Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Since Homestead became the season-ending race, drivers out of title contention have barely gotten a second glance for most of the weekend, and since the current Chase format came along, forget about seeing anyone else. This weekend was no exception, and even as Kyle Larson was owning the day, leading 132 laps, he got little more than a cursory mention. Larson drove a masterful race, and he should have won. Perhaps he could have won, but it looked in the closing laps as though he chose to let the title contenders race for it. Once Jimmie Johnson got by on the final restart, Larson didn’t interfere with the title race. Still, Larson had the best car Sunday, he ran a strong race, and he ends the 2016 season on a high note, ninth in points, something his team can build on as the focus turns to 2017.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
The race itself was a fairly good one, mainly because of old pavement. Once again the common denominator in the better intermediate track races was the aged asphalt. We’ll see some changes to the cars again next year that should improve things, but the tracks with worn surfaces will still host the best shows. The downside? It can’t last forever – eventually the asphalt on these tracks will deteriorate to the point where it’s not safe to race on, and repaves will happen. Hopefully that will come a few years down the road, after some of the more recently redone tracks have started to age a bit.
But… should NASCAR consider moving the season finale around a bit? As it stands, the championship is decided on an intermediate track every year, the type of track where things are least in the drivers’ hands. Could it be rotated among a few tracks? Phoenix would be a good choice, and perhaps even Martinsville, though the weather is getting iffy in the foothills by this time of year. It’s a hard call, because rotating the track where it’s decided makes for a lot of legitimate questions as well, and keeping things in one place makes the title as consistent as it can be under this format. It’s something worth considering in the years to come.
Where… did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kevin Harvick missed the final round of the Chase for the first time since the elimination format was introduced in 2014, but he showed up in Homestead ready to race just the same. Starting from the pole, he raced up front all afternoon and didn’t give anyone – championship contender or not – an inch. Harvick raced Joey Logano for third on the final restart, and he took the spot, perhaps keeping Logano from the chance to race Johnson for the title, but doing his job for his own team and ending the season with a third-place run.
Kyle Busch left Homestead a winner and a champion a year ago, but this time around, he didn’t quite have a car that could compete with teammate Carl Edwards or Joey Logano. Still, Busch had a shot on the second-to-last restart of the evening, starting on the second row as the top title contender, inside Jimmie Johnson. But after Logano got by him on that start, Busch and his team elected to take fresh tires on the next caution, giving up track position, and while he was able to finish sixth, he didn’t have time to make a run at the front.
When… did it all go sideways?
Face it, while Johnson had the restart of his life when it counted most, Edwards was the best of the four title contenders all night. He led 47 laps, 37 more than the other three combined. It’s fair to say that in this race on this day, Edwards should have won the championship. If not for a crash inside 10 laps to go, he might have.
Yet it’s hard to say that Edwards had the title taken from him. He blocked Joey Logano to the paint on a restart, and Logano finally had to either hold his line or back out. Edwards has always been an aggressive blocker, and it’s hard to say that he wasn’t the cause of his own disappointment here. In contrast, watch Brad Keselowski and Johnson behind Edwards and Logano. Exact same move, but Johnson knew when to back off the block and probably saved his race at that moment. Edwards was classy afterward, and he’ll absolutely enter next year as a title favorite. But that’s little consolation, because he had the title in his hands and let it slip away.
Why… did Jimmie Johnson win the race?
There was blood in the water inside 10 laps to go, and Jimmie Johnson got a sniff. At that moment, it was over. Johnson didn’t have the best car in the field, and though crew chief Chad Knaus threw everything but the kitchen sink at it to improve it, he didn’t have the speed to run down Carl Edwards in the closing laps. Then came that fateful restart, and Johnson suddenly had a ghost of a chance at sealing his immortality once and for all. But he’d have to beat Kyle Busch on the restart, perhaps the only other driver who’s as tenacious as Johnson with victory in sight.
Joey Logano vanquished Busch during that brief green flag and looked to be a threat to Johnson with a car that had been stronger than the No. 48 all day. But Johnson is a bulldog when the win is within reach, and he found every bit of speed in his car on the final restart. From there, there was no catching him, especially as Logano had to deal with Larson and Harvick, who also wanted a shot at the win. Johnson had clear sailing on the final lap and rode the wave to his seventh title.
How… will Johnson fit in among the greatest drivers in NASCAR when all is said and done?
That may be the hardest question to answer, and in some ways it’s too soon to try. Some will say that Johnson’s titles aren’t equal to Richard Petty’s or Dale Earnhardt’s because of the Chase system versus full-season championships. Others will counter that Johnson is the best ever because he won seven titles in the sport’s most competitive era. Perhaps there’s a little truth in both.
It’s a mistake to compare drivers of completely different eras directly because of these reasons and more. Some argue that Petty’s titles are also a bit misleading because the pre-modern era was also different. Drivers could cherry pick races and there were races that amounted to local deals that paid points, and they didn’t have to race the same field every week as Earnhardt and Johnson have.
It can also be argued that titles aren’t the only factor. Johnson’s seven championships took 11 seasons to complete. Earnhardt took 15 seasons and Petty 16. Johnson was also the youngest when he reached the seventh.
The other variable: Earnhardt died in a crash at the beginning of a season he entered as a title favorite. His win and championship totals could have been higher, or they could have remained the same, and there’s no way of knowing For that matter, there’s also no way of knowing the effect the deaths of Tim Richmond and Davey Allison, among others, had on Earnhardt’s numbers in particular.
It is harder to discount Johnson’s win numbers: He passed Earnhardt’s total this spring and will likely move from seventh to fourth all-time in the next year or two. He needs 14 wins to take over third.
The man he’s chasing for that spot is the driver who hand picked Johnson to drive the No. 48, Jeff Gordon, who called Johnson the best he’s ever raced against. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. told Johnson that his late father would have thought Johnson was “such a badass.” But the words of other drivers aren’t hard numbers. What’s their part in the equation?
The verdict: before we know Johnson’s career win total, and, for that matter, how many more titles he could win, it’s impossible to really quantify his accomplishments, and even then, it will be dubious at best.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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