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.

NASCAR driver popularity in the Dale Jr. Era

Since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Most Popular Driver award 15 straight times, there’s no dispute which driver was the most liked by fans in the last decade and a half.

But who were the other popular drivers during that time? Well, we actually know the answer to that question because the National Motorsports Press Association (which administers the award) has released a top 10 of the voting each year since Earnhardt first won it in 2003.

Only seven of the current 10 most popular drivers will return next season — Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. That’s in alphabetical order, because the NMPA no longer releases the order of the final voting (they used to not only release the order, but also the vote totals).

Who will the other three be? It seems fairly wide open at the moment.

That’s because only two active drivers — Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — have ever made the top 10 in the past and failed to make it this year.

All other active drivers — including the likes of Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer — have never appeared on the top 10 list.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve compiled a spreadsheet of all the data dating back to 2003. But first, a few observations:

What happened to Harvick? This is the biggest mystery from the voting. Harvick was the third-most popular driver in 2003 and 2004, then dropped to the bottom half of the list over the next decade — but was still in the top 10 for every year from 2003-13. But he has now missed the top 10 in three of the last four years (starting with the year he won the championship, oddly enough). Perhaps it’s because he’s been more affected than anyone with old-school fans abandoning the sport (assuming his fan base early on had a large portion of Dale Sr. fans after he took over that ride in 2001). What are some other theories?

— Truex on the rise. Martin Truex Jr. never made the top 10 in voting until the past two seasons — this despite being a full-time driver since 2006.

— New faces emerge. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson both made the top 10 in voting for the first time this season. Chase Elliott has made it in each of his first two years.

— Streak continues. Of the remaining active drivers, who has the longest streak of making the list? It’s a tie between Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, who have both appeared every year since 2004. But while Johnson has typically been in the bottom half of the voting when the order has been revealed, Kahne is usually toward the top (and got as high as second in 2013).

— That 2014 list! Seven of the 10 drivers from 2014 are no longer in the sport full time. Of course, that’s a bit misleading since Josh Wise made the top 10 that year based on the Reddit push. But the other six drivers (Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart) took up a combined 68 spots in the top 10 over 15 years — and that’s going to be hard to replace.

Here’s the spreadsheet I compiled if you want to look at the raw data. “Yes” signifies they appeared in the top 10 that year; in years when the NMPA released the order, the driver’s position in the top 10 is noted.