The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR championship race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway…

1. Truex gets his due

Ladies and gentlemen, Martin Truex Jr. is a NASCAR Cup Series champion.

It’s too bad we can’t send messages from the future back to our past selves, because it would have been almost impossible to believe that a few years ago.

In 2014, Truex wrapped up his first season at Furniture Row Racing with a single lap led. He finished 24th in points. And he had two career wins to his name at the time.

Now he’s the dominant car of the past two seasons, with 12 wins and 4,062 laps led in that span. Plus he’s got a championship to go with it.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but due to his career history (two wins in his first nine seasons) it’s been easy to just say, “The cars are just that good” when talking about Truex’s success. Since he didn’t win much until Cole Pearn showed up as crew chief and Furniture Row improved, Truex probably hasn’t gotten enough credit as a driver.

That should change after Sunday night. Kyle Busch was chasing him down — with what appeared to be a better car — and stalking him in case there was even the slightest bobble in the 78 car.

“Then I could try to pounce,” Busch said. “But that never happened.”

Truex drove a flawless 20 laps and showed he’s worthy of being in the conversation about the sport’s best drivers.

Toyotas are elite, but as Brad Keselowski noted: “He’s still beating the other Toyotas, so he deserves credit for that.”

Good point, right? And that’s not lost on Truex.

Yes, he’s basically driving a Joe Gibbs Racing car — just tweaked by Furniture Row. But he’s beating all the JGR drivers with it.

“That’s the coolest part of it, is showing people that you’ve got it, that you can do it,” Truex said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to have the same thing as somebody else and beat ’em with it.”

And Truex was especially pumped about out-driving Busch, who he called “one of the best drivers ever.”

“To beat him,” Truex said, “was awesome.”

2. This Bud’s for Dale

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the media about his goals for the weekend — I just want to finish all the laps, he kept saying — it turns out he was only telling part of the story.

There was a reason behind the wish: He wanted to turn his No. 88 car into a mobile Whisky River, right there on pit road.

“That’s why I kept saying, ‘Man, I hope I finish all the laps,'” he said with a grin. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s really why I was saying that. Everyone says, ‘Who are you going to miss the most?’ and it’s my family. (The 88 team) is my family. We are so close.

“I told them, ‘The one thing I want to do is finish the race, and we’re going to drink a beer together.’ That’s the only thing that kept coming to my mind about what I do when I get out of the car: I want to have a beer with my guys. I want to have a moment with them that sort of closes it up for us.”

So there they were, Earnhardt and the members of the 88 team, using the car as a bar and chugging Budweisers in the middle of a mob scene on pit road. If it was possible to have an intimate moment while surrounded by a couple hundred people, they had it.

Earnhardt and the crew posed for selfies, tossed beers at each other until the coolers were empty and raised toast after toast.

Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyy, they yelled in unison, holding their cans to the sky.

“Standing around the car and the heat coming off the car and drinking them cold beers — they were so cold, they had them in those Yeti (coolers), man. Those things are so awesome,” Earnhardt said. “That’s what I wanted. I said, ‘Whatever I do after the race, I don’t care about anything else — I just want to have a beer with my team.'”

It was one of the most unusual postrace scenes in NASCAR history. But it was the first step toward normalcy — something Earnhardt is craving after a weekend he called “weird.”

All the various things swirling around Earnhardt — his retirement from the Cup Series, the upcoming birth of his first child, his best friend winning the championship, his team’s Xfinity Series success, his new job with NBC Sports — it all played into it.

“I’ve got this job next year that I got to get ready for that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I know nothing about it. I’m freaking out,” he said. “There’s just so many things happening for me. I mean, what the hell!? It’s ridiculous what’s going on in my life. So I can’t put my emotions about finishing my Cup career in a capsule. I can’t single it out.”

So what’s next? A hangover, Earnhardt predicted. But then he hoped for an uneventful week ahead.

“It’s been an amazing weekend,” he said. “I’m ready to go feel normal, though. I’m ready to go just do nothing for awhile.”

He looked at the group of reporters. His team had left — the celebration was over for now — and Earnhardt lingered on pit road, willing to fill reporters’ notepads with golden quotes like he’d done so often over the years.

“But I’ll miss all y’all,” he said. “And I’ll be back because of that.”

With that, Earnhardt smiled, gave a thumbs up and disappeared into the crowd of waiting fans one more time.

3. Like a punch in the face

The primary reason for Kyle Busch not being able to catch Truex in the final laps, Busch said, was a tough battle with Joey Logano.

Busch had been on his way toward the front and easily passed Kevin Harvick, but then he reached Logano. That pass proved to be a lot tougher.

Logano took the top lane and pinched Busch down; Busch had to back out of it, reset for a couple laps and try again.

“Just wasting too much time with him,” Busch said afterward. “He held me up. He was there blocking every chance he got, so got a real buddy there. But that’s racing. That’s what happens.”

Logano’s move was subtle, and perhaps it was nothing more than racing hard for his own victory — but it does raise questions.

For example: Did Busch’s ongoing rivalry with Logano teammate Brad Keselowski play a part in the hard racing? Or perhaps did lingering ill will between the two — Busch did punch Logano in the face earlier this year, after all — have anything to do with it?

There aren’t any quotes from Logano on the post-race transcripts about that, but I’d love to know whether that played a role.

If so, it’s just another example of the entire season building toward the pinnacle that is Homestead.

4. Keselowski the politician

Leave it to Brad Keselowski to get one more shot in before the offseason begins.

Keselowski stumped hard for NASCAR to help Ford after claiming Toyota got too much help with its new nose this season.

If you missed it, here are his comments:

“When that car (the new Camry) rolled out at Daytona and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there were two reactions. One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it, and, two, we were impressed by the design team over there.

“With that said, I don’t think anyone really ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt a little bit like Formula 1, where you have one car that kind of makes it through the gate heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.”

Keselowski concluded by saying he assumed Chevrolet “would be allowed to design a car the same way Toyota was” in terms of the new Camaro — and Ford doesn’t have any plans for a redesign.

“If that’s the case, we’re gonna take a drubbing next year,” Keselowski said.

Honestly, I don’t have any problem with what Keselowski said. He’s very calculating and certainly knows his words will get picked up and echo around the garage.

He also knows he’s going to get criticized for whining or being a loudmouth, but he’s willing to sacrifice that in order to get his point across.

If it helps, and the talk somehow generates rule changes in Ford’s favor, then it will all be worth it.

5. Thoughts on 2018

There’s going to be plenty of time to reflect on this season and what next year might bring, but here are a few thoughts on what lies ahead.

The biggest storylines heading into Daytona next year will be NASCAR’s new identity — Life After Dale, so to speak. The hype and marketing push for the young drivers will be even bigger than this year, and the pressure will increase on the likes of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to produce.

On the track, there will be much talk about whether the new Chevrolet nose with the incoming Camaro can somehow help the manufacturer gain on Toyota. If not — and with only minor changes to the 2018 rules package — there’s no reason to think Truex and the JGR drivers can’t dominate again next season.

Overall, the goal for 2018 should be to determine a floor for NASCAR’s long slide. Attendance and ratings will almost certainly be down every week — a natural side effect of the most popular driver leaving — so that’s just going to be a fact of life. But the sport should look at that and say, “OK, this is the low point; now we rebuild.” Use it as a launching point for a new era and get on track toward strengthening NASCAR’s health for the next generation.

16 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR championship race”

  1. Wooooo, I was 3 for 3 on my Championship picks. To bad I couldn’t do the same in my nascar. com fantasy. I quit even trying 2/3 of the way thru. Don’t believe I’ve saw where each one deserve it more. I’m especially happy for Martin, Sherry and the whole Barney Visser led FFR team.

    P.S. We haven’t heard the last from you have we Jeff? I saw On Dale’s periscope where he, Tyler & Mike Davis are going to keep their podcast year long.

  2. So tired of Busch bitching. This series is the pinnacle of US motorsports. No one should just pull over for you when racing for position.

    1. His own driver did the exact same thing to Elliot Sadler in the Xfinity race on Saturday, possibly costing Elliot that Championship. I am sure that he would have been disappointed in his driver if he would have pulled over and let Elliot go by.

  3. I agree with your comments.Congrats Martin and 78 team,they will be great champions for nascar.I think they need to get rid of too much engineering in cars.If only 2-3 cars dominate next yr,I will not go to a lot of races(8)this yr,I like side by side racing,but final 4 were in same area all race.I think next yr.might be more interesting with stage pts and these young guys will make it worth watching.Bubba,blaney,Chase,Byron,Bowman,Jones,DanielS.Dillion and new rides will peak my interest for 2018.If the 48 will get back to normal and new rides.
    Thanks for great job Jeff on keeping us informed this yr and looking to 2018.

  4. Kyle Busch needs to learn how to be gracious. If Joey was racing him hard for issues earlier in the season. Good on Joey. If Joey was racing him hard to help Martin. Good on Joey. Brexton is more of a man than his dad. When you learn to be humble and thankful for all you have and really thank your team. Things will improve. Till then. I hope you keep getting blocked. Martin Truex Deserved everything he has this year. Kyle you need to look at the past champs and what makes them great. The respect thier teams and thank them graciously They thank thier fans and support system. They thank thier owners. They don’t whine and moan. I am sorry to see so much talent not have rides next year but I am looking forward to the growth and development of Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace, Chase Elliott Ryan and Alex B. It will be awesome. Jeff keep up the great work.

  5. Jeff,
    I agree with everything you write. Next year will be a challenge for NASCAR. Let’s hope all the young drivers “arrive” the way NASCAR wants them to. We have a new people’s champion and it sure as heck not Chase Elliott, Sorry.. Martin Truex Jr will be a great champion.
    Kyle Busch has not grown up and he never will. His comments and attitude after the race wasn’t becoming of a former champion. Expecting others not to race them and bitching like a PMS girl about really is telling of a person. I’m thinking real hard on sending an email to M&M Mars how he didn’t make the brand look very well, again. Remember win on Sunday sell Monday also goes for NASCAR as a whole. I already had someone make a comment to me about the race, good ( Martin) and bad (Kyle).
    Keep up the good work. This season was the first season we (My sisters and I) we didn’t see each other. Maybe next year!!

  6. Things that I would like to see changed: Racing is not a home team sport, so why try to have “play offs” brackets make NASCAR seem silly. The Champion should be the team who collected the most point over the entire season. High points for wins and so on. Win and your’re in. We could have had a rookie win the Championship this season. The wrestling announcers. How embarrassing. Commentators who over hype the race when it’s plain to see on TV that they’re not even watching the race. I enjoy your column, see you next season.

  7. Dale Jr. congratulating Martin Truex. Jr. just after the checkered flag by hitting his car against Martin`s was one of the most priceless things that happened this last weekend of glory. JUNIOR IS THE BEST ONE!!!

  8. Re: Point # 3:

    Brad Keselowski did the same thing to Carl Edwards in the last run of the 2011 Homestead race which stemmed from Carl putitng Brad in the wall repeatedly. You reap what you sow in this sport and he got what he deserved for the way he acted in Vegas, and the comments he made about Joey’s teammate. Kyle should be directing his anger at Adam Stevens for putting him on a strategy what got him back there to begin with.

  9. I truly believe that 2018 will tell many if the sport will be around for decades….or merely a few years….

  10. 1) I’m crowning Truex the “People’s Champ”. He’s come on long Donkey Kong in the last couple years, this year was stellar and I don’t think a single driver could remotely state “he got lucky”. He had a drive to win that couldn’t be rivaled – and it took out Kyle, even. Sherry is an amazingly brave woman, but she is the “human interest” piece to it, which just puts him in the hearts of everyone, drivers, fans and media alike. Ladies and gentlemen, meet “TPC MTJ”.

    2) That’s both awesome and a sad commentary in itself, and reflects Junior’s level of passion in the last 3-4 years. “I hope I can just finish and satisfy sponsors”. He hasn’t had his heart in this series for a few years now. I went to Homestead just to be there for his last race, and it was a bit sad to feel like he was out there as an “also ran”.

    He’s an amazing human being and he’ll forever have an impact no matter where he goes for his smarts, his sweets and his sensibility. I adore him for the MAN he is, but geesh, a terrible racer. I’m glad he’s gone because I hated feeling sorry for him, that such a great human had such a bad time in his career. I’m OVERLY thrilled he found a father figure in a man who lost his son. That was such a natural fit for both of them, and it’ll be for life with those two.

    3) Everyone always has problems with Penske drivers these days. Harvick showed class. Logano showed brat. As much as I like Kyle – dude, you shouldn’t have expected anything different from them. No other driver does. The Brat Bros are out to make sure everyone knows they exist. I can’t count the amount of rivalries they’ve had with pretty much every other driver, including long-held “classy, stable” drivers like Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, who are so polite and great racers, that they never had a true rivalry with anyone else. Kyle did what everyone else was itching to do, when he punched Logano, because everyone else couldn’t get to him as his Daddy kept jumping in his battles.

    4) It’s hilarious to me how many times Brad can complain about Toyotas. Ford has sucked in this series LONG before Toyotas became “dominant” (if you can even say that, considering Chevy’s have been just as good, and statistically BETTER than Toyotas).

    His whining is seen as whining, because it is, and no changes are needed and nothing will come of it. Ford teams have – to be frank – crappy drivers. Logano and Brad are the only two who have major drive/talent on track, but they are so busy ticking every OTHER driver off and getting in their own way, they can’t progress to Champ levels (and in Brad’s case, major, major luck in the Chase). And ironically, Brad MAKES it to the Chase, then complains that… he couldn’t do… what?

    The statistics don’t back him (wins, T10, pts standing). The fact that Ford has had terrible drivers (as a whole) does. Even drivers who jumped manufacturers didn’t fare better or worse than their history coming to/leaving from Ford. Only Harvick has been consistently great in a Ford – and he still manages to be there… every time. Half the champs were in a Ford. CHEVY was locked out. If Ford had such a huge disadvantage, then at the very least, Chevy would have been in over Ford.

    Toyota has done well with just ONE team. Gibbs (and their satellite in MTJ). I happen to think it’s more about picking good talent, otherwise, BKR, Erik Jones, and Suarez would have fared much better in their races. Remove MTJ from the picture and everyone looks fairly equal. You just happen top have an unstoppable driver, a great crew chief and a major will to win in ONE man. Jimmie has had that, where the stats were just as skewed, by him alone.

    5) Oh 2018, what will you hold in store? I don’t know, but if NASCAR continues this marketing hype of “young stud”, they are going to face an even bigger problem than Junior. When Junior never won (his four YEAR drought, to his recent struggles), NASCAR didn’t even TRY to hype winners. They tried to hype Kasey Kahne, the soccer mom’s dream. It didn’t go well. Hyping people who are NOT winning is not a good marketing strategy.

    But considering the last two years of terrible showings in ratings and track attendance, it feels like Brian France is trying to kill NASCAR anyway. Since he ran through all the money he had when he sold his stake, maybe he has a Lloyd’s of London policy on it’s collapse or something. I’ve always said, their push towards pulling in casual fans on marketing and NOT on track performance was a terrible idea. Now, the guys NASCAR told them to love are either gone or can’t compete, the guys who are winning aren’t getting the headlines and we’re going to reset it all over again for 2018 with a bunch of rich boys who barely worked a day in their life. Chase’s reactions this year showed why he should have stayed in Xfinity another year or two, not to get more driving skills, to MATURE. He played hypocrite and actually *turned off* the fans he was beginning to gain from being dumped. Impressive to pick up and lose fans all in the same week. They thought “here’s a nice kid, telling it true and being classy”. Chase gets his (rightful) revenge and everyone’s looking around like “wait, I thought he spent a week of media telling everyone he was over it, better than that and how evil Denny was for doing that”. When Denny called it like it was, “that’s racing”, he gained fans out of it. He didn’t whine. He didn’t pretend he was “better” than someone for it. He said what racing fans love to hear, “he got me, because I got him”…. while they all hope it’ll turn into a rivalry.

  11. BTW, Jeff, I could tell you why track attendance is down, and it’s not strictly relegated to who’s winning, losing or racing.

    It’s that going to races is becoming boring, repetitive, barren and stupid.

    Try experiencing the track as a fan. Or ask me. Especially since this time, I went to Homestead on a knee scooter due to surgery… and missed driver intros 3 days in a row, despite even leaving my RV over 2.5 hours early to get there. I couldn’t imagine being full-time handicapped. Watching all those selfish jerks with coolers on wheels who make seniors in wheelchairs wait behind them for the elevator was heartbreaking.

    But hey, at least the dude with cancer, who passed out near us had 20 blue shirt teen girls around him, while EMS took over 20 minutes to get to him.

    Race attender of 15 years, who’s canceling her Daytona 500 slot and Homestead slot.

  12. Gee whiz. I guess I’ve no reason to reply. No ranting complaints from me. I don’t care for the stages but if it sells to the newer fans I am fine with it.
    I am thankful for all the effective safety devices. IMHO 2017 was a good season. I like NASCAR racing.
    Although in my dotage, I will still climb to the highest row by the start/finish line to enjoy car racing at it’s finest.

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