ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass makes his return to the post-race podcast to break down a crazy day in Phoenix, including the significance of Matt Kenseth’s win and what lies ahead at Homestead.
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.
I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission.
Last race’s results: Did not play in Texas due to it being blocked at the track.
Season results: $102 wagered, $104.50 won in 26 contests.
This week’s contest: Cannot play due to Arizona state law.
— Kyle Busch ($11,100): You need a hammer to rack up the laps led, and whoever you pick is likely going to make or break your day. I’m betting on Busch because he had the second-fastest 10-lap average in final practice — as well as the second-fastest single lap — which makes him perhaps the best of the Toyotas.
— Clint Bowyer ($8,700): He’s awfully expensive for the value, but he starts far back (20th) and seems to have a decently fast car (11th-fastest in 10-lap average for final practice).
— Jamie McMurray ($8,500): McMurray was fifth-fastest in 10-lap average for final practice, and he could move up from his 13th starting position to get a couple position differential points in the process.
— Ryan Blaney ($8,200): He doesn’t have the fastest car, but whoever wins the pole has often gotten enough laps led to make it worth picking them this season. Plus, Blaney comes at a lower price than other polesitters. If he can lead a bunch of laps early in the race, it could be an easy pick for you.
— Kasey Kahne ($7,400): He had the eighth-fastest 10-lap average in final practice and has shown decent speed throughout the weekend. He should contend for a top-10 finish, so you could pick up a few points after he starts 17th.
— Michael McDowell ($5,800): This is a pure money/position differential play. He’s cheap and might be able to improve from his 28th starting position, plus he has extra motivation racing in front of friends and family in his hometown. That’s about it, although Chris Buescher ($6,600, starts 31st) is another good candidate for that strategy.
With only two races remaining in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Cup Series career, the odds are increasing that a rain-shortened race two years ago at Phoenix International Raceway might stand as the final win of his career.
That might seem sort of weird — Jeff Gordon’s last win was a stirring victory at Martinsville and Tony Stewart’s final victory came after he bumped Denny Hamlin out of the way at Sonoma — and doesn’t really fit into any kind of storybook ending.
But don’t worry, Junior Nation: If that was it, your driver celebrated the victory like it was his last.
“After our dry spell (three winless seasons from 2009-11), every win after that I celebrated it and thought about it being my last win,” he said Friday. “The Talladega win (in 2015), the Daytona 500 (in 2014), the July Daytona race (in 2015), Martinsville (in 2014), here — every one of them I was thinking it might be the last.”
There have been only two rain-shortened races in Phoenix history: Earnhardt’s win two years ago and Rusty Wallace’s October 1998 victory here. So Earnhardt isn’t bummed about the circumstances of what may be his last win — he’s happy about it.
“I felt lucky we were running good enough to win the race,” he said. “Greg (Ives) had done some pit strategy that cycled us into the lead at the particular point when the rain came. And I was thinking, ‘Man, that is how it’s supposed to work.’ You know, your crew chief is supposed to have that vision and, man, he had it that day.
“I was so proud of Greg and I felt lucky. It’s great to back into (a win) every once in awhile, or luck into them every once in a while. I have been on the other end of that where you felt like you should have won the race and don’t for some odd reason. So I was feeling like, ‘Heck yeah.'”
Fortunately for Earnhardt, the Phoenix win came the week before Homestead — which he typically would spend at his house in Key West. So that meant Earnhardt “partied hard” after the victory, he said.
“We had a good time that night down at Captain Tony’s (saloon in Key West),” he said with a laugh. “That is where we went.”
Kyle Busch and Joey Logano met briefly in the NASCAR hauler prior to practice Friday at Phoenix International Raceway. Each driver emerged separately — followed by NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell.
Here’s one thing we learned from each participant:
Drivers can get physical on pit road, but they’d better not use their cars to settle any beefs.
“We’re very clear that we’re not going to allow a car to be used as a weapon,” O’Donnell said. “We didn’t see that in this case. We looked at this as good, hard racing. That’s when we will react — if there’s an intentional something that happens on the racetrack, we’ll have to react.”
The Team Penske driver brought data from the car with him — something he said Busch asked for — as evidence he didn’t do it on purpose (data could include steering inputs, for example).
“I was able to show him that and it was pretty clear, in my opinion, what happened,” Logano said. ” I hope he was able to see that and know I was sincere about it.
“The only thing I can do at this point was to plead my case and say, ‘Hey, it was an honest mistake, it was hard racing at the end.'”
Logano said it “always helps to talk face-to-face” — something he didn’t do in the past, notably with Matt Kenseth prior to the veteran taking revenge on him at Martinsville.
Everything is great.
“Everything is great,” Busch said. “Everything is great. … Everything is great. … Everything is great.”
Over the years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been about as enthusiastic for test sessions as he is for road course racing.
In other words, he wouldn’t mind if neither existed.
But this week, Earnhardt found himself “freaking pumped up” to come to a NASCAR organizational test in Phoenix, where he’s turning laps in the public eye for the first time since last July.
Obviously, there’s a simple explanation: He missed racing. From being in the car to the camaraderie with his No. 88 team, Earnhardt has been craving a return to a competitive environment — and this gets him another step closer.
“When you’re racing every single week for 20 years and you’re testing, it gets kind of boring, no lie,” he said. “But you’ve really got to understand what the objectives are. … You forget and lose sight of that over time. You start getting lazy. So I’m excited and happy we’re here.”
At 42, Earnhardt is returning to the NASCAR circuit after missing half of last season with a concussion. Clearly, the prospect of racing again puts him in a great mood. He was all smiles when walking to his car on a beautiful Arizona morning, stopping to ask reporters what social media platform they were using to document his arrival.
Aside from a small brake fire in the morning session which cost him an hour of track time, Earnhardt felt his speed was competitive with the likes of Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick (who won the Phoenix races last year and are also at the test session).
But he acknowledged there’s some anxiety about racing again thanks to such a long layoff.
“I’m just a little nervous about if there will be any kind of learning curve,” he said. “Sometimes you see guys, no matter the type of the sport, who are away for awhile and have to adjust since they’ve taken time off. And other guys come back like they haven’t missed a day.
“I hope there’s no rust to shake off. I’m really anxious to get out there and have some success, go out and run well.”