Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
He’s not a rookie — he actually has two full Cup seasons under his belt — but Alex Bowman might as well be one in some respects. He’s seen the tracks, but he’s never really raced against the top drivers in the series on a weekly basis for a top finish, and he has proved worthy almost every step of the way as a fill-in driver for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this season. B
owman obviously has talent, and he’s looking for a ride for next year, with no full-time deal on the table yet. The question mark with Bowman is his attitude. There were rumblings that he didn’t mesh with his team at BK Racing or Tommy Baldwin Racing, and if that’s a real issue, word probably got around. Bowman wouldn’t be the first driver to lose out on rides because he was difficult (where’s James Buescher these days?), but if he has outgrown his past issues, he could be a valuable asset to a team.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
The race at Phoenix was a good one, with lots of action, plenty of mistakes, and almost a surprise winner. But there’s no doubt that the Chase scenario ramped up the excitement as the laps ticked down and it was a matter of “if this guy finishes ahead of that guy, the other guy gets a spot,” which was riveting.
At the same time, though, did the Chase scenario make the actual racing better? That’s a tougher call. There’s no doubt that the six drivers whose season was on the line gave their all, but there was still the lingering doubt of authenticity—if the elimination format is a gimmick to make the races seem more exciting, well, it does. But at then end of the day, does that erase the perception that it is nothing more than a gimmick? It’s an odd juxtaposition, the frenetic pace of the race and constantly fluid title scenarios and the idea that it ultimately cheapens the title instead of making it better. It’s an odd mix of excitement and “oh, wait…”
Where… did the pole-sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Alex Bowman won the pole, led the most laps with 194, and might have won in overtime if not for a slightly overzealous restart from Kyle Busch, who got into Bowman and initiated a chain reaction that also collected Matt Kenseth, who had gotten a clean start and thought he was clear when Bowman shot underneath him. Bowman, who had the best car Sunday, had to settle for sixth, which is still a great result for the youngster, who, for the second time in two days, almost crashed a Chase party.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won a year ago, but 2016 has been a exercise in both frustration and patience for Earnhardt, who has been out since midsummer recovering from concussion symptoms. He’s reported progress, however, and hopes to be back in the No. 88 when NASCAR rolls back to Daytona next spring. Bowman has done an admirable job filling in, and in the meantime, has injected the team with input from a different source.
When… did it all go sideways?
Matt Kenseth’s 2016 season went up in smoke when Michael McDowell hit the wall with just two laps remaining in the race. Kenseth was leading by an easy margin when McDowell’s tire let go. While he led the field to an overtime restart, he didn’t come out of it well at all. Kenseth got a clean start. But his teammate Kyle Busch (who, ironically, said he’d “absolutely” move a teammate for a spot in the final four) gave Alex Bowman a push up inside Kenseth, which might have worked out if Kenseth’s spotter hadn’t just cleared him and Kenseth responded by moving directly into the space already occupied by Bowman. It wasn’t intentional and it’s hard to put the blame on any one person, but none of that matters for Kenseth, who saw the championship shot evaporate and, instead, his teammate move on.
For Martin Truex, Jr., who’s racing for nothing but glory after a stellar season slipped away in the round of 12, and title hopeful Jimmie Johnson, a refresher course in pace car etiquette might be in order after both drivers were penalized for passing the pace car entering pit road. Both drivers lost a lap and saw a top finish slip away as a result. Things went from bad to worse for Johnson, who got caught in a chain reaction crash after Austin Dillon had a power failure on a midrace restart and spent multiple laps in the garage. Truex also finished multiple laps in arrears. For both teams, it was costly, and it’s the kind of error that these veteran drivers should not be making.
Why… did Joey Logano win the race?
Logano had a good car with plenty of speed, but it wasn’t great on long runs and probably wasn’t the best car. But what Logano did has won drivers plenty of races over the years. He put himself in position to capitalize on any mistakes at the front when it counted most. So when Matt Kenseth wrecked on what might otherwise have been the final restart, Logano was there to drive to the win and into the championship race. If he can stalk the lead at Homestead like he did late in the race at Phoenix, he’ll be in a great spot to take his fist Cup title next weekend.
How… does the championship picture look heading to Homestead?
On paper, Carl Edwards is the clear title favorite. Why, when he hasn’t been as consistently impressive this season as perhaps some of his opponents? Because it’s only about one race at Homestead-Miami and the rest of the season doesn’t matter. Edwards, with a 9.2 Homestead average finish and two wins at the track, becomes an easy favorite to outpace the competition.
Jimmie Johnson’s Homestead numbers aren’t nearly as strong as Edwards—he’s never won there and has a 14. 1 average, five positions behind Edwards’ avrage. But what Johnson has going for him is his dogged determination when he smells a victory and his title experience. Six times before he’se come to Homestead and done whatever it took to go home with the trophy that he really wanted. He’s an underdog going in because of his track record, but he’s a bulldog when it comes to getting what he wants.
Joey Logano’s Homestead record isn’t great with a 17.7 average and just one top 5 at the track. Logano hasn’t had great long run speed lately, so if that trend continues, he’ll need a late caution like he saw at Phoenix, and the problem is, you can’t necessarily count on lightning striking twice.
Then there’s Kyle Busch. Busch has just four top-10 finishes in 11 years at Homestead…but one of those was his win last year to seal the title. His average, though is outside the top 20, so it could come down to which Kyle Busch shows up. Busch has been consistent in the Chase this year but has not won. Both he and Edwards looked much stronger a few months ago; Johnson and Logano have picked things up in the later part of the season. So give Edwards the edge, but don’t engrave the trophy just yet.
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