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.

News Analysis: Kevin Harvick penalized, loses locked-in spot at Homestead

What happened: Kevin Harvick’s ticket to Homestead was revoked after NASCAR found his team used an illegal spoiler during the No. 4 car’s dominating win at Texas. Harvick will technically keep the win, but he lost the benefit that advanced him to the championship race at Homestead. He also lost 40 points (of the 60 he earned in the race), which now puts him just three points ahead of the cutoff line heading to Phoenix. Crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Cheddar Smith were suspended for the rest of the season, and Stewart-Haas Racing said it will not appeal. Former Kurt Busch crew chief Tony Gibson will lead Harvick’s team for the final two races. The second-place car of Ryan Blaney and the fourth-place car of Erik Jones were also found to have serious violations; the third-place car of Joey Logano was not brought back to NASCAR’s R&D Center for the same type of thorough inspection.

What it means: Given the severity of the penalty, the timing of the championship implications and the lack of an appeal by the team, the logical conclusion is this must have been a blatant attempt to skirt the rules rather than some sort of mistake or misunderstanding. It’s tough for fans to hear a race winner was cheating like this, but it’s a reminder all of the top NASCAR teams are likely pulling some sort of trickery and working in gray areas to find speed. That’s how teams separate themselves in NASCAR and why crew chiefs get paid the big bucks. Was it worth the risk? It’s hard to say, because we don’t know how long Harvick’s team had been doing this or how much of an impact it had on the team’s speed. Harvick also had another encumbered win earlier this season (in Las Vegas), but still ended up with the most successful season of his career anyway. Plus, Harvick still goes to his best track with a chance to advance to Homestead and win the championship in spite of the penalty. If NASCAR had taken all 60 of the points Harvick earned in the race instead of 40 — thereby completely erasing his Texas performance short of taking the trophy — it might be a different story.

News value (scale of 1 to 10): Nine. When the best team all year dominates a race and is found to have broken the rules, then gets removed from the championship, that’s about as big as it gets. I would put this as a 10, but I have to leave some room in case the Homestead winner cheats and gets stripped of the championship — which seems like a real possibility now.

Three questions: What exactly did Harvick’s team do to the spoiler that made it illegal? Will Harvick experience any dropoff in performance after the team was caught, or will this not have any impact on the car’s speed? If NASCAR had taken the win away in this case, who would get the trophy given the second-place car was also illegal and the third-place car wasn’t inspected as thoroughly?

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.

Post-Homestead Podcast with Brant James

My former USA Today co-worker Brant James joins me to break down all things Homestead, including how the championship was decided, the final career moments for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth and what’s next for both NASCAR and Brant.

Homestead Preview Podcast: Tire management for the championship?

With two fewer sets of tires available to teams this year, will Homestead turn into a tire strategy race? In this special edition of the podcast, the championship contenders sound off on the positives and negatives of the potential tire situation on Sunday.

Brad Keselowski vs. Kyle Busch is the juicy subplot to Homestead

The drivers involved in NASCAR’s best rivalry are going to race against each other for the championship on Sunday.

Lucky us.

Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch genuinely do not get along, and there’s nothing phony about it. Busch sincerely dislikes Keselowski and has no plans to ever work on their relationship — this despite Keselowski making a public attempt to extend an olive branch in 2015.

“Sometimes you just don’t like a guy. Fact of the matter,” Busch said Thursday.

When Busch and Keselowski are put in situations where they have to be together — like riding in the back of a pickup truck before the race, for example — there’s rarely any conversation. At Dover in September, Busch was so ready to get out of Keselowski’s company that he undid the lift gate while the truck was coming to a stop and jumped out.

“Talking is a little overrated,” Keselowski joked Thursday. “I grunt — arugh! — like Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor (from Home Improvement).

“Nah, I don’t know. (People) probably get caught up in all these relationship things and forget about the reality of what this stuff is supposed to be all about — and that’s going on the racetrack and racing.”

But bad blood between drivers can matter — as evidenced by the recent Denny Hamlin/Chase Elliott incident at Phoenix — and could actually manifest itself on the track. The rivalry, while not overly heated at the moment, could play an outcome in deciding the championship.

It’s probably annoying to the competitors — particularly Keselowski, since he is the kind of guy who enjoys getting along with people — but the rivalry is a fun championship subplot for everyone else.

For whatever reason, Busch and Keselowski always find themselves together. They are a year apart in age, have children born two days apart from the other, own championship-caliber teams in the Camping World Truck Series and have one Cup title and Xfinity title apiece.

This week, they were together again for a media tour in New York City — along with Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Truex joked Busch and Keselowski “were like best pals,” but then added “they acted like normal people, so it was good.”

Said Harvick: “I thought they did fine. We kind of kept them separate in the cars. Martin took one car and I took the other car to keep them apart. So they did all right.”

But what’s the deal? Why has the rivalry continued for so long? It was all the way back in 2010 when Keselowski made his famous “Kyle Busch is an ass!” comment at Bristol.

That’s seven years ago! And it’s still going. Why?

“Both of us are fortunate to have great cars and great teams, and when you run up at the front a lot, things are going to happen when you’re going fast,” Keselowski said. “… When you race at the front and you’re racing for championships, it’s a great position to be in, and it’s just the way it has unfolded.”

In the end, two drivers not liking each other might not matter. Harvick noted Thursday the championship race “is not boxing.” It’s about the teams putting fast cars on the track, not a battle of the minds.

And it might not even last. Just look at Harvick and Busch, who used to hate each other but now get along.

“This week when we were doing the media stuff in New York, we were kind of like high school buddies,” Busch said of Harvick. “We were kind of joking around and making fun of the others.

“So that was kind of weird. Kevin and I, friends? What? I guess we’ve grown to respect one another and what each other has done.”

But does Busch ever see getting to that point with Keselowski?

“Probably not,” Busch said. “He’s just too different.”