Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Had it not been for a piece of debris – about which there is some debate about whether or not it was actually in the racing groove – Kyle Larson might have had his first Sprint Cup win in the bag. Larson won the Xfinity Series race at Homestead Saturday and was closing fast on leader Brad Keselowski Sunday when the caution flew for the debris. Larson’s car wasn’t as strong on restarts as it had been on long runs, and he fell to fifth on the final tally. Larson, who ran so close to the wall that at times he seemed to defy physics, has struggled a bit in his sophomore season, but served notice Sunday that he’s still very much a star on the rise.
What… is on my mind after the race?
While riding into the sunset a champion would have been the stuff of legend, really, Jeff Gordon had long ago achieved legend status in the sport. He didn’t need to prove anything. His 93 wins, good for third all-time – and he’s the only driver in the top three to have raced entirely in the sport’s modern era – and four championships speak for themselves. But while what Gordon did in the sport is monumental, what he has done for the sport is immeasurable.
Gordon bridged a generation gap in NASCAR, helped bring a blue-collar sport to a white-collar audience and provided the perfect white-hatted protagonist to Dale Earnhardt. Well-spoken and comfortable in NASCAR’s emerging corporate environment, Gordon backed up his sponsor-friendly persona on the track, where he was once roundly booed because he won so much and seemed so perfect. Gordon also proved to have an eye for talent, and when car owner Rick Hendrick offered him ownership in a brand-new team as part of a long-term contract, he picked a young driver nobody else saw much in. Gordon has six championships as a car owner because he saw something in Jimmie Johnson other than a Watkins Glen highlight reel.
Gordon’s absence will be keenly felt by his fans and by race fans in general. Just as it took a long time for fans to stop looking for Earnhardt on track in that No. 3 after his untimely death, it will be a while before they stop looking for that rainbow-colored No. 24 with Gordon behind the wheel. The car will still be there, with youngster Chase Elliott, but sponsor Axalta, which was with Gordon from day one, will move to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s cars next season. If the sport is divided into eras, then the Jeff Gordon Era is right up there with the best years the sport has ever seen. Other than Richard Petty and maybe Earnhardt, no driver has done for the sport what the driver once called Wonderboy has in the course of his career. #24ever, indeed.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Denny Hamlin won the pole and them promptly had rear gear issues when a lubricant seal failed. He spent three laps in the garage, but thanks to some well-placed cautions, Hamlin regained the all three laps and finished 10th. He is headed for offseason ACL surgery and a 2016 season that could be pivotal to his career as Joe Gibbs Racing can only keep Erik Jones waiting for a ride for so long.
Kevin Harvick entered the race as the title favorite, having won the race and championship a year ago and having been strong this season as well. He ultimately fell just short, finishing second, in what has become the theme for his season. The year was still a success for Harvick, who was almost always a threat to win. In just two years with Stewart-Haas Racing, he surpassed his laps-led total for his entire tenure at Richard Childress Racing and will no doubt enter 2016 among the favorites to take it all a year from now.
When… did it all go sideways?
While it didn’t affect the championship, an early mishap started by Clint Bowyer certainly illustrated how someone else’s problem can become another team’s problem in a hurry. While it seemed like a small blemish in the scheme of the race, it was very costly for some of the drivers involved. Earnhardt Jr. fell out of the top 10 in points and off of the stage at the banquet in Las Vegas. Casey Mears, who had been the top small-team driver all season long, lost that title-race-within-a-title-race to AJ Allmendinger, and to those teams, that’s a big deal. Aric Almirola was lucky that Kasey Kahne also had issues; he held his points position over Kahne by a single marker. The only drivers who didn’t take a points hit were Bowyer and Sam Hornish Jr., who plowed into Mears after Mears cleared the initial spin. The incident certainly illustrated the significance one driver’s mistake can have for the entire seasons of others.
Why… did Busch win the race and the championship?
At the end of the day, when it counted, Busch’s team was best prepared for the changing track after a rainstorm delayed the race and gave teams a green track and a day-night transition to contend with. The No. 18 team made his car faster than the competition when it counted, and a late caution gave him a shot at the win as well as the title. It’s a controversial title for Busch, who won four races before Sunday but missed 11 due to injuries sustained in an NXS crash at Daytona. NASCAR gave Busch a medical waiver into the Chase, and he took the title, leaving some fans wondering if he’d really earned it this year. The crash also made Busch grow up, though, and may ultimately be why he won. He no longer races with an air of entitlement or a checkers or wreckers attitude, and that’s made him a better driver overall. He’s finally gaining maturity to match his talent.
How… did the little guys do?
The three best in 2015:
Martin Truex Jr.; Furniture Row Racing: This team by far outperformed its peers in 2015, to the extent that it really can no longer be considered a small team by the standards of the others on this list—this group has earned a position among the sport’s elite. Next season brings a switch to Toyota, factory support and a partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing. It doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere but up for a while. It was a storybook season for this team, title or not.
AJ Allmendinger; JTG Daugherty Racing: Allmendinger didn’t match his 2014 Chase season, but he did have a solid year. There’s a lot of pride for the small teams in being at the top of the heal among the other teams in this group in both individual races and points, and Allmendinger took that top points spot Sunday, giving his team some bragging rights for the winter. They need to work a bit on consistency in 2016, but with Allmendinger locked up for five more seasons, they can move forward with confidence.
Casey Mears; Germain Racing: Mears was at the top of the small-team leader board until Hornish knocked him out of the race Sunday, and this team has grown by leaps and bounds over 2014. If Allmendinger is a threat to win on a road course and slide into the Chase, the same can be said for Mears on the restrictor-plate tracks, where he excels. As a random aside, Mears also knows just how Larson feels after this race. Mears had his first win well in hand, leading late in the race at Homestead in 2005, in the Target car… and a late debris caution took it all away. Maybe lightning does strike twice…
All the rest:
|78||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Racing||Furniture Row Chevy||11th||11th
Never got the handling right as the sun went down; still a solid effort; moves off this list for 2016
|21||Ryan Blaney||Wood Brothers Racing||Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford||6th||17th
Another solid effort, though the car faded late as track got tighter; will be interesting to see how team performs full-time in 2016
|47||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing||Kroger/Scott Products Chevy||20th||20th
Got hit from behind on pit road during competition caution; solid run; gained a spot in points thanks to Mears’s crash
|33||Ty Dillon||Circle Sport||Nexium 24hr Chevy||25th||23rd
RCR car for Dillon; caught a piece of lap 46 crash
|7||Alex Bowman||Tommy Baldwin Racing||Nikko/Toy State Chevy||33rd||26th
Strong run Sunday. Does anyone else get the feeling that his part-time gig with JR Motorsports in 2016 is more of a vetting than anything?
|35||Cole Whitt||Front Row Motorsports||Speed Stick Ford||40th||28th
Said car would turn but needed forward bite off corners
|46||Michael Annett||HScott Motorsports||Pilot Flying J Chevy||39th||30th
Got happier with the car as race went on
|34||Brett Moffitt||Front Row Motorsports||FR8 Auctions Ford||42nd||31st
Moffitt won rookie honors but does not have 2016 ride as of yet
|38||David Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||Florida Lottery Ford||41st||32nd
Was loose both in and off corners; plans for 2016 unknown
|95||Michael McDowell||Leavine Family Racing||Thrivent Financial Ford||29th||33rd
Early pit violation; team also looking at full-time 2016 run
|26||JJ Yeley||BK Racing||Maxim Toyota||31st||34th
Yeley is a solid enough driver and represented a neede veteran presence for the team
|40||Landon Cassill||Hillman-Smith Motorsports||Snap Fitness Chevy||34th||35th
Battled loose car early
|51||Justin Allgaier||HScott Motorsports||Brandt Chevy||30th||36th
Slapped the wall mid-race; another flat tire with under 100 to go cost another lap; leaves team for NXS ride with JR Motorsports
|83||Matt DiBenedetto||BK Racing||Cosmo Motors Toyota||37th||37th
Reported loose early; fantastic save after getting tapped by Trevor Bayne
|98||Ryan Preece||Premium Motorsports||Eastern West Marine/Logan’s/FireAde Chevy||43rd||38th
Was smoking heavily on lap 63-had tire rub issues all day
|32||Josh Wise||GO FAS Racing||Zak Products Ford||32nd||39th
Smacked the wall to bring out sixth caution
|13||Casey Mears||Germain Racing||GEICO Chevy||27th||42nd
Had issues with track bar sticking early; involved in multi-car crash; avoided crash and got run over from behind; accident cost him top points position among small teams
|23||Jeb Burton||BK Racing||Overture/Estes Toyota||DNQ||—||—||38th|
|62||Reed Sorenson||Premium Motorsports||Royal Teak Chevy||DNQ||—||—||41st|