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.
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.
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.