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.