The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

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.

29 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race”

  1. Jeff, what happened to you saying Truex wasn’t a shoe-in for Homestead with all of his playoff points?

    1. Ron,

      Points don’t matter anymore. The first of the four is the Champion, no matter what position it is.

      1. Anonymous,

        I see reading comprehension isn’t a skill set you possess so you didn’t leave your name.

        I said “for” Homestead not “at” Homestead meaning getting to Homestead in final four not winning Homestead.

        Gluck said Truex wasn’t a lock to be in final four at Homestead. Many disagreed.

        1. Typical social media nasty response.

          When you mentioned play off points I made the assumption you thought they matter in Homestead. Sorry that I misunderstood your reply to Jeff.

  2. I agree with all of your comments except for the winner of Homestead. I think it will be Truex. He is much better than Busch, and a class act. We will see!

    1. Has show more speed then Busch this year*

      He is certainly not much better. A career is longer then a season, dear.

  3. Let’s hope Homestead ends exactly like Phoenix. Truex was the best of the Homestead cars. P2, P2, P3 (the P3 was not a P2 because Pearn told him with 3 laps to go that they could save on airline miles to Charlotte if they finished P3). I would say that is momentum!

  4. Phoenix was a Jekyll and Hyde race. The first two stages were mostly forgettable, barring Johnson’s demise. And no mention of Kyle Larson’s snake bitten last four events?

    The late race events saved what was looking like a yawner. Certainly, if we’ve learned anything, it is that NASCAR changing to the elimination format and the move to have stages in the races has changed the sport for the better. Racing has benefited.

    Without stages and the elimination format I don’t think we would have the unbelievable turn of events we’ve seen several times in NASCAR lately. Some will say it has all been manufactured and it isn’t “real racing”. Well, thinking back on it as I was shouting out for glee as Denny Hamlin’s chances went up in smoke, I really don’t care if the racing seems “manufactured” by the “purists”. This is good stuff, and NASCAR needs more of it. (And less mile and a halfs, please and thank you!)

  5. I’m glad Matt and his fans get a little send off. That’s something us Carl fans never got. No appreciation commercials, no speedway gifts. Just a championship heart break followed by our hearts being ripped out of our chests when he left the sport. Oh I’m wearing a Carl shirt as I type this.

  6. Seeing kenseth win was awesome (even though I love watching Elliot as well). He and Jimmie Johnson were two of the first drivers that I really followed when I tagged onto watching races with my dad and brother! For Elliot though man, when he breaks though who knows whats gonna happen, every time he talks after these almost wins you can almost see him cataloging all the things he learned so that it doesn’t get him next time. I do have a theory though, he will tie his dad with 8 runner ups before a win (thanks nascar for being so obsessed with elliot that they put up a list right after the race )

  7. Thanks Jeff for #.3 comment, could not agree more!
    however, I think you’ll lose your bet on K.Busch winning…that’s reserved (based on season performance) for Truex! wouldn’t you agree considering the season he has had?…I truly feel he deserves it!! go get em 78!! should be a great race….

  8. This may have been discussed on TV but I didn’t see it, there appeared to be an empty grandstand, is that a building project or is it coming down?

  9. Hey Jeff!! Have you ever tweeted Twitter and told them you would love the addition of an edit option?? ????????????????

  10. So today a great race car driver defeated the son of a race car driver. Read that a few times.

    That rank nepotism and corporate connections are now the chief factors in who has a ride and who doesn’t is deeply concerning.

    When I take my 6 year old daughter to the races she’s inclined to root for the car she thinks is pretty. That is fine, but unfortunately the bright pink car doesn’t look to be contending. As a matter of fact it’s 5 laps down half way through a 20 lap feature . Even a child recognizes the choice at hand: Watch the pink car loose or watch the others race for the win.

    NASCAR and it’s fanbase have come completely uncoupled from reality. Kenseth has outperformed Dale Jr in every way possible, except for in the popularity department. Imagine what today would of looked like had Jr won. Like in every other column, Matt delivered where Jr has not and will not. They were rooting for the pink car and missed the good stuff.

    Perhaps the likes of Byron, Bell, Jones or Chase will prove to be the next superstar of the sport. Or we can anoint Chase before he ever wins a race and spend the waining days of the sport watching that pretty pink car.

    1. Who are you upset with, the fans who like a driver even though they may not be the best driver statistically? or the media, who follows the lead of the fans and write about what those fans want to read so that they can maximize the hits on their website? Or NASCAR who just uses the drivers the fans most react to in order to market the sport?
      Personally, I agree with you. Matt has better career statistics than either Earnhardt or Chase but I’m not sure who you are lecturing. Yeah, collectively fans can be pretty stupid. They don’t always like the things you think they should like based on rational thinking and common sense. They often like the shiny toy with the blinking lights. Good luck trying to change that. I will be the first to congratulate you if you do.
      BTW, if you want to be angry because Matt got a raw deal, then point that anger at Gibbs.

    2. I agree & also like the Pink car analogy!
      what I do NOT get is: how and by whom did Chase get anointed the new Super Hero of Nascar??! WTH?
      was it delirious 88 fans and/or Nascar itself?
      he certainly has not yet earned such a handle & maybe never will, at least he should not just based on his last name.
      This silly stupidity is getting, no has gotten totally out of hand. Amen.

      1. Were you around 20 years ago? I couldn’t explain why Bill Elliott won the most popular driver every year then and I can’t explain why his son has picked right up where his father has left off. Bill has been out of the sport for 15 years, I would have thought most of his fans have moved on, but here we are. Some things just can’t be explained by my best guess is that most NASCAR fans still come from the south and Chase is perceived as the son of a “good ole boy” and therefore a good ole boy himself.

  11. Here’s what irks me about Chase, and generally the “young crop” of drivers. They are all Daddy/Granddaddy boys who didn’t earn their rides.

    Yes, Chase finished well. By sheer sets of circumstances and the fact that other guys took themselves out racing for wins. Chase doesn’t have that experience. He’s inheriting fans much like Junior did and it was always supremely annoying to listen to many Junior fans blame anyone and everyone for winless droughts of FOUR YEARS. Chase isn’t where he is by driving skill, but by luck and top equipment. He should have had a few years more of development before getting that ride.

    But NASCAR and Hendrick couldn’t WAIT to christen him for that almighty merchandise sales, knowing full well they could dump the 24 on him, make him a market magnet, switch cars/#s and then tell everyone else they need to go buy NEW merchandise to replace the alreaady obsolete Chase 24 gear.

    This game is getting to me. I’ve mentioned it in comments on several of your posts, but despite being a lifelong Jeff fan, I became incredibly appalled in the last two years of his career. (Still rooted for him, a deep conflict for sure.) From saying “I wish I hadn’t signed so many autographs, so they would be worth more now for me to sell.” (meaning, I wish I hadn’t made so many fans so happy for free), to the “Bring back the stache” merchandise dump, that, when it was all sold, he shaved and said “nevermind”, leaving fans with millions of dollars of useless merchandise.

    Chase is in that same game, now. And it means I’ve left Hendricks for good. I went to Kyle as two of my boys already were, and I was a fan of Samantha long before Kyle. But I’d always said “if not Kyle, any Hendrick”. No longer.

    I’ve grown weary with this sport, as much for the coverage and the new, neverending “fans” who have no idea why drivers try to win races. Fans who think 15th is great if you are reallllly nice to people. Fans who don’t think “racing is racing”.

    I want fire, I want passion, I want drivers who actually WANT to win, not make the most of marketing to stupid people who can’t wait to part with $1000 every time a new shirt or the endless new paint schemes come out. (Remember when there was just one or two special schemes a year, so they truly were rare and special and everyone couldn’t WAIT to try and be one of the lucky few to get that Coke 600 Memorial Day scheme?)

    I’m not even a crusty old dude who misses Ralph. I’m a suburban mom, with 4 young boys, who really, really want to like NASCAR, but have no idea what’s going on, on the track any given day and why their driver can finish best in a race and still lose ground to someone (if they got no stage wins/points). I’m losing their interest. NASCAR is losing their interest.

    Generational fans are going, because generational families tend to want to see hard racing. Sure, you’ll hook the random metro dude with no kids and a Pomeranian, who wouldn’t be caught dead in NASCAR gear. But with all these rides dumped on kids who aren’t ready, have no business being in these great machines taking up track space, taking out great drivers who earned it (both taking their rides AND taking out them out on the track), who the hell are we watching anymore? Spoiled kids who couldn’t work on any car, let alone a race car, who can’t drive, blame everyone else for their failures and whine and cry and be a hypocrite like Chase was.

    No one – let alone the fanbase NASCAR has – will want to watch a bunch of kids playing demolition derby, crying about everyone else. Hell, we have to watch that all day everyday, when we can’t escape a feed or timeline full of Kartrashians, or some other celebs spoiled rich kids getting their feelings hurt.

    1. Mary P – you just described all the reasons I am a Brad K fan. And it’s ironic, because of the way I became his fan.

      To start, I inherited fandom of Rusty Wallace from my dad – since then I always rooted for the #2 car to do well. Once Kurt Busch joined the team my support started to wane – Kurt seems like a mental case, but he’s no doubt a talented driver.

      So I started looking at the Xfinity Series for someone to root for, and then I saw Keselowski at Memphis (winning his 4th race) and I was like “this is what I want! a talented driver who doesn’t rest on his laurels (being a talented driver) and puts it all on the line for the win” – obviously many people hated the way he won that race (and some others along the way) – and this isn’t me saying I agree with everything he does and how he does it (low point for me was when he put Kenseth in the wall at Charlotte a few years back), but overall I love his racing style.

      To top it off, he doesn’t list 1,000 sponsors in his post race interviews, he answers questions directly, and honestly, and celebrates our great nation after every win. He also relentlessly supports his team, which it’s pathetic that he’s so far in the minority on this one.

      He reveres his and our fans, while giving everything he has on the track to give those fans a show.

  12. I’m not mad because Matt got a raw deal. I’m emotionally detached from all of it. The reason Matt is done is because he wants paid way more than guys like Aric.

    How many of us would loose our jobs tomorrow if someone was willing to do the work for half the wage?

    In my opinion if a change of trajectory doesn’t occur soon the sport won’t survive in its current form. The race teams will be unsustainable, tv money will be renegotiated at a much lower sum and tracks that are still leveraged will be shuttered.

    I see the Truck series going away, and the Xfinity series may be worse off than we know as well. When the money is renegotiated we will find out real quick who’s worth what and what teams and even tracks are leveraged past the point of no return. Adam Alexander will be managing a Baskin Robbins before this is all said and done.

  13. Yesterday’s race was good, and I appreciate NASCAR trying some new rules and us having some good young drivers on the scene given the retirements of 2017 and 2016. Having said that, never once have I cared who won a stage 1 or 2 or kept up with the associated points. Stage cautions broke up the flow of the Daytona 500 badly. Other sports are realizing pace of play and attention span matters. If we want people under 40 to watch we don’t need 5 hour races. This may be heresy but I’d shorten a few. And wasn’t the point of the chase and playoff system to make the last 10 races matter? But only for a few guys? I’d do huge bonus points for the last 10 races, win and you’re in and have a top 20 or 25 all star race for the cup. Because now a blown engine or being collected by the P32 car in a late race can put you of of the playoffs, no matter what your early season performance.

  14. Have been a NASCAR fan since the 60s and and an every week fan since 1985 (Yes, Bill Elliott.). I did not like the NASCAR Chase when introduced – like the playoff format better and love the stage racing. Stage racing has made the driver/crew combination that improves the most during the race less of a king and this has hurt Johnson even more than his years in the sport have.
    Unless I am mistaken, Bill Elliott gave Kenseth his first Cup ride as a sub even though Kenseth already belonged to Jack.
    My two drivers are Elliott and Keselowski. Was disappointed with Elliott at Martinsville when he pushed Kes out of the way, then angry with Denny when he dumped Elliott. I felt Elliott, yesterday, both paid back Denny and evened up his score with Keslowski in one move.
    Chase is a meticulous driver and a good diagnostician of what needs to be fixed. I followed him on the scanner both years in Xfinity and he gave as good feedback as anyone I have followed. Greg Ives listened and executed. I felt that, Ernie Cope, feeling experienced, did not listen as well.
    Chase is in Cup on his talent, not his dad’s name. Same for Ryan Blaney whose dad’s name was not as big. There are other drivers who might be as good – none that I can think of are as good at avoiding accidents – a skill not so well noticed. . .but just look at the number of times you see Kes emerging from a wreck with his car intact.

  15. In yesterday’s race, I saw a young man who raced his heart out trying to get his first victory. He raced with the fire and desire to win. He didn’t back down to a veteran driver that had wrecked him just two weeks before. With less than 60 laps to go, he drove to the front of the field after restarting around 6th. (That rarely happens these days.)
    It had nothing to do with corporate sponsors, or being the son of a famous driver, or the ability to count stage points (my 6th grader does a great job of tracking stage points), or T-shirt and souvenir sales.
    It had everything to do with a young driver wanting to win!! That’s what racing is all about–figuring out a way to get to the finish line first.
    No, he didn’t win. A different veteran driver (making a last stand) ran him down and passed him after the younger driver’s car developed a push. That’s racing!
    What I did see is a young driver that deserves the ride that he has. I also saw great racing on a track that defies cookie-cutter status. Finally, I saw that there is still hope for the future of NASCAR racing because some drivers don’t want to just ride around, they want to win!!!

    1. I love you Leroy, lol ????. I saw the same thing you did. I would just never be able to express it with the same fire as you just did

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