Did You Notice? … Each of the four drivers remaining would be a first-time NASCAR champion? While Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman have had successful years before, nothing has quite prepared them for the magnitude of Sunday’s season finale. In the midst of the drama, each controls their own destiny: finish ahead of the other three and you win the trophy.
It’s created one of the most unpredictable scenarios this sport has seen. With the title a crapshoot, let’s dissect what such an accomplishment would mean for each driver involved…
Why he should win… Logano, the anointed driver of his generation, had a breakthrough year, with five victories. Without a Chase, he’d still be second, in title contention with the perfect mix of consistency and winning. Jeff Gordon, who would lead the points without the playoff and was the heir apparent of the last generation of drivers won his first title at the same age Logano is now: 24.
Penske Racing, with 11 wins overall, has been the class of the field this year despite just a two-car operation. And Logano, with no finish worse than 12th during this Chase would be blowing the field away if NASCAR stuck to its 2013 playoff format.
Why some fans would hate it… They think Gordon, not Logano should have won if the No. 24 finishes in front. They believe Gordon deserves the title considering his dominance leading the points all season. Others might feel Logano played second fiddle to Keselowski all season, lucking out with the trophy because Kes, with his season-high six victories failed to advance.
Impact: A title thrusts Logano into the superstar status that’s been expected of him for nearly a decade now. It validates what others saw in his potential and instills permanent confidence in a driver who’s been searching for identity. NASCAR, once and for all, will also know how popular “Sliced Bread” can be, whether his personality is capable of attracting a larger fan base. Do they have another Jimmie Johnson on their hands or a driver with enough charisma to make a national connection?
Why he should win… More laps led (2,083) than anyone else all season long. A four-win total with a first-year team that could easily be eight without a handful of silly mistakes. Harvick’s been close, several times, and a title in this type of dominating year would be lightly criticized. NASCAR will be rooting for his story most of all; without the new system, Harvick would have this season go to waste and he’d be arguably the best driver stuck around fifth in points. Bill Elliott and his Winston Million season of 1985 didn’t win the championship; neither did Rusty Wallace during his ten-win year of 1993. The sport could say a Harvick title proves how the new format corrects those types of clerical errors, a little inconsistency wiped away in favor of the driver who’s spent the most time up front.
Why some fans would hate it… Harvick incited the Keselowski fight, plus threatened Matt Kenseth, which leaves him a bit of a polarizing figure. He lost far more races this season than he won through self-induced mistakes.
Impact: Harvick’s win would be the biggest boost to the format, validating the driver’s career move from Richard Childress Racing. At 39, it’s a bit late for him to get popular but he’d serve the sport well as champion. Perhaps the biggest impact would occur within Stewart-Haas Racing, providing stability and success when the other three drivers could find themselves in a civil tussle, domestic violence investigation and dealing with a third crew chief in three months situation, respectively.
Why he should win… Hamlin led the points heading into the Chase’s final round at Homestead. Four years after blowing his chance, spinning out in the finale after entering the race leading the points, redemption is close at hand. Hamlin won at Homestead a year ago, sealing the healing process from a nightmare injury and enters with an edge based on past success.
Why some fans would hate it… Hamlin missed a race. That alone could set a precedent, changing the game for any Chase-eligible driver who suffers a minor injury, has a personal situation arise, etc. during the regular season. Jumping out altogether on a Sunday, as long as the sanctioning body approves it could push some heavy hitters to pursue more limited schedules. Hamlin also wouldn’t have even made the postseason under the old Chase format, theoretically lower in points (14th) in that scenario compared to any other driver in the final four. How bad has his year been, consistency-wise? He’s earned just one top-5 finish all Chase, paired with a 37th at Loudon and earned a 12.4 average finish during that span. That would be the worst Chase average finish for any champion since NASCAR came up with the format in 2004.
Impact: Any fan that isn’t pro-Denny will struggle with their feelings on this one. Yes, Hamlin has come close in the recent past but does that mean a title needs to be giftwrapped? Just one victory all season, at a restrictor plate track no less, does little to help Hamlin’s case he’s the best out there.
Why he should win… Newman has been the most consistent driver all Chase outside of Logano. Never lower than 18th, he raced within his means and earned a spot to compete with a divebomb move on Kyle Larson on the final lap. That gives him momentum, paired with a “nothing to lose” mentality. Fans convinced he should have a shot will make the inevitable “David vs. Goliath” comparison.
Why some fans would hate it… Newman has as many top-5 finishes (four) as Jeff Gordon has victories. One man is still alive for the title and one man isn’t. That total of four, combined with just 41 laps led would make Newman the weakest champ on paper since Red Byron in 1949, NASCAR’s first year. Keep in mind back then the schedule was composed of only eight races. He’d also be the first winless champion (unless a Homestead miracle occurs).
Impact: Fans critical of the Chase would have hard numbers supporting their cause. Newman would be an awkward representative considering the circumstances. It’s like a 9 seed winning the NCAA tournament; you hold the trophy but does anyone really think you were the best team from November through March? Among those who have led more laps include teammate Paul Menard, Tony Stewart (who missed several races this season) and the soon-to-be-gone Marcos Ambrose.
From a practical standpoint, Newman is also a soft-spoken guy, older (37) and more difficult to relate to nationally. You won’t win new fans with a Newman title; if anything, it’ll force NASCAR to change the format so it never happens again.
Did You Notice? … The Chase isn’t the only thing ending this Sunday. Other storylines include…
Marcos Ambrose’s last ride in Cup. The Australian heads back to his native country after Homestead, likely winless on oval tracks for his Cup career. But it’s a time for Ambrose to be celebrated; he may have singlehandedly put Watkins Glen and road racing back on the map. The man will be missed.
Tony Stewart’s win streak. Stewart has won at least one race every year since his Cup Series debut in 1999. The 15-year longevity mark is the longest active streak and is set to end barring a Homestead miracle.
Steve Letarte’s swan song. It’s the crew chief’s last race running the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. shop before moving on to the NBC broadcast booth next season. Can they end the partnership with a win?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
– ESPN has had its rough moments covering NASCAR the past eight years, this latest stint remembered more for what they didn’t do than what they did. But their last idea, on the way out the door to cover championship contenders daily, throughout their SportsCenter platform has potential to leave a lasting impact on the sport. It introduces new fans to stock car racing at a time when there’s interest, makes these drivers look more like normal people and honestly? It’s a Good Samaritan effort. ESPN is one Sunday away from shutting off the cameras, turning off their coverage of the sport and walking out. They never even bid on extending their contract, yet their efforts in the past few weeks, in a “lame duck” role have been commendable. While we’re at it, kudos to the network for keeping Ricky Craven, coming into his own as an analyst to assume a Barry Melrose-type role; he’ll still give weekly postrace analysis on SportsCenter next year when NASCAR goes elsewhere.
– Homestead announced Tuesday their grandstand seating, along with premium club seats are sold out in advance of the season finale. That’s the second straight sellout for NASCAR, as Phoenix continues to draw a healthy crowd while the Texas contingent was among the year’s largest. A lot of fans may voice their hatred of the new format, anywhere from this website to Twitter but there’s also a whole lot of people coming to the track.
The TV ratings support that theory as the Chase hits the homestretch. A 3.1 rating at Phoenix was the best Nielsen number for that race in five years. Texas saw an increase in viewers, too which stopped the bleeding after a year of audience declines. And the sport is almost guaranteed to start better in 2015, considering hours worth of weather delays led to the lowest-rated Daytona 500 ever televised. You’d have to assume lightning doesn’t strike twice, right?
The reason I’m posting these facts are because fans who hate this format have gone out of their way, for weeks to tell NASCAR and anyone who’ll listen how awful it is. Virtually every article I’ve read that’s racing-related is filled with comments underneath about how people have stopped watching, lit their NASCAR books on fire and plan to form a picket line in protest. Yet a funny thing keeps happening through all their agony: down the stretch, with Homestead looming more people are watching. On paper, more money’s being spent and more attention is being paid to the sport.
I’m not convinced positivity will ultimately win out here; heck, I’m still not 100% sure NASCAR will keep this format intact for 2015. But this evidence shows that there are two sides to every story, following the old adage nine out of ten people will criticize but only one will go public with a compliment. Baseball, in the mid-90s was raked through the coals for changing its playoff format, traditionalists vowing not to watch with the “wild card.” And you know what? Baseball didn’t die. It retained an audience.
It all goes back to what I said in my Athlon column Monday: this story could end one of 1,000 different ways. This race Sunday is one of the most unpredictable we’ve seen in years. And wasn’t that a buzzword that made NASCAR fun for fans? Unpredictable? History has shown us it’s drawn more fans to the table than “aero push” or “Jimmie Johnson.”
The impact of this race on the future of this sport is more than we even realize right now. And that’s why, love it or hate it you can’t stop watching.
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