(Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. © 2014)

Five Points to Ponder: Projecting Final Four, Junior’s Good Year & Frayed Tempers

One: Final Four Up for Grabs

Two races remain until we learn which quartet of drivers will contest for the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Most of us, myself included, had assumed we would find out at least one of those four names at Martinsville, but for the first time in seven Chase races a driver no longer eligible for the championship won. What this means is that at least two drivers will make the final four by dint of their points total across three races. Put another way: consistency is going to matter in this season all about winning.

The number of drivers making the final four on points might even be more depending on who wins at Texas and Phoenix. And while I’m on that topic, it’s worth noting that Joey Logano won the first Texas race of the season, although Brad Keselowski ran strongly and led 85 laps. Phoenix, meanwhile, was the Kevin Harvick show on a dominant day for the veteran. All of which is good news for both Harvick and the 2012 champion, who already find themselves in a deficit after terrible results at Martinsville. In short, it’s all to race for.

Two: Junior’s Good Year

It might not be the long-awaited, much-yearned-for championship year the legions of Junior Nation – or the driver himself – wanted, but the facts remain that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had an excellent season, his best in a decade.

In fact, Earnhardt has scored the same number of wins this season (four) than he has in the previous nine full years combined. And his 12 top 5s (and counting) are the highest he’s scored since that career six-win, 16-top-5 2004 season.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Despite his bad luck at Talladega, Earnhardt has been a proven contender in 2014. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Following his ouster from the Chase at Talladega, Earnhardt talked about going out and winning some races – and that’s exactly what he did, picking up his first ever victory at the historic old paper clip and the 23rd of his 16-year, 538-race career. Most of all though this year, Earnhardt has been a true contender and it hasn’t felt that we’ve been able to say that for a long time. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: the pressure on NASCAR’s 11-time most popular driver is immense, so to see him live up to those lofty expectations and to be so relevant has been great to watch.

It is a genuine shame he won’t be competing for the title at Homestead. Can you imagine how good the TV numbers would have been had he made it that far? I’m sure the suits at NASCAR HQ have wondered the same.

Three: The Ryan Newman Question

I wrote earlier about this round of the Chase being about consistency – so with that in mind, step forward, Ryan Newman.

If you look at his results so far, particularly in the last five races, he’s been the very model of just that. In his last seven races, he’s scored five top 10s, his only finishes outside the top 10 being finishes of 15th (Chicagoland) and 18th (New Hampshire) – and in the visits to the two tracks coming up earlier this year, he was 16th (Texas) and seventh (Phoenix).

But despite these excellent results, Newman is still winless on the season, and two of his four top 5s on the year have come in the last two races. As such, many of the folks who despise this new format are already pointing to a potential Newman title as evidence of a flawed system.

I’m not so sure I agree with that. If he can make it all the way to the final race and come out on top, he’s the deserved champion. You can only win it by the rules of that season – simply put. Just ask Jeff Gordon about 2007, a season during which he finished with an incredible 30 top 10s and an average finish of 7.3, compared to champion Jimmie Johnson’s 10.8. Plus, for a driver as notoriously difficult to pass at Ryan Newman, can you imagine how wide his car would be at Miami if he’s still in the hunt.

Four: Frayed Tempers

OK, let me see if I can keep up with all the recent testiness amongst the Sprint Cup drivers. We’ve had Brad Keselowski vs. Denny Hamlin, Keselowski vs. Matt Kenseth,  Keselowski vs. Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers vs. Kasey Kahne, Kenseth vs. Kevin Harvick, and Danica Patrick vs. Joey Logano – and that’s naming just a few.

Now, for me, not much beats a good rivalry, provided drivers are sensible in their retaliation, and we’re certainly seeing the season bubbling up nicely in that regard. I wouldn’t expect any retribution to be exacted at a lightning fast track like Texas, but Phoenix is another matter. Some of this recent aggression is simply a byproduct of a long season; we’re 33 races into a 36-race slate (plus the two exhibition races) and no doubt many drivers are looking forward to some rest and relaxation. And some of it is the pressure of racing for a championship under this new format where every point is crucial.

Whatever the reason, for the neutral, it’s fun to watch.

Five: Triple Headers

We have just nine races to run in 2014, with 82 of the scheduled 91 total races across the three top series already in the books. Making things more exciting, we have three straight triple-header weekends to close things out, so there’s still plenty of time to get a glut of racing action before NASCAR shuts down for the off-season.

There’s still plenty to play for at the Cup level, while in the Nationwide Series, Chase Elliott is moving inexorably toward the title, some 42 markers up on Regan Smith, who is in second place.

Meanwhile, in the Camping World Truck Series, Matt Crafton is looking for back to back titles, though Ryan Blaney (-18), Darrell Wallace, Jr. (-22) and Johnny Sauter (-40) are all still in the hunt.

So enjoy the last three weeks, folks. Before you know it rather than complaining about what’s happening on the track, you’ll be complaining about the lack of on track action altogether.

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Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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15 comments

  1. Avatar

    I agree with your assessment that if Ryan Newman wins the championship without a win, he deserves to be the champion. All of the drivers are playing by the same rules. However, I don’t think that means the the elimination format is a legitimate way to pick a champion. Wins need to matter more, At the very least, the bonus points for wins should carry over into the next round. That would help, but not fix, a very flawed system that fans overwhelmingly don’t like. As it stands, Newman is basically racing Hamlin, Kenseth, and maybe Edwards to make it to the championship race at Homestead, and just needs solid top-tens in the next two races to get there. I think he’ll be in the final four unless Keselowski and Harvick both win at Texas and Phoenix. That’s not likely.

    • Avatar

      I can’t think of another competitive endeavor anywhere ever where the Champion could even possibly be winless. The Chase is a mess beyond description.

  2. Avatar

    I don’t know if it is wins that should count more into the next round (carry a 10 point bonus into the next round? vs. also carrying over something based on the finishing order of the previous round. Win a round and get a 20 point advantage into the next round. Finish second in a round and get a 10 point advantage, third = 5.

    I would much rather see Newman or Kenseth win it with 0 wins, then see a Champion who hypothetically posts a win in each of the three rounds, but crashes out/blows an engine in the other 6 races.

    With the exception of possibly Kenseth (by only some fans), the Old (Non-Chase) format NEVER yielded a discussion about who was the Champion. I repeat NEVER.

    The Chase was a Lowest-Common-Denominator Decision where many fans have questions the validity of the Champion in some years.

    That will only get worse this year, where after a game of Survivor, a once-a-year 1.5 miler is being used to the determine the Champion, who could win the Cup by merely finishing 3rd, 7th, or even 15th based on how the 4 compete. Throw in fuel mileage, the Lucky Dog, wave arounds, debris cautions, weather, Goodyear Tires and teammates and NASCAR may get more than what they bargained for, with legitimacy being a major off-season topic.

    Game 7 Champs don’t have the same issues because they have had to win other Series + three games to get to Game 7 + they have to truly WIN the final contest.

    • Avatar

      BUDSUDZ:
      “That will only get worse this year, where after a game of Survivor, a once-a-year 1.5 miler is being used to the determine the Champion, who could win the Cup by merely finishing 3rd, 7th, or even 15th based on how the 4 compete.”

      Technically, the guy who wins the championship, “In a format that *stresses* winning” could finish 40th at
      Homestead if the other 3 finish 41st 42nd and 43rd.

      Its a joke, its stupid and its gimicky, but its “their” idea. Nascar is never wrong, and when they are they, they can’t ever admit it and take the horrible idea that isn’t working to extremes.. Much like increased downforce.

      The “show” is the race 36 times a year.. The “show” isn’t the championship.. You can’t watch the “championship”.. You can watch the race though. But they don’t want you to watch the race, the
      focus is all championship ALL THE TIME!!! I can check the standings monday morning and keep up with
      that, no need to watch the race…

      Nascar disgusts me now. It used to be SO much fun, on TV, at the bar on a Sunday afternoon.. Going
      to the track and having a blast. Now it just sucks, and I wouldn’t even care but I’m just a bit PO’d at
      how something I used to enjoy and people I knew used to enjoy just sucks now.

      • Avatar

        Bob, I would wager that this post about sums up the feelings of at least 80% of the remaing (and ever shrinking) fan base.

  3. Avatar

    I believe that the reason the media thinks JJ ‘gets no respect’ for his 6 champeenships is because they were all won under the ‘chase’ system. I know I certainly don’t regard a title won in a 10 race not-a-playoff format with the same prestige as the old, win the entire season title. This ‘new and improved’ version is an even bigger crapshoot, not exactly reassuring. And not something I would compare the The King and Earnhardt’s 7 titles.
    Just sayin’.

  4. Avatar

    At least with the FedEx Cup format with the PGA Tour, the points/standings do carry over during each elimination period and wins are very heavily weighted.
    First, they carry their regular season points (no reset) into the playoffs. Second, the points in the playoffs receive a 5x multiplier (putting more weight on the playoff matches vs. the regular season).
    Finally, for the final event, the points are reset with the Top Players for the Regular Season + Playoffs having a distinct advantage over those in 30th place. Hence, your YTD accomplishments are rewarded.
    Technically, the Champion can be crowned without winning the Final Event, but they would have needed to win during the season (and most likely during one of the 4 playoff matches) to earn the title.

  5. Avatar

    Texas must like Penske this year. At least it seemed so in April.

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