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Commentary

Truex, Furniture Row Champions All The Way

In the end, the little team that could, did.

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship was settled in the best possible way: The year’s two dominant drivers, Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing and Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing, waged a battle for the ages over the final 34 laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday night, with Truex narrowly holding off Busch to win the Ford EcoBoost 400 and, more importantly, his first Cup title.

This was a true Clash of the Titans and it was ultimately decided as it should have been, with a green-flag run unsullied by a late-race caution for debris or some strange pit road strategy that let a driver steal a win.

This was mano a mano, hammer and tongs, war; hard, clean racing by two drivers and teams that combined to win 13 of 36 points races this year, including seven of 10 playoff races, plus the all-star event.

No flukes here, just the real deal times two in Truex, Busch and their respective teams.

And, lordy, did it come with some drama.

Furniture Row ran its first race in Cup in 2005, but didn’t win for the first time until 2011.

The team’s owner, the soft-spoken and likeable Vietnam vet Barney Visser, wasn’t even in Homestead because he had a heart attack followed by bypass surgery Nov. 6.

Truex’s girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, continues to wage a brave and public battle with ovarian cancer.

Furniture Row fabricator Jim “Wildman” Watson died of a heart attack last month at a team go-kart event during the Kansas race weekend.

While virtually all of the top NASCAR teams are based in the Metro Charlotte area, Furniture Row is the only located in Denver, where Visser’s business is.

And let’s not forget, the Ford EcoBoost 400 concluded the last full-time Cup seasons for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick and, likely, Matt Kenseth, too.

It was one whale of an exclamation point to put on a wild and unpredictable season that began in January with the shocking announcement that Carl Edwards was walking away from the sport.

In the end, though, Truex got it done the way he has so often this year.

“We didn’t have the best car,” said NASCAR’s newest champion. “I don’t know how we won that thing. Never give up. Dig deep. I told my guys we were going to dig deeper than we ever have today and 20 (laps) to go I thought I was done – they were all better than me on the long run all day long. I just found a way.”

Yes, he did.

And the tears flowed freely, as they should.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Truex said. “To think about all the rough days and bad days, the days that couldn’t run 20th, to be here, I never thought this day would come and to be here is so unbelievable.”

Congratulations, champ.

You and the little team that could made it happen.

And when you did, you created a story that will last for the ages in NASCAR lore.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Homestead End of An Era for Dale Earnhardt Jr., others

Transitions. Every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has them, but few are as emotional or as comprehensive as the transitions that occurred today at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The big news at Homestead, of course, was that Martin Truex Jr. was crowned the Cup champion following the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400, which he won in an electrifying battle with Kyle Busch.

But almost as big were the last rides — or at least the last rides with their current teams — by some of NASCAR’s top names.

With fully 25 percent of the Cup rides changing drivers for 2018, Homestead represented not just the end of the season, but in many ways, the end of an era.

Here are some of the major transitions that took place on Sunday:

John K Harrelson | Harrelson Photography Inc.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR’s biggest star went out in style, with his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet trimmed out in the old Budweiser paint scheme from his early days.  Next year, Earnhardt will become a father and move to the NBC Sports TV booth for their part of the season, while his seat in the No. 88 will be filled by Alex Bowman.

Earnhardt started from the back of the field due to an engine change, but worked his way into the top 20 before making contact with the wall and finishing 25th.

“What a story for Martin. I love it,” Earnhardt said after his close friend Truex won the title. “We retired and Martin wins the championship. That’s storybook. I hope all the fans enjoyed this season. I know it wasn’t everything we wanted on the race track, but we just had fun off of it and I’m going to miss everybody, but we’ll be back.”

Rusty Jarrett | NKP

Matt Kenseth

The 2003 Cup champion scored a hugely emotional victory in the penultimate race of the season last weekend at Phoenix. Kenseth hasn’t said he’s retiring, but he doesn’t have a ride for next season, when he will be replaced in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota by Erik Jones.

“It was a really cool day, but once you start the engine, really didn’t think about anything to be honest with you, except for trying to go out and perform the best you can and trying to win that race,” said Kenseth, who finished eighth running the DeWalt paint scheme he used as a rookie.

John K Harrelson | Harrelson Photography Inc.

Danica Patrick

Despite her massive popularity with the public, in five seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing, Patrick was never able to consistently run up front. And with no sponsor for 2018, she will not be back full time in NASCAR, although she will run the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, with teams and sponsors to be named later. Aric Almirola will bring Smithfield Foods sponsorship to the No. 10 SHR Ford next year.

Homestead did not end well for Patrick, who cut a tire, hit the wall and finished 37th.  “I hit the wall in (Turns) 3 and 4 and got some fender rub on the tire and it blew the tire,” said Patrick. “I went a couple of laps and there was smoke in the car, but they thought it was all right, but it wasn’t.”

Rusty Jarrett | NKP

Ryan Blaney

This year, Blaney won his first race and made the NASCAR playoffs for the first time, advancing all the way to the Elite Eight in the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Next year, he’ll drive the new third car for Team Penske and ought to be a championship contender once again.

Blaney, too, had a rough day in the Ford EcoBoost 400, finishing 29th. “I love driving for the Wood Brothers,” he said. “It’s been a fun three years and I’ll always remember it. They’re very humble people and a humble family. All they want to do is race. They’re racers and that’s how I grew up. I think that’s what made our relationship special.”

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Kasey Kahne

Kahne was the surprise winner in the Brickyard 400 earlier this season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2014. But Hendrick Motorsports is promoting newly minted NASCAR XFINITY Series champion William Byron next year, when Kahne will move to Leavine Family Racing.

At Homestead, Kahne got taken out in Danica Patrick’s crash and finished 33rd.

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Michael McDowell

The Arizona native had the best season of his career this year, but in 2018, Kasey Kahne will take over the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet. McDowell could end up at Front Row Motorsports in 2018, although that is not confirmed. He finished 24th at Homestead.

John K Harrelson | Harrelson Photography Inc.

Erik Jones

It was one-and-done in the Furniture Row Racing No. 77 Toyota for Jones, who in 2018 will replace Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Big things are expected of Jones, who had an excellent rookie season this year. Furniture Row, meanwhile, will scale back to a single car in 2018. In his final drive with the team, Jones wound up 21st.

John K Harrelson | Harrelson Photography Inc.

Aric Almirola

In six full years with Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola had good equipment but not great equipment. Next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, he’ll have great equipment when he replaces Danica Patrick. At RPM, Bubba Wallace will take over for Almirola, and the team is expected to campaign Chevrolets. Almirola was a respectable 18th at Homestead.

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Paul Menard

After seven seasons with Richard Childress Racing, Menard will drive for the highly competitive Wood Brothers Racing team next year.  Do not be surprised if Menard has a strong 2018 campaign. No definite word yet on who will be Menard’s replacement at RCR. Menard ran well in his last outing with the team, coming home 16th.

John K Harrelson | Harrelson Photography Inc.

Landon Cassill

Cassill has said he will not be back with Front Row Motorsports in 2018, although he has not disclosed his plans, nor has the team announced its driver and sponsor lineup. Cassill finished 23rd on Sunday.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Going Out on His Own Terms

It’s the final ride for one of NASCAR’s legends, Dale Earnhardt Jr., a racer who over his career managed to emerge from the shadow of his larger-than-life father to become both a damned good racer himself and the point man for what social media can do in sports.

Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Earnhardt will run one last Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, this one appropriately trimmed out in the Budweiser colors he ran early in his career.

It will be an emotional day, for sure, for both Earnhardt and his millions of JR Nation fans, but in the end, he will leave on his own terms, the biggest star in a sport filled with them.

And he wants to end strong, despite having to start from the back of the field because of an engine change.

“I’d like to finish the race in one piece, whatever that is,” Earnhardt said Friday at Homestead. “Obviously, you want to do as well as you can. But no matter where we finish, (I’d just like) to be able to pull down pit road, stop the car, and get out. And then, see my guys and do all that. It would be a bit of a heartbreaker if we have any kind of issue that would take us out of the event and not be able to finish.”

Earnhardt is definitely at peace with his decision to wrap up his career.

“No, I don’t need to reconsider. This is great timing for me,” he said. “It’s time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can. And with Alex (Bowman, Earnhardt’s replacement in 2018) coming in behind, it’s just a great opportunity for him.

“It’s his time. It’s now his moment going into next season to take his career wherever he can go,” Earnhardt said. “And mine, in my heart, has ran its course. I’ve felt very good about that decision before the race in Daytona started in February, that this was it. And I was more thankful to be able to compete this year than I was to ever question whether I should go farther.

  • • •

As the son of the late Dale Earnhardt, Junior came into the sport with almost unattainable expectations: His father won seven Cup championships and 76 races, and was the true cock of the walk in the NASCAR garage. In a sport filled with alpha males, the senior Earnhardt was the biggest and baddest of them all.

But the elder Earnhardt perished in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. Overnight, Earnhardt Jr. acquired the overwhelming majority of his late father’s fans to go with his own considerable fan base– not to mention an amount of pressure and expectations that might have crushed a lesser man.

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

At the time of his father’s passing, the younger Earnhardt was only in his second full season of Cup racing, having won his first race at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2000 and the NASCAR All-Star Race in May.

The two Earnhardts couldn’t have been more different: Daddy was The Intimidator and the Man In Black, a former linthead who escaped the mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., to become a blue-collar Everyman and hero to millions.

In terms of personality, Earnhardt Jr. is much more quiet, humble and introspective. Tellingly, he describes himself in his Twitter bio as  “Former backup fullback for Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer. Retired automotive service mechanic. Aspiring BBQ Pitmaster. Friends, Music, Beer!”

What the two shared was deep loyalty to family, close friends and their race teams. When Earnhardt Jr. announced earlier this year that he was retiring, he was worried about his team members.

“It’s really emotional,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I just don’t like letting people down and worry about disappointing my boss and my friend (Rick Hendrick), and my crew.  These guys, we all depend on each other to be there every day, and to come in and say I’m not going to be here one day is very difficult.  We all kind of wish we could stay together forever.” 

In terms of his on-track performance, Earnhardt Jr. has put up solid but not spectacular numbers. Heading into Homestead, he has 26 victories, 149 top fives, 260 top 10s and 15 poles in 630 starts. Included in those totals are two Daytona 500 triumphs in 2004 and 2014, as well as 10 restrictor-plate wins, a total that trails only five NASCAR Hall of Famers: The elder Earnhardt (13), Cale Yarborough (12), Jeff Gordon (12), Richard Petty (12) and David Pearson (11).

Earnhardt Jr. also has eight non-points wins (five in the Daytona 500 qualifying Duels, two in The Clash and one All-Star Race victory) and has qualified for the NASCAR playoffs eight times.

There have been harrowing moments for Earnhardt Jr. on track, too: He suffered serious burns in a sports car race at Sonoma Raceway in 2003 when his Corvette crashed and burst into flames.

On top of that, Earnhardt Jr. twice was sidelined by concussions, the second time causing him to miss the entire second half of the 2016 NASCAR season.

Still, the numbers are there for Earnhardt Jr. His 26 victories are more than NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers Terry Labonte, Curtis Turner or Fireball Roberts achieved in their respective careers.

In addition, Earnhardt Jr. won the National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver award for 14 consecutive years. Besides that, Earnhardt’s popularity transcended the sport and captivated mainstream culture.

According to Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt Jr. has appeared on more than 150 magazine covers and has been featured in high-profile publications such as Maxim, Rolling Stone, GQ, Men’s Journal, Sports Illustrated, People Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Fitness and TV Guide. He was also a presenter at the 43rd annual Country Music Awards in 2009, and the 2002 MTV Music Awards, and has been a guest on many TV shows, including “60 Minutes,” “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “The Today Show,” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

But maybe the most fascinating part of Earnhardt Jr.’s career has been watching him grow up in public. When team owner Rick Hendrick moved Earnhardt Jr. into the Hendrick Motorsports garage with Jimmie Johnson, he started getting serious about his work habits and physical fitness, two things he didn’t pay much attention to when he drove for his father’s Dale Earnhardt Inc. team.

More significant, perhaps, was his marriage to the former Amy Reimann. There is no question that the relationship has done great things for Earnhardt Jr. And the couple is expecting their first child, a little girl.

“I wish I would have figured this all out sooner,” he said.  “I’m frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up because I have an amazing wife and she’s changed my life. She’s really helped me as a person to become better on all fronts – personally, and all my friendships with people and how I react to people and treat people. And, obviously, in my professional life she’s helped me as a driver.”

Earnhardt has become a good teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, too, and a friend to his fellow drivers.

 “Going through all the things he’s gone through and to still be the person he is today, it would be so easy to go off down a bad path in his situation and going through the things he went through and having the opportunities he had,” said Chase Elliott, himself the son of a racing legend. “It would be easy to not treat people right or do things wrong. I commend him for his efforts there in doing things the right way over the years from when he started all the way to now.”

Along with marriage and fitness, social media has dramatically changed Earnhardt Jr.’s life. After each race, Earnhardt Jr. goes on Periscope to talk about his day and it is no holds barred: He is brutally honest about whatever shortcomings he and his team might have had that day. His Dale Jr. Download weekly podcast is great, too.

“The only way to really do that (social media) is for that driver to be able to expose himself, be open and be genuine,” said Earnhardt. “ … All the guys my age, we had to learn how to use social media. I was obviously really apprehensive going into that, but I understand now what an incredible tool it is for interacting with the fans and how much our industry really utilizes that. It’s important for me to be a part of that.”

That authenticity has endeared him to sponsors, teammates and especially fans. I asked Earnhardt about his transparency with fans and whether it was hard to be that open. His answer to me was simple: “I’d rather they (fans) hear it from me” instead of draw their own conclusions about what he might be thinking.

Next year will mark a transition for Earnhardt and for NASCAR. He will still be active with the championship-caliber NASCAR XFINITY Series team he and sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller have built, and in the second half of the year, Earnhardt Jr. will be in the NBC TV booth.  

As for the end of his driving career, Earnhardt said he’s been blown away by the support he’s gotten in his final season.

“It’s just really overwhelming. It makes your heart full,” said Earnhardt. “I’m having a hard time trying to put my emotions and thoughts into words. Usually I’m pretty decent at it. But that part of it you’ll never forget. When somebody tells you how much they appreciate you, that means the world to you to hear that. It’s good.”

Trust this much Dale: Your fans appreciate you, and so does the entire NASCAR community. Good luck on Sunday and thanks for everything you’ve done for the sport.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

5 Keys to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Championship

In case you’re wondering which of the four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders has an advantage heading into Sunday’s season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the correct answer is this: No one has enough of an edge to be a legitimate favorite.

Here’s how it breaks down:  The Toyotas of Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing have been slightly faster than the Fords of Kevin Harvick from Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski so far this weekend at Homestead.

The key word here is “slightly.”

In qualifying Friday, Truex qualified second behind pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, with Busch third, Keselowski sixth and Harvick ninth.

Practices on Saturday were even closer.

During the first session, Truex had the second-best 10 consecutive-lap average speed, again right behind Hamlin. Keselowski was right there, too, in third, just ahead of fourth-place Busch and Harvick in sixth.

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

And in the final Happy Hour session, Busch was tops in best 10 consecutive-lap average speed, with Truex second, Harvick fourth and Keselowski sixth.

If any of the four has a huge speed advantage, they haven’t shown it yet.

So here’s what the race should come down to.

Strategy

The champion on Sunday will be the driver who finishes ahead of the other three title contenders. While the rest of the field will get stage points, the championship four drivers don’t. To win, one driver only will have to outrun his three rivals.

“Pit strategies and race strategies are going to be all over the place because we don’t care about stage points,” said Busch. “The rest of the field is going to care about stage points and things like that.”

Keep it off the wall

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

Homestead in some ways is like Darlington used to be: The fast way is around the very top of the track, but it’s also the most treacherous, because it’s easy to scrape the wall and ruin your day. “Running the whole race without hitting the wall is gonna be a big challenge,” said Keselowski.

Several drivers tagged the wall in practice on Saturday, including Truex, who incurred only minor damage to his No. 78 Toyota.

Rubber meets the road

At Homestead, tire wear is huge, too, again, just like at Darlington.

“You just don’t want to be at the end of this race with less sets of tires than the guys that you’re racing with, the way that the tire strategy is,” said Harvick. “… Obviously, tire fall-off is something that we always talk about here, and I think this weekend it’s going to be magnified.”

Changing conditions

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

Sunday’s race will begin in daylight and end in darkness. The four crew chiefs will be charged with properly adjusting the cars to keep up with the conditions.

“Trying to plan on finishing this race at night is part of what we’re trying to figure out,” Truex said after final practice on Saturday. “I think we changed enough and made enough adjustments today and we learned a lot. That gives us a lot to look at tonight and make the right decisions based off of that.”

The end

Since NASCAR adopted the winner-take-all format at Homestead in 2014, there has been a caution in the final 10 laps of the Ford EcoBoost 400 all three years. That means there’s a strong chance there will be another caution in the last 10 laps this time.

If there is, the race winner will be the driver who has the best final pit stop and the best final restart.

And it’s the end of the race that’s going to determine whether Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski or Martin Truex Jr. is crowned as the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Exodus of NASCAR Vets is Good News for Generation Next

The numbers are well and truly staggering: 299 race victories, eight championships and untold memories created in what today is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Since the end of the 2013 season, the Cup Series has already lost to the retirement Jeff Gordon (93 race wins, 4 titles), Tony Stewart (49, 3), Mark Martin (40), Carl Edwards (28), Greg Biffle (19), Brian Vickers (3) and Marcos Ambrose (2).

Set to join them after the conclusion of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway are Matt Kenseth (39, 1), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (26) and Danica Patrick, the latter of whom hasn’t won but is hugely popular and influential.

Add all those race wins up and they total more than eight full seasons of Cup racing.

That immense exodus of talent has caused much hand-wringing by folks wondering how the sport will manage without many of its biggest stars.

And yet, somehow, the sport survives.

NASCAR survived when Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison retired. For that matter, those guys replaced the stars of the ‘50s, guys like Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas and Tim Flock.

The sport survived tragedies, too.  In 1993, NASCAR lost Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki to aviation accidents. And no one will ever forget the awful day in Daytona in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt lost his life.

That’s been the way it’s been since the beginning and will be for decades to come: Star drivers leave and new ones take their place. It’s just how NASCAR works.

Is the sport in the midst of a huge transition right now?

Of course it is.

Will the big names retiring be badly missed? Absolutely.

There isn’t another Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick, just like there wasn’t another Richard Petty or Davey Allison.

What there is now is a tremendous amount of young talent just getting started at the Cup level or still moving up through the ranks.

Want some excitement?

Watch Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones race each other. Or, next year, those four plus William Byron, Alex Bowman and Bubba Wallace.

Behind them you’ve got Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer, Brennan Poole, Christopher Bell, Austin Cindric and several more.

Today’s young guns are each their own personalities and in their own ways will make their respective marks. Some will become superstars, some will be merely good and inevitably one or two won’t even make it long-term.

If you’re a fan, there’s nothing wrong with being sad that Sunday likely will be the end of the last full-time seasons for Earnhardt, Patrick and Kenseth.

But there is so much to look forward to in 2018 and beyond. I, for one, can’t wait.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Danica Patrick Has Bright Future Outside of NASCAR

Danica Patrick wept.

She told herself she wouldn’t but as she sat in the media center at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday and announced her retirement as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, the tears flowed freely.

“My sister said I wasn’t supposed to get emotional,” said Patrick, driver of the No. Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “I said I wouldn’t. But I’m grateful for all the opportunities.”

Patrick went on to say that she will compete in two races next season, the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, the latter being a race that she said several times she’d never enter again.

But things change.

One of the big things that changed for Patrick was that SHR didn’t have a sponsor for her in 2018 and beyond, so she’s being replaced by Aric Almirola, who brings Smithfield Foods sponsorship with him.

This coming after Nature’s Bakery bailed on its sponsorship of Patrick before the 2017 season even began.

In racing, money talks and the lack of money means sometimes that otherwise capable drivers walk. Just ask 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth or Greg Biffle, both former stars, or Kurt Busch, the 2004 champ who still doesn’t have a deal with SHR for 2018.

In this, Patrick is not alone.

“I just think that sometimes in your life … I’m not feeling like I was pushed into this … I feel like I should be doing this,” said Patrick. “I feel like this is where my life should be headed.

“And sometimes we just get kind of nudged there,” she said. “Sometimes it’s big nudges and sometimes it’s little. But I definitely I was faced with situations at the beginning of the year that I had never faced before. I had never had sponsor issues. It made me think about things and so I’m excited about the next phase.”

As far as that next phase goes, yes, there’s Daytona and Indy to consider.

Longer term, Patrick has demonstrated her savvy as a businessperson and has built a whole cottage industry around being Danica: She has her own clothing line, her own brand of wines, a physical fitness book and has said several times she wants to have a child with boyfriend and fellow racer Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Patrick will continue to do quite well for herself off the track.

On the track, she leaves a complicated legacy that fans will continue to debate.

The good is that Patrick became the first competitive contemporary female racer, brought tons of attention to the sport and inspired millions of young girls to emulate her. Those are all things she can be proud of and be respected for.

The on-track results — just seven t0p 10s in 189 starts — did not come close to matching her popularity, but the numbers are what they are.

Asked how she wanted to be remembered, Patrick said, “What I’ve always wanted is to just be remembered as a great driver, then remembered as a girl. I don’t care if your remember me as a girl. Of course I am. It’s obvious. But to be remembered as a great driver. That’s it.”

Categories
Commentary

5 Takeaways From Phoenix

Sunday’s Can-Am 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway was about as wild and emotional and affair as we’ve seen all year, a crazy roller coaster of ups and downs for drivers, teams and fans alike.

In the end, it was lame-duck Matt Kenseth, on his way out the door at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for the younger and presumably less expensive Erik Jones, who drove his butt off to win over Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and the aforementioned Jones.

And the race set the championship field for next week, which will feature Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. racing heads-up for a championship. Whoever has the best finish of the four will be the champion.

The Phoenix race demonstrated five key components to NASCAR racing that are some of the reasons it’s still so damned compelling to watch.

Plot lines

Talk about a ton of sub-plots: Which driver would be the last one to make it into the final four? It turned out to be Keselowski, but for most of the race it looked like he’d get knocked out. Would Chase Elliott rough up Denny Hamlin and finally win a race? Yes and no — Hamlin led a race-high 193 laps but Elliott ran him into the wall and out of the playoffs.

Elliott, meanwhile, got passed by Kenseth with 10 laps to go and wound up finishing second for the fourth time in nine playoff races.

Then there was Jimmie Johnson, who was racing for an eighth championship but got knocked out by a cut tire just before the end of the second stage. There were all sorts of plots and subplots all day long, and, yes, stage racing added to the intrigue.

Emotion

Kenseth is one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet — smart, funny and one hell of a wheelman. And he had dark glasses on during his post-race interview as he fought through the emotions running through him. Don’t let anyone kid you: This meant the world to Kenseth and he drove like it. That was real emotion you saw in the post-race interviews.

“It couldn’t be any sweeter. I just don’t know how else to explain it, you know?” said Kenseth. “You always feel like you can get the job done, but, you know, if you’ve got a big enough sample size of numbers, numbers don’t really lie, so we needed to go out and get the job done and get us a win and we were able to do that today, so we’ve got one more race left and, like I said, great way to go out.”

And when asked about spraying team owner Joe Gibbs with champagne in Victory Lane, Kenseth quipped, “What’s he going to do, fire me?”

Revenge

In racing, you need a good guy and a bad guy. Depending on where your loyalties are, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott each fit one of those roles. Elliott  was leading at Martinsville two weeks ago when Hamlin drilled him into the wall with two laps to go. At Phoenix, Elliott ran Hamlin up into the wall and a few laps later, Hamlin popped a tire and crashed, his playoff hopes over.

Interestingly, both men owned it in their post-race comments.

“Oh, well I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless,” said Elliott. “I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me and that’s the way I see it.”

“Each person has their own opinion of how they do things,” said Hamlin. “It just proves to people who thought I was the bad guy that he would do the exact same thing under the same circumstances. That’s part of racing. I got into him and he retaliates, so I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is.”

Redemption

Keselowski and the No. 2 Team Penske Ford were off the pace most of the day, failing to pick up any points in either of the first two stages. But Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe persisted, and at the end, the team gutted out a 16th-place finish, which was enough to advance them to the title race next week.

“This feels a little bit like Christmas,” said Keselowski. “Sometimes you need a little luck on your side. Today we had that. It wasn’t by any means where we wanted to run. We wanted to run up front and have a shot for the win. That wasn’t in the cards. We tried to run the smartest race we could and survive and it ended up paying off in the end.”  

Classiness

Elliott raced Hamlin physically, making contact with him on a couple of occasions. Elliott didn’t put the bumper to Kenseth, who he’d never had an issue with before. And, bummed out as he was that he didn’t win, Elliott walked down to Victory Lane to congratulate Kenseth on his win.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

By The Numbers: How NASCAR’s Final Four Measure Up

Thirty-five races and nearly nine months after the Daytona 500 kicked off the the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, the final lineup of the four drivers who will compete for the series championship is at last set.

Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski will decide the championship next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. All four drivers will enter the final race tied in points, and whichever one of the four has the best finish at Homestead will be the 2017 Cup champion.

It should be an epic battle.

Here’s how the final four combatants measure up:

Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing

After a frustrating start to the season, in which he led a lot of laps but didn’t win, Busch has come on strong, with three playoff race victories and five overall. In addition, Busch has 13 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes.

This year, Busch has won at Pocono Raceway, Bristol Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Dover International Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.

Busch won the finale at Homestead in 2015 to claim his first and so far only Cup championship. That said, his average finish there is 19.83, second worst of any Cup track for the Las Vegas native. In this year’s playoffs, Busch’s average finish is 12.22.

Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing

The 2014 champion locked himself into Homestead with a clutch, late-race charge to victory at Texas Motor Speedway, when he ran down Martin Truex Jr. in the final 10 laps to win just his second race of the season.

Harvick’s first victory of 2017 came in June on the Sonoma Raceway road course in Northern California. Through the first 35 races of the year, Harvick has earned 12 top fives and 21 top 10s. In the playoffs this year, Harvick’s average finish is 10.89.

Known as a racer who is at his best in pressure situations, Harvick won the 2014 championship, the first contested with the final-four format at Homestead. In fact, to win the 2014 title, Harvick had to win the final two races of the year, which he did. Statistically, Homestead is Harvick’s best track. His average finish there is 6.94 and he has the 2014 victory and eight top-five finishes in 16 Homestead races.

Brad Keselowski, Team Penske

The 2012 Cup champion has had an up-and-down season, but he has performed well enough in the playoffs to make it to Homestead and that’s what really matters. Keselowski won early in the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, but didn’t win again until last month, when he was victorious at Talladega Superspeedway.

On the year, Keselowski has 15 top fives and 20 top 10s in his No. 2 Team Penske Ford. His average playoff finish is 7.57.

This will be Keselowski’s first time as a member of the final four since NASCAR adopted the winner-take-all format in 2014. Homestead historically has not been a great track for him; his average finish there is 15.89, with a best finish of third.

Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing

After making the final four in 2015 and having a strong 2016 campaign, Truex has been the breakout star of 2017, winning the regular-season Cup championship. He leads the series in race victories (7), top fives (17), top 10s (24), playoff points (69) and laps led (2,175) and has led the points standings since race No. 18 at Kentucky Speedway.

Six of Truex’s seven victories have come at 1.5-mile tracks, the same distance as Homestead, and he’s won three playoff races. Truex swept at Kansas Speedway this year and won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kentucky, Watkins Glen International, Chicagoland Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In 12 career starts at Homestead, Truex has an average finish of 12.23, with three top fives and seven top 10s. His average finish in the nine playoff races so far is 4.67.

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Matt Kenseth Comes Up Huge to Win in Phoenix

If you were waiting for a Game 7 moment in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, it came Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, where Matt Kenseth passed Chase Elliott with 10 laps to go to capture Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at the penultimate race of the 2017 Cup Series season.

Kenseth, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver who has no ride for next year, won over Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones, and Kevin Harvick.

“Just got one race left and everybody dreams of going out a winner,” said Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR champion who won his 39th career race. “We won today. Nobody can take that one away from us. It was a heck of a race with Chase there.”

But the big news is the field is now set for next Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski will battle for the title. Whichever one of those four drivers has the best finish at Homestead will be the 2017 Cup champion.

Eliminated from championship contention at Phoenix were seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott, Ryan Blaney of Wood Brothers Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin.

In the Phoenix race, Blaney started from the pole, but Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota showed early speed before getting passed by Kyle Larson, who won Stage 1. But Hamlin, who came into the race outside the top four in the standings, picked up 9 points by finishing second in Stage 1.

In Stage 2, Hamlin led the whole way, picking up another 10 stage points, which meant he was tied in point with Keselowski., who failed to get points in either of the first two stages. One lap before the end of the second stage, Johnson had a tire failure and went hard into the wall, knocking him out of the race.

But after a caution in Stage 3, Hamlin’s crew got only four lug nuts on his left-rear tire during a pit stop. And during that stop, he was passed by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.

Then, with 42 laps to go, Elliott tried to pass Hamlin and rode him up to the wall. Just four laps later, Hamlin blew a tire and his championship hopes were over after leading 193 laps.

And following another restart, Elliott passed Kenseth with 29 laps to go and appeared to be ready to win his first race.

But Kenseth passed him with 10 laps to go to take his first victory of the year and dash Elliott’s hopes of racing for a title.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Jimmie Johnson Knocked Out of Playoffs

Jimmie Johnson’s dream of an eighth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship will have to wait at least one more year.

Johnson blew a right-front tire one lap before the end of Stage 2 in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway, the final race of the Cup playoff semi-final round.

When the tire failed, Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet went hard into the wall, knocking him out of the race and out of the playoffs. Johnson was running ninth when the tire let go.

“I really didn’t have any warning,” said Johnson, who needed a victory at Phoenix to advance. “I knew that I was hard on the brakes, but the run before, we didn’t have any issues reported back. So I felt like I was kind of doing the same thing. Unfortunately, with so few laps to go until the end of the stage, as soon as I went in the corner and touched the brakes, the right-front (tire) blew.”

This year’s Cup playoffs have been hugely disappointing for Johnson.

He has led just two of nine playoff races, with only one top-five and three top-10 finishes and an average finish of 16.11

“Unfortunately we won’t have a chance to make eight this year, but we’ll come back next year and try real hard,” said Johnson. “… We just haven’t been there, unfortunately.”