NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series made its final trip West for the 2016 season with a lot on the line. Six drivers sparred for just two remaining spots in Arizona to run for the championship this coming week at Homestead. Four of them were left feeling like they were stuck in the desert, where this Phoenix event just happened to be located. Title chances evaporated, in some cases during the final few moments of the race.
But two others? They finished the day with the sweet taste of dessert, entering the comfy confines of Miami Beach as title contenders.
The biggest winners in the late-race shuffle that took place Sunday were race winner Joey Logano and defending champion Kyle Busch. Logano was in the right place at the right time when race leader Matt Kenseth collided with Alex Bowman in the first attempt at NASCAR overtime. That allowed Logano to take the lead, and with Kenseth getting knocked out of the Chase, that left Busch as the next driver to make it through on points. Ironically, it was Busch who unintentionally caused the accident giving Bowman, who spun his tires on the restart, a nice little shove. The result was a bottom of the track that looked open for just a second, enough for Kenseth to find his way down onto Bowman’s front bumper.
When it comes to late-race restarts this year, Kenseth could not catch a break. The accident during the green-white-checkered ending Sunday was the third time this Chase he had control of the field coming to the final restart only to not emerge victorious. While Kenseth had his typically solid season, winning twice an inability to close out races late haunted him. It’s ultimately what kept the 2003 series champ from being one of the Championship 4 this time around and it’s the second straight year (see: Kansas, fall 2015) where the bumper of another competitor made the difference in him moving on.
Alex Bowman’s future is very much up in the air for 2017. But after leading 194 laps Sunday and having a real chance to win the race, it will be a crime (figuratively speaking) if he does not have a full-time Cup ride for 2017. Bowman showed he had the ability to go fast and to lead in a good car while subbing for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. But beyond that, in his other races driving the No. 88, Bowman also did not make a habit of tearing up the car and experienced gradual improvement throughout the season.
Is Bowman considered the next hotshot young driver in this, his second chance at the sport’s top level? Probably not; Erik Jones, William Byron, and others have earned that spotlight. But this young man’s consistency and maturity, visible this time around in Cup are reasons he’ll pass the audition for someone next season.
Michael McDowell is one of NASCAR’s really, really good guys. It just turns out that in three of the Chase races this year he blew a tire late in the event, causing a yellow and indirectly influencing the outcome of the race. This week, it’s Kenseth who appeared to have things wrapped up if things just would have finished under green. McDowell apologized for having an effect on the Chase, but it’s really just “one of those racin’ deals.”
If you weren’t sure how you felt about the Chase format being in the XFINITY and Truck Series this year, one moment this weekend at Phoenix gave us at least one reason to like it. Once Kyle Busch was entered in the XFINITY race, winning the pole the question was not if he would win but how many laps he would lead on the way to doing so.
Well, it turns out he led just about all of them (190 of 200). But thanks to the Chase, that didn’t matter. Because of the points battle taking place to see who would race for the XFINITY title, we didn’t have to focus on Busch running away with another easy trip to victory lane. And while you can’t blame a driver for going out and winning (that’s what they are supposed to do) it was nice for once that it was not the focus of this race.
I’m not sure which race NBC announcer Rick Allen was watching Sunday. The biggest blunder came late in the race when he openly wondered if Kyle Busch would use his bumper against teammate . . . Joey Logano. Of course, as Jeff Burton had to point out on air Busch, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Logano, who drives for Team Penske, aren’t teammates. It turns out that Busch didn’t need to use his bumper on Logano, but maybe someone should give Allen a little nudge to make sure he’s paying attention to what’s happening on the track these days.
With the Championship 4 being Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Logano and Busch, it’s pretty difficult to not pick one of those guys to win. With a couple of extra weeks to prepare for Homestead, I’m going with Johnson to come out on top, joining Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time champions. The deep sleeper underdog who you might or might not think about pick (well, in this case, a lot of people will be thinking about him) is Tony Stewart. Yes, it’s a sentimental pick as the driver of the No. 14 heads into retirement but Stewart has won here before, most recently in 2011 en route to his third and final Cup title.
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