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.

26 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR championship race at Homestead”

  1. Jeff,
    You are the best at coving nascar and honest admissions. But this is your best 5 takes yet. Thank you for not taking sides and giving your season long built up feelings. This is why the nascar community loves you.

  2. Logano still needed the caution to have any chance. Whether it helps Kyle Busch as well shouldn’t really affect that decision, if such a decision was being made.

  3. Last real champ for sure. I don’t know why everyone wants cautions, but they’ll get them next year. And probably subpar winner or three in the keep it floored bumper car half the field wiped out every week junk that we will most likely get. I don’t know who is so obsessed within NASCAR with the high downforce garbage, but it was a failure a few years ago and will be worse with no throttle response. Im not one of the complainers either. Im always trying to bring people into the sport, have since I was a kid. I’ve always been for trying out all the new stuff, was even interested in seeing the all star race this year. I knew after qualifying the race would suck and it did. I’m sad about it. We will see :(::::

  4. On “Judging Worthiness”- I guess I don’t get the angst over the “best team/car not winning the Championship” because this has been happening in playoff formats in stick and ball sports for years.

    Take for instance when a “Wildcard team” wins a Super Bowl. Did the best team over the regular season win it all? No. We don’t seem to have any problems with that in foot ball, or other similar sports. Why is it a problem in NASCAR?

    Going Home- The pass Logano made on Truex that had everyone’s jaws drop- The “slide job” at Chicago, and other fantastic moves throughout the season. Will this be the last time we see such driver heroics? Wasn’t that the highlight (when it did happen) over the “pack racing” we saw at the restrictor plate venues?

    Geez. I, for one, think it is obvious that, unless the engineers can find a way to put the drivers back in control, or unless this 2019 package gets thrown out mid-season, the next season will be about as much fun as watching a slot car race.

  5. “NASCAR should be uplifting, not a downer for the people who love it and invest time in it.” I don’t agree with this this statement completely as it seems across the board, many are trying to spend less time at the the track on race weekend, and it goes right to a place that needs improvement (or a step back):

    I’ve said this many times, but we need to make the race weekend a race weekend again. NASCAR has become so consolidated and everything is all about “get there right before practice, and be gone as soon as possible after the checkers” The at-track schedules have become so consolidated with tracks opening as late as possible, and basically they rush through the day with usually no more than 5-10 minute breaks between sessions. Many tracks keep teetering on the 2-day weekend schedule with Post Xfinity/Truck race Cup qualifying.

    I do know many people like the shorter days, and might let people have less time away from home, but what about the fans. If this is entertainment, then who should the schedule be focused around?

    Let’s go back about 10 years when the sport was what many would consider to be in its prime. Tailgating was a major part of the weekend, the midway was packed with sponsors/vendors, there were always concerts on the midway, the stands were packed and some of the key events would constantly sell out.

    The parking lots always opened super early like 6am, and the day was stretched out giving time to tailgate and even grill food between sessions, ensured time to go have fun on the midway, hit up the now non-existent merchandise haulers, enjoying concerts, playing all the games and sponsors were there to entertain. Sprint, Nationwide, The SPEED Stage were the staples of the fan experience. Many of the tracks even had driver autograph sessions.

    We don’t have any of that today, parking lots open one hour before first practice on Friday/Saturday, and the Sunday open time has gone to 9-10am for many tracks, the midway is dismal , and you’d be lucky to get 15 minutes to go back to your car to drop things off and refill your cooler without missing too much activity on track. Most chances of getting driver autographs and even some of the track events these days require an extra pass to get in the infield, or knowing someone to get a hookup for a pit pass.

    There are plenty of other things that probably need to be fixed with NASCAR, but 2 things we need to get back too to make it about the fans again. Make the race weekend feel like a full race weekend again, and make the fan midway outside the stands the focus for fan interaction to have everyone involved, not just people with special passes.

    1. Exactly what you said, makes me feel sad that those times are gone though, NASCAR has got to be those most mismanaged sport going.

  6. RE: #1 & #2. Why Jeff are you joining Ryan McGee in the media telling fans how to think group? It never works. So just stop it.

    As for #5, the only way to fix NASCAR is to clear out the NASCAR office building and start over with people with racing backgrounds. Not the current clueless people from other backgrounds. Steve Phelps talk today was a perfect example of a guy who can’t see the forest for the trees.

  7. Face it. Part of the appeal of the ‘old Nascar’ was the adversarial relationship between Nascar and the innovative crew chiefs. Creative thinking was what made stock car racing appealing, from the moonshiners souping up their cars to stay ahead of the tax men, to Smokey Yunick not needing a gas line to drive his car away. They have homogenized the sport beyond having a driver/team/ manufacturer to route for. When it became Big Business instead of a sport, they lost their soul.

    1. No. The appeal was a combination of: (1) drivers that the fans could identify with (i.e. blue collar, mostly Southern guys like Earnhardt, Pearson, the Allisons, Bill Elliott . . . .) (2) CARS THAT HAD SOME REAL TIE TO STOCK (i.e. OEM-type engines, at least some OEM body panels, ride-heights off-the-ground, less dependence on aero grip and wind tunnels), (3) More short tracks and fewer “cookie-cutter intermediate tracks, and (4) The real prospect that one could win without a 500-person super team (see e.g. Alan Kulwicki).

      All of that is totally gone. Nonetheless it was GREAT to see FORD WIN IT ALL for the first time in too many years!

  8. There’s only two things I want to address.

    1) Keselowski’s caution? From what I was hearing from the NBC analyst, Kyle Busch was the one who needed the caution. So after I saw on twitter people saying Brad may have caused the caution intentionally, I was like WHAT ????? What did I miss? (I did miss the replay) Thankfully I DVR all the races, so I fast forwarded to the last caution. From what I saw the “David Ragan” got into Brad who in turn got into Daniel. No intention there.
    2) I guess I wear my rose colored glasses too much but I can’t wait for 2019 . I also think NASCAR’s future looks exceptionally bright, we have a LOT of fast, talented, fantastic young driver’s coming up the ranks. My biggest fear is there’s not enough good, competitive seats opening for them.

    1. The caution benefited both JGR and Penske. Who is to say that Suarez didn’t pinch down on the 2 and/or slide for longer than he needed to? And why wouldn’t it make sense to trigger a caution when it would look to benefit a rival team (but really give one’s own team a chance)?

      Still Ford has shown almost no capacity over the ears for managing the strategic caution (much less understanding when one was obviously necessary). Some of the Toyota bunch have arguably attempted strategy plays at times in the past. But it is a tantalizing, if a very remote possibility, that the caution was more than just a coincidental “racing incident. “

  9. The Olympics have rewarded performance in the clutch with a gold medal for over a hundred years, and hardly anyone complains about that. The playoffs could stand some minor adjustments, but they do what they set out to do well enough.

  10. Until Sunday, it was the most boring weekend in racing all year. I am thrilled that Joey won. Clutch wins are the soul of sports and who does not like an (3 and me) underdog .

    The stands were not packed despite being a sellout on paper, meaning that work still needs to be done to get butts in the seat. The TV coverage is so good these days although the commentators needs to take the artificial excitement down a few notches – I didn’t realize that men’s voices could get that high until listening to the current group.

    Takeways: It’s been a great season. I’m left with DVR of races I went to and haven’t watched on TV for the off season.
    NASCAR could not have a better champion to represent the sport.
    Thanks to the Furniture Row folks for an excellent run.
    Connecticut is well represented next year with Logano and Ryan Preece.
    I am not a fan of Harvick, but he is such a stand-up guy. It’s impossible not to admire him. Truex jr. is the real deal, and Kyle is a fantastic driver. The best four made the shootout event and proved their worth.

    Looking forward to Daytona.

  11. I didn’t watch. 2018 is year NASCAR finally died.

    There is no season champ. Just from best to 16th place driver in “regular” season” who did best in the contrived “playoff”

    Have to be an accountant to understand and even then doesn’t seem to flow.

    Watching and following should be easy. It’s not.

    All seems so made up, manipulated and, dare I say, WWFesque

    After 42 years of so so watching I just no longer care. And NASCAR don’t care either. They believe their best days are ahead of them. I doubt it

    1. Clarification, tho hardly matters.

      I watched NASCAR for 42 years. Each year a little less after the Chase and those gyrations began. Then the so so viewing until NASCAR became totally irrreverant to me.

      I’m happy there are those who like the current edition of things. It’s for you now.

  12. Immediately after the late race caution, the commentators mentioned that this was good for Logano. They reported that Logano’s crew chief said prior to the race that he would love a shootout on lap 20. Was it coincidental that Keselowski got into Suarez on lap 20 to cause the caution, considering Joey needed some help at that time? Anyone who can put 1 and 1 together and who is not a diehard Penske/Logano fan would have to wonder.

    1. I would love it if Ford and/or Penske really had that much savvy. But nothing in the record demonstrates it.

      Given Ford’s brilliant domination of the season, Ford deserved to win it all, even if the driver’s championship was snagged by Penske instead of SHR. And no one can question that Logano had the best car for how the race actually played out. SHR and JGR missed the plainly foreseeable nighttime set-up. And the 78 inexplicably did not have short-run speed (but then TOYOTA SHOULD NOT BE IN NASCAR IN THE FIRST PLACE. . . . )

      I am super pumped with how FORD finally won it all . . . and can’t wait for Logano to win several more Cups for the Blue Oval (it’s way past time for FORD to finally have a 24 or 48)

  13. “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.”

    I understand the setup this statement created for your “entertainment” aspect, but be real careful, Jeff…..others have ruined their sports columns/podcasts/etc. by venturing into the snakepit of politics. Keep your columns “entertaining”….

  14. Re: Championship worthiness… Used to be that winning a title was the be-all end-all accomplishment. We judge drivers and teams based on how many titles they’ve won above all else (3-time, 4-time, 7-time, etc). But this playoff format complicates that. In a single race, way too much random stuff can have a major effect on who wins the championship, timing of cautions especially. So, who knows what winning a title really means anymore in the grand scheme of things. Maybe we should just consider a title to be a nice accomplishment but not THE accomplishment. We should also be looking at other things when comparing drivers’ resumes – Championship 4 *appearances* (not just titles), more emphasis on race wins, etc. KyBusch and Harvick have each made the Championship 4 four times (out of five seasons!), but that’s rarely discussed when rattling off each driver’s accomplishments. We should be talking about that just as much as we talk about actual titles.

    One big difference between the “worthiness” argument here versus other sports’ playoff formats is that other sports have had their playoff systems in place for decades, so they are accepted. It’ll take decades for NASCAR’s playoff system to get that kind of long term legitimacy. Every time NASCAR changes how the champion is decided, it just makes all of this seem that much more arbitrary. NASCAR’s pretty much committed to the playoff format at this point, best thing for them to do going forward is leave it alone. Maybe in another 20-30 years we won’t be debating the playoff format anymore?

    Regardless of all that, I thought this season was highly enjoyable… The key is not taking any of this too seriously.

  15. NASCAR is just a sad ordeal. It is no longer “fun”, or entertaining. Instead it became everything is used to NOT be. NASCAR 2018 is a homogenized, generic, restrictive, protectionist, manipulative, boring parade of politically correct drivers and teams functioning as corporate spokesmen for business to business sponsors in an micro-economy completely dependent on television rights fees.

    NASCAR 2018 is a business that has lost its soul, alienated its core fan base, is in a death spiral, like its former sponsor Sears.. Only NBC and Fox TV rights fees are supporting the house of cards that is NASCAR. Enjoy it now, as once TV armageddon hits, NASCAR will cease to exist in its current capacity.

    I used to love everything NASCAR. I could not consume it enough. From merchandise to TV shows, I had to have everything. However starting in 2004, this relationship changed. Year after year of continuous changes to the rules, Chase/Playoffs, and cars I became more and more disgruntled. Today, I want nothing to do with NASCAR. They disgust me. The 2019 rules package is the last straw. This organization has no clue on what their fan base wants, who their fan base is, what is their soul, what is their integrity.

    I still support Jeff, as I believe in him, his work, and his dream., however I cannot share his excitement for the organization that is NASCAR.

  16. I think the angst/anger/whatever over the #22 winning is mostly about who he is vs. how he won.

    If someone like the #9 or Jr. won a title in the same way it would be seen as ‘great for the sport’ or something along those lines.

    Also, one thing I’ve noticed is a lot of self-proclaimed ‘old school fans’ who claim to yearn for ‘the good old days’ are the very same ones who now call things like the #22’s bump and run at Martinsville cheap or garbage. And that’s because, once again, it’s not about the move, it’s who did it.

    Maybe part of what’s ‘killing NASCAR’ is a large portion of very hypocritical fans who want their cake and eat it, too.

    1. I wouldn’t be so sure it’s the ‘old school’ fans who had a problem with the Martinsville bump and run. The Old Timers got very used to that, since it used to be a standard move…along with trying to outsmart the Nascar inspectors. “Creativity” by a team used to be at least respected, if not outright admired. I’d venture that it’s more likely the “new wave’ fans who are having the problem with the ‘old school’ moves.

  17. As for #2 Dale sr. Got plenty of boos in his time here and bumping and spinning people out yet he went onto be the greatest in plenty of fans eyes. That’s racing. A little shove is fine doing what kennesth did was wrong. Doing what jgr tried to do with pit selection was WRONG and should not be aloud. If Kyle hardened hit the wall twice in practice maybe would have been differant. How do you know might have done on purpose so could try to fix and try for a little advantage in rear corner. Joey did just what every other playoff system does winner take all. Peak at right time!!

  18. As for you saying we should accept the changes cause more are coming, I would ask you how has that worked the last 15 years? Change for the sake of change isn’t always the best move.

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