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.