrace and I’m elbowing people out of the way.

Like, “Oh my God, there’s Jimmie.”

Yeah, I’m like elbowing him, chicken-winging. So my recurring racing dream is that it’s a footrace.

2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?

I don’t think it should matter. I don’t typically get into all that. I think it’s stupid to do the texting the Monday after. Sometimes I’ll converse with other drivers afterwards and just be like, “I didn’t mean to get into you that one lap.” But when I hit people or they hit me, in my opinion, it’s racing and I don’t take it personally and I think other people shouldn’t take it personally.

It blows me away how we go to places like Martinsville and then we get mad at each other for running into each other. It’s like, what did you expect? I mean at Martinsville, I hit J.J. Yeley for three laps in a row and I really wasn’t intentionally hitting him — I was just trying to run really close to him because I was faster than him and I wanted to get as close as possible to him so I could stick my nose in and get the position. And my splitter was hitting under braking and the car wasn’t driving really perfect, so I kept bumping into him.

And he started flipping me off. He was starting to get mad at me, and I’m just like, “Just get over it.” And I haven’t even talked to him about it, because it doesn’t matter. I wasn’t gonna text him after the race. So the whole texting and apologizing, I think it’s stupid.

3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?

I don’t know. I don’t know.

You approved these questions!

I did. What is the best compliment someone could give you? That’s actually a good question because you’re causing me to actually seek into my…like what is my vanity, what approval am I seeking from society?

So the subtext of this question is whether somebody is going to give a racing answer — which many have this year — or is somebody going to give an answer about, “Oh, I wanna be a great dad,” or whatever, which many have as well.

My mind instantly went to racing, like what do I like to hear from people. It always makes me feel good when people are just like, “Gosh, I don’t know how you did that.” That’s a compliment. Doesn’t matter if it’s your qualifying lap or how good you are on old tires: “I don’t understand how you do that. How are you so good on long runs?” Or “How are you just able to bust off a lap every time?” I feel like that’s a great compliment. As opposed to saying, “Oh, he’s good at this kind of thing.” Just someone just (saying they) don’t understand how you’re able to accomplish what you accomplish. That’s a compliment, that’s pretty nice, that makes you feel good because it makes you feel like, “Oh, that comes natural.”

4. NASCAR comes to you and says they’re bringing a celebrity to the track and they want you to host them. Who is a celebrity you’d be excited to host?

I’d like to bring Kanye to a race.

Oh my goodness. That’d be very interesting. Like would he go on rants? A lot of times they bring celebrities onto the pre-race stage where the microphone is nearby and you guys shake their hand as you come off the stage. Would Kanye be standing there and like get on the mic and start addressing the crowd and going off on a rant?

Yeah. Like if he was like a grand marshal or something like that or spoke at the driver’s meeting, yeah that would be good.

Or Donald Trump. It’d be cool to have Trump at a race. He would be the team guest, we’d just see how polarizing the fans — if they enjoy it or not.

The problem with that is — and I wasn’t around when President Bush came — but a lot of people told me about the security nightmare that day, because like the Secret Service makes you go through so much to get in and out of the garage, to get into the media center, get in the parking lots. So that’s a whole headache in itself.

I think President Trump as a guest spending time at a NASCAR race would be a headache for Secret Service because Trump would strike me as a person that would just like to go off and do his (own thing) — like he would see a car in the garage and go, “Oh, I gotta go check that out,” and then all of them are like, “That’s not part of the schedule, he’s not supposed to be going there.” That would be interesting.

5. I’m going to have to completely flip this question around for you because the question I’ve been asking all year is, “In an effort to show this is a health-conscious sport, NASCAR decides to offer the No. 1 pit stall selection for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for one month. Would you do it?” But you are a vegan, or last I checked. 

Yes.

So obviously you would do it. So I guess the question is, for you, would you go off vegan for a month to get the No. 1 pit stall?

For one race?

For one race.

Absolutely not.

You wouldn’t do it?

No. Not even close. Nope.

Because that would just mess you up or because you’re just opposed to it?

I just have no interest in eating meat. Yeah. I don’t know.

I feel like it’s really hard to live the vegan lifestyle.

Now there’s always that debate of everything has a price, right? So it starts with the No. 1 pit stall. But if it was, “You get to have Cole Pearn as your crew chief for a year” or ” “You make the playoffs…” Or “Would you trade a Daytona 500 trophy to be able to eat meat for a month?” That raises the stakes. But that wasn’t your question. For a No. 1 pit stall, I’m out.

You’re traveling, you’re on the road all the time, and yet you’re able to keep this up — no dairy, no meat. That seems really hard.

It’s gotten a lot easier, ever since I started eating a plant-based diet. And really, the easiest default for me is to find a Whole Foods or a health food store. There’s places in Scranton, Pennsylvania that don’t have a Whole Foods and you would think, “Oh man, where am I gonna eat vegan there?” And there’s this fantastic health food store in Scranton, I go there and stock up every time I go. I’ve been vegan for five years now, and it’s gotten easier since I’ve even started.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I’ve picked a random race from your career and you have to tell me where you finished. I’m going 10 years back for this one. However, the tradeoff for this is you were in a good car at the time, maybe you remember, it was your JR Motorsports days driving in the Xfinity Series. This is the 2008 Xfinity race at IRP.

I got a top-10. I think I finished sixth, maybe. Hang on. That is a special race that stands out to me. As you were describing the question, I was like, “I’m not going to remember,” because I have a horrible memory and I’m not like Mark Martin. First of all, I think Mark makes it up half the time. He goes, “Oh we had a 500 (lb.) right rear spring.” Yeah, whatever Mark. I’m just teasing. (Laughs)

But I think I finished sixth at Gateway the week before, and then at IRP, that race went really well for me because I started running the top, like rim-riding the top in that race. I also ran the Truck race that weekend, but I didn’t run very well in the truck. But I rim-rided in the race and I was really fast, and I either finished like sixth or eighth.

Actually it was seventh.

Yup, sixth or eighth. Got seventh.  (Laughs)

You started 13th. Kyle Busch won this race, you finished right behind Cale Gale and ahead of Joey Logano. This was a good time in your career, and you finished ahead of Logano, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer in this race.

Wow. I was a good driver back then.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

I don’t know who the best rapper alive is, but J. Cole went platinum with no features, so that’s pretty sweet. (Note: It was unclear whether Cassill actually believes this or was saying it because it’s a meme.)

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

It’s probably Kyle Busch.

A lot of people said either Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski this year.

I feel like Brad has a good genuine smile — like not his promo smile, but he’s got a nice smile to him. Kyle — come on, Kyle, he’s just got that (face). Kyle, I’m gonna punch you the next time I see you.

9. NASCAR enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks. Pick one to be your crew chief, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.

I want LeBron to be my crew chief. I think Tom can be the spotter, and Taylor can be the motorhome driver. I like Taylor Swift’s music, my wife likes Taylor Swift’s music, so yeah, she can drive the bus, she can set everything up, she can play with the kids and the wife and we can spend some quality time with her on her downtime.

And I feel like LeBron will be a good leader, a good coach, a good crew chief, and if Tom keeps me entertained up on the spotter’s stand, that would be good.

10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?

Follow Ryan Newman.

Because he’s a blocker, or because he knows where to go?

Because he knows where to go. And because he’s a blocker. He just blasts through the crowd. (Laughs)

The best way to find the pre-race bathroom is I’ve pretty much been doing it long enough at these tracks that I typically know where to go, which ones have buildings and which ones have port-a-potties and where they’re at.

Another good way to do that question would be like, “When do you do your pre-race bathroom break, before or after…?”

Wait a minute. You helped come up with this question and now you’re changing the language in the last one of the year!

Well, you never know until you’re in the heat of the moment on how the question comes across.

This actually got some decent answers this year. Some drivers had secrets.

I don’t know if I have any pre-race bathroom secrets. There is a port-a-potty at Martinsville that nobody knows about that I always go to and there’s never a line. Martinsville has such a tiny infield; the main bathrooms are kind of at the start/finish line, but the cars always line up towards Turns 3 and 4. So there’s one port-a-potty that everybody goes to and there’s always a line with crew guys and drivers and everybody. But there’s one that I go to that is out of sight, and I never have a line. (Smiles)

11. NASCAR misses the highlight reel value brought by the Carl Edwards backflips and decides a replacement is needed. How much money would they have to pay you to backflip off your car following your next win?

If I knew I was going to get a win, then they wouldn’t have to pay me anything. I would just do it for free. I would just train for my backflip. If they can pay my medical bills — I don’t think I’m capable of doing a backflip. I think when I was a kid I was able to do one, like on a trampoline, but I haven’t done a backflip since I was a little kid. So that would take some training.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was with Austin Dillon. His question for you is: If someone sponsored you on the condition that you grow your hair out all the way to your knees, would you wear it that length and keep it that way until you were done racing to keep the sponsor happy?

If I knew I was going to have that sponsor for as long as I have my hair that long, then yeah. That’s just guaranteeing (funding), especially if it’s like a big sponsor. If it was enough money to be really competitive or something like that, yeah, it’d be worth the money.

That’s a lot of hair to tuck into your helmet.

It’s guaranteed. If you’re sitting here saying, “You have a guaranteed career-long sponsor if you had hair down to your butt or knees or whatever,” first of all, I don’t know if my hair could grow that long.

Seems like it’s well on its way some of these days.

Yeah it does. Yeah, I would do it, because from that point on, I would never need to seek sponsorship and we could just build our team and make cars go fast.

Do you have a question I could ask a driver going into next season?

I feel like I’ve had some good questions in the past. It’s hard to back them up.

This is the problem with the actual 12 questions themselves now.

Running out of questions?

Yeah. It’s been nine years.

I feel like the ultimate 12 Questions accomplishment is when one of the driver-submitted questions actually gets on the list to be one of the 12 questions. That’s when you know you’ve made it.

Now that I think about it, and I have to go back and check this, I think I stole one of your questions for this year. I think one of the questions that is on here…now I can’t remember this one. (Note:  This was actually last year, when Cassill’s question “What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?” made the list.)

It’s probably one of the ones that I criticized.

One of the ones I took from last year might have made it on it permanently, and I made you change your question. But you’re right, they sometimes do make it on permanently. A lot of pressure.

It is a lot of pressure. I was thinking something social media related, it depends if your first driver is an active social media driver.

Odds are, yes.

I think my question is, are you thinking about quitting social media? But maybe the follow-up to that question that you have to tell them is, don’t just give me a generic, “Oh yeah, I would love to get off social media.” No, seriously — what will it take to just drop it all, to just put our phones down?

So you feel like the backlash is going to get some drivers at some point to think about, “You know what, why am I on this?” That kind of thing?

Yeah. I go through that sometimes, like, “Why am I spending so much time on my phone?” But we justify it because it’s just like, “Well, that’s part of the job.” Is it? Is it part of the job? It is part of building my fanbase? I don’t know. And then sometimes it feels like, “Oh, maybe my actual life within the confines of my personal space would actually be better if I wasn’t on social media.”

Well the new “Screen Time” thing on iPhones (that shows how many hours you look at your phone)…

Do we have the balls to pull out our Screen Time right now? Get your phone out.

Oh, God. I don’t know…

Get your phone out.

It’s very sobering though. It tells you and you’re like, “Damn. This is not what I wanted to hear.”

Maybe that’s my question. Maybe that’s one of the 12 questions next year, is “Get out your Screen Time.”

“Will you share your Screen Time with us?”

Mine is five hours a day.

I think mine was significantly more than that, recently.  (Cringes)

Really? Well, that’s a guy who probably works even more on your phone. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not. I don’t know.

That’s an excuse, though.

I don’t know. I’ll send you a screenshot of this so you can include it in the article. I spent almost eight hours on Twitter in a week.

(The following images are from Landon’s phone)

It looks like 35 hours of your week was spent on the screen. Not great, probably.

That is not great.

How soon will you let your children have screens? This is what I’m starting to wrestle with already.

I mean, I want them to, because I think they’re gonna live in a software/Internet society, so they need to be savvy. I think one of the best things for me was being Internet-savvy at a young age, spending a lot of time online.

But what are you saying is too much?

I think life would be happier if we didn’t have all that, but I don’t know. But I’m not gonna keep my kids from having technology when technology is what teaches you the skill sets that are important for our future.


Previous 12 Questions interviews with Landon Cassill:

Sept. 1, 2010

April 27, 2011

Nov. 14, 2012

Nov. 12, 2013

Nov.  11, 2014

Nov. 17, 2015

Nov. 15, 2016

Nov. 15, 2017

 

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoff race at ISM Raceway…

1.  Big stage is set

After all the crazy twists of these playoffs, NASCAR ended up with the best four drivers of the season going for the championship.

There are no flukes here. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. have the best average finishes of anyone in the Cup Series this season (in that order). In the traditional/non-playoff point standings, which are still kept by racing-reference.info, those four drivers are also tops in season-long points.

It’s a stout group, and you could make a case for any of them winning the title.

“This is the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time,” Busch said.

There are no newcomers among them, either.  Each contender has been in the final four at least twice — even though this is only the fifth year of its existence. Logano is the least experienced of the contenders — and yet this is his 10th season.

“Three of us have won in the format and all four of us have lost in the format,” Busch said. “Overall, it just comes back to a lot of things having to go your way.”

So what’s going to happen at Homestead? Well, it would be a surprise if the drivers didn’t run 1-2-3-4 for much of the race, and maybe even finish that way.

Harvick though, remains the favorite. It’s a 1.5-mile track and he’s consistently been the fastest off the truck all year. Strange things can happen, as we saw at Phoenix, but the Fords are still better than the Toyotas on intermediate tracks.

So that said, my prediction for the finishing order of this year’s final four is: Harvick-Logano-Busch-Truex.

2. Playoff races raise the game

It’s OK to have a love/hate relationship with this playoff format. There are days when it seems far from the best way to decide an auto racing champion.

But Sunday was not one of those days. The playoff pressure absolutely elevated the Phoenix race and made it far more compelling than it may have been otherwise.

Look at how desperately Aric Almirola was driving at the end. Look at the decisions made by Kurt Busch and his team to try to preserve their points position over Harvick. The whole atmosphere and vibe of the race was dramatically enhanced by the playoffs, and it made for a highly entertaining day.

Yeah, it’s still weird to have one race at a given track decide the season-long winner. On the other hand, it gains credibility when the best drivers all advance — and the addition of playoff points have certainly helped.

“I think the format we have now is the absolutely best scenario we could have when you look at it for the entirety of the year,” Busch said.

3. Smoke’s thoughts

Tony Stewart had his hands full on Sunday. He knew it would be challenging for a team owner — that’s what happens when you have four teammates going for one spot. But he had to step into an extra role as well: Counselor.

As Kurt Busch was having a meltdown on the radio after a tough penalty took  the race lead away and cost him a lap, Stewart intervened and told Busch to take a deep breath. After the race, Stewart consoled Busch with an embrace and words of encouragement — something Busch expressed gratitude for later.

It was if the current Stewart was talking to the racer Stewart from 10 years ago as the voice of reason.

Scary, isn’t it?” Stewart told me after the race. “Got some experience in those situations. I think that helps, at least being in that position. (Kurt is) a good guy. He’s come a long way, but he still gets in those positions where the heat of battle takes over. It’s understandable. That’s why we do what we do.

“Can’t blame him for it. You just know everybody is going to hang on every word he says, so you just try to help him out more than anything. After his penalty, he did an awesome job of locking back in. He was running the leaders down from the back. Pretty proud of him.”

Overall, Stewart was unhappy about the race unfolded. He called it “chaotic” and indicated there were too many factors affecting such a big race.

What specifically stuck out?

The scenarios and everything around it, drivers that shouldn’t even be in the Cup Series causing cautions, stupid stuff happening,” he said.

4. Harvick’s comeback

This will probably be lost to history, but let’s take a moment to appreciate Harvick’s remarkable feat at Phoenix.

After dominating the first stage, he had a tire go flat with two laps left in the stage and limped to pit road — which was actually fortunate timing, because the stage break saved him from going more laps down.

Then he fought his way to the free pass position —  and got it — despite a damaged car. Later, his team used strategy to put him in a favorable spot to be in front of the late wreck that would have ended his playoff hopes — but instead helped him sail through on points as his competitors crashed.

Harvick downplayed it all afterward, saying it was “just another day.” He said his only thoughts were trying to get back to the pits instead of worrying about the championship.

But the survival and focus of his team to persevere through a day that could have been a heartbreaker is one to remember — especially if he ends up winning his second title next week.

5. What if?

An intriguing scenario popped up late in the race with Kyle Busch and Almirola restarting side-by-side. If Busch allowed Almirola to beat him on the restart — and potentially for the win — then it would have eliminated Harvick, who is clearly Busch’s biggest competitor for the title.

Busch said it crossed his mind, but never seriously. He wasn’t going to give up a win, even if it means Harvick would beat him next week.

You always want to go up against the best of the best, and the strength of the season has been us three and the 22,” Busch said.

In addition, Busch said it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Had Almirola gotten by on the restart and Busch fallen in line, he predicted Brad Keselowski would have won instead.

“I don’t think the 10 was capable enough of being able to lead the race and not have somebody else pass him, know what I mean?” Busch said. “That would have been dumb.”

Crew chief Adam Stevens,  though, seemed like he wouldn’t have been disappointed had it happened.

“It wouldn’t have upset me if it did happen, but we weren’t going to do anything to make it happen,” Stevens said.

I’m not at all saying Busch should have done it — no real racer would give up a win, and it also would have been a huge scandal for not letting the race play out — but it’s an interesting scenario that only pops up in NASCAR’s unique playoff format.