Beside the Rising Tide: Rambling, Gambling Man

I’ve never been much on gambling. Perhaps that’s because I’ve lived most of my adult life in the suburbs of Philly. Our professional sports teams are notorious for failing to live up to expectations.  Even with success seemingly imminent, those teams will find a way to wrest defeat out of the jaws of victory and choke badly in what wasn’t even supposed to be a competitive game. Yeah, the long-suffering Iggles won the Super Bowl last year, but in defense of that title this year’s hapless bunch seem like they couldn’t beat a bullfrog with a golf club.

Nope, I don’t follow stick-and-ball sports much. This year’s big revelation to me came when Gritty, the new Flyers mascot, was introduced. I was forced to consider that Mr. Shoemaker, our health teacher in high school, might have been right all along. There really are acid flashbacks.

Further, my reluctance to gamble has to do with having at least enough intelligence and almost Spock-like logic while not drinking beer to realize the bookmakers didn’t get or retain their jobs by being wrong often and making players wealthy overnight. Now, given my Hibernian heritage give me a few beers and all bets are off… er, on.

I have a longtime friend who is quite the opposite. He plays his weekly NFL pools with an almost religious fervor, sit for hours playing video poker in dive bars and even bets on ice hockey. He hits the Atlantic City casinos regularly and fancies himself quite the Blackjack player, as debonair and suave a stylemaster as ever to short a valet even a minimal tip at the parking garage.

Bombed. Actually, James Bombed. He did, in fact, win close to $1,000 playing Blackjack one night. I was there with him and saw it happen. Blind hog, meet acorn. My guess is he’s lost 25 times that amount gambling since. How long ago was that? The dude who owned the casino that night is now President of the United States. In a fit of generosity he (my friend, not the President) slipped me a 20 and urged me to gamble with it. Which I did, briefly before that unexpected windfall was done. The nickel slot machines were cruel that night. He’s called in that “loan” countless times since.

Now that betting on stock car racing is legal, my guess is this fellow is wagering on NASCAR too. Poorly. He’ll bet on anything. One night we sat on his front porch and gambled on whether the next vehicle to come by would be a truck, SUV or passenger car. Double or nothing on what color it would be. I seem to remember a black and white Crown Victoria brought that game to an end. Something about the need for us to use the indoor plumbing during the game out of consideration for the neighbors. What are the odds? At least “we” still had that magic night in Atlantic City. I may be out that 20, but I do recall the taste of a hundred-dollar bottle of champagne we picked up at a late night liquor store in the seedy side of town (which stretches from the ocean to the swamps and basically encompasses the entire gambling mecca in Jersey.) We consumed that entire thing straight out of the bottle, all while wheeling in style in a mid 1980s Eldorado convertible, ruby red from the doors back but navy blue forward of the doors thanks to a previous accident.

So, no, I’m not much on gambling, though I am a habitual rambler, which should be evident from this column as I try desperately to steer it so some sort of point if, in fact, I do have one.

The end is nigh. After Sunday’s Martinsville race there are just three more races that will determine the 2018 NASCAR Cup championship; Texas, Phoenix and the grand finale at Homestead.  Yes, the season is entirely too long. I am well and truly burnt out. Brian France, when he foisted the first of many ill-conceived methods of determining a title on aghast and disbelieving fans of the sport, said he wanted to ensure “Game 7 moments” to spice things up. Game 7, not so much. 18-inning Game 3 marathons, yep, nobody does it better.

There are eight drivers currently still in the running for the title. (Though my guess is, if there’s a swimsuit competition involved you can cross Joey Logano off the list). Naturally oddsmakers in Vegas, AC and presumably Poughkeepsie now that sports gambling seems available anywhere, at least if you go online and fudge a few answers about your residence, are handicapping the NASCAR field. Sports betting and marijuana are now legal in an increasing amount of states, provinces and countries. Damn, why did I ever let myself graduate high school?

I’ll start with the two odds on favorites to win the title according to the Vegas odds.

Kevin Harvick has won seven races this season. But the last of those wins was scored at Michigan back in August. His lackluster finish at Martinsville this weekend was his fifth straight race without a top-five result. But he might only be running as hard as he feels he has to make it to Miami. Harvick is currently 25 points ahead of Kurt Busch, who is fifth in the standings, a rather comfortable gap with just two races left to run before the big dance. Comfortable, that is, if he finishes both those races in or around the top 10. Not so comfortable if he gets involved in a wreck in either or both of those races trying to force his way back into Victory Lane. This points system is set up to make the best drivers aim for safe, consistent runs… not going hell’s bell for the win. Yep, it’s a great points system NASCAR has dumped in our laps.

In a season long game of Amadeus, Kyle Busch and Harvick have faced off as Mozart and Salieri (you decide which was which.) Both have shown steaks of brilliance and occasional foul temper. Somewhat amazingly, Busch has also scored seven Cup wins this year. In the 33 Cup points races run to date, Busch is averaging a 8.4 finish to Harvick’s 9.4. Most years, either average finish would be enough to claim a title. Busch’s most recent win was at Richmond and it seems he cooled off dramatically just as the playoffs began. Prior to Martinsville, Busch has led a combined 22 laps in the previous four races compared to the 377 laps he led at Charlotte in May alone. He also endured just his third DNF of the year at the ROVAL.

As far as upcoming tracks, Busch has no obvious Achilles’ heel. He won at Texas this spring, one of three victories he’s managed in Fort Worth to date. He’s managed 12 top-five finishes in just 25 starts there, which ain’t half bad. At Phoenix, Harvick has the apparent advantage. (Though like all those prospectuses warn, past results are no guarantee of future performance.) Busch did post a win at Phoenix in 2005 which is, in dog years, an eon ago. He returns to Phoenix on a streak of six straight top-10 finishes at the track, including a pair of runner-up results.

If it comes down to the season finale again Harvick has to be considered a better bet at the track. While Busch did win at Homestead in 2015, securing his lone Cup title, that was one of just three top-five results he’s managed in 13 Cup starts at the track.

But even if he has a rough outing next week at Texas, Harvick still has his ace in the hole to fall back on. He’s made Phoenix his virtual playground with nine wins in 31 career Cup starts at the track and 1,522 laps led. He hasn’t finished worse that sixth at Phoenix in his last 10 races there and won as recently as this spring. Texas hasn’t been quite as kind to Harvick, who has just one win at the track last fall. But he has had top-10 finishes at Texas in the last eight Cup races he’s run at the track, a streak that includes three runner-up finishes.

If it does come down to Homestead-Miami, the track has been fairly friendly to Harvick as well. He won there in 2014 and has top-10 results in 15 of his 17 Cup starts there, an incredible 6.8 average finish in those 17 races. My prediction is that Harvick either points his way in or uses a victory at Phoenix to head to Miami as part of the Championship 4. He then clinches the title when the shouting is all over with. Either that or we have three different winners, Kyle Busch and Harvick not among them in this round leaving only one position left for someone to point their way in. Kyle Busch would nudge Harvick in that scenario to complete the championship quartet.

I have no access to records from back then but my guess is the preseason odds of Aric Almirola being 2018 Cup champion were only slightly better than winning the Mega Millions jackpot. Almirola has basically admitted as much.  He says he’s under little to no pressure right now. In fact, he said outright that at this point he is playing with “house money”.

But Almirola is part of the four-car Stewart-Haas Racing team. Their resources are going to be spread pretty thin trying to move all their drivers forward which leaves Almirola as the rear-teat pup. I’ll also wager (OK, no I won’t) to be champion this year a driver will have to win at Homestead. At least, that’s how the title is set to be manipulated. Almirola has just two total career wins and a total of three top-five results this year. I’d be delighted if Almirola did, in fact, win the championship because again, as a Philly boy, I always pull for the underdogs. But if you bet the ranch of Almirola as 2018 Cup champion, at least have the courtesy to swing by and run me down to AC in a two-tone Caddy convertible to grab some champagne. I know all the back roads home to avoid the trooper hangouts.

Like Almirola, Clint Bowyer has to deal with being part of a four-car team where there’s clearly one top dog in the kennel. Bowyer has won twice this year (Michigan and Martinsville in the spring) which, after a long drought from the front of the pack in inferior equipment, has his enthusiasm at record levels. That’s especially after sneaking into the final eight drivers at Kansas, a track that hasn’t been kind to its native son.

Also like Almirola, Bowyer would probably be a very popular champion for fans of the underdogs. Bowyer is very down to earth. He’s plain-spoken and at least somewhat insane. He’d probably be the one driver most fans would choose to hang out with for a day, though their parole officers would frown on the idea. If you’re going trick or treating at the Bowyer household Wednesday, recall the man owns a flame-thrower. And is at least somewhat insane. I’ll pass on those S’mores, Clint. For those who question his ability to handle the pressure of the title fight, recall that Bowyer once finished second in the points once. Remember 2012? Nope, me either.

I hate to sound like I’m degrading the SHR team, but realistically Kurt Busch has to be considered a longshot as well. Not only is he facing the same “all hands on deck” issues as Bowyer and Almirola, but Busch is a lame-duck driver who has already announced he’ll be leaving his team at the end of the season. That can be corrosive to team morale. As a crew member, why should I go all out to help Busch win the title? He’s already let us know he’s too good to drive for this team of screw-ups.

On a brighter note, Busch did win a Cup title back in 2004, so he knows the pressures and the routine. Busch has won just one race this season (Bristol) but he’s been very consistent this year with an average finish of about 12th, just 2.5 positions behind Harvick. Consistency may earn you a chance. Again, I figure that it will take a win at Homestead to be champion and my guess is that Busch won’t be one of the four left to fight for the honor. If it comes down to it, Busch does, in fact, have a win at Homestead (2002). But that was one of just four top-10 results he’s had at the track in 17 career Cup starts.

I’m torn as to who to bet will be the fourth driver to make the title fight. I’ll go against the oddsmakers and guess it won’t be Martin Truex Jr. Yes, he’s the reigning champion, defending winner at Homestead and he’s won four races this season, enough to be considered as one of NASCAR’s “Big Three.” But Truex’s last win came at Kentucky in mid-July though he came damn close at Martinsville last Sunday.  He’s been hit-and-miss ever since the playoffs began despite an eyebrow raising second-place finish at Watkins Glen. Like Kurt Busch’s team, the No. 78 bunch know that the band is breaking up at the end of the season and someone’s got to be Ringo. My guess is if you were to ask any member of the championship team, they’d say they are working harder and better than ever before. They want to keep the rags-to-riches unlikely tale of a team that went from a backmarker to titlist alive as long as possible. A second championship would be the way to go out in style.

But these are also real human beings. Some of them are worried about the status of their employment next year. Most of them lucky enough to have found work face moving their families halfway across the country. They might want to concentrate on their jobs, which they all do well. But then you get a call from the real estate agent to say the owners of that house your wife liked turned down your offer and it’s increasingly unlikely you’ll be able have settlement in time for February’s Daytona 500. Not to mention the kids you’re uprooting from their schools and friends are complaining about the move. Next to divorce or a death in the family, relocation is said to be the most stressful change of life most people have to face.

One thing we know for certain after last weekend’s controversial finish at Martinsville is that Joey Logano will be one of the four drivers vying for this year’s title at Homestead. After Sunday, I realize some folks absolutely don’t want Logano to win or even be in position to win a title at Miami. After Truex had raced Logano cleanly for 20 laps, Logano got into the back of the No. 78 car and some fans were outraged. I’d point out that Logano didn’t wreck Truex, he just moved him or Truex wouldn’t have finished third. And this is, after all, stock car racing not the Icecapades. But having another driver who almost certainly will be running up front declare that Logano might have won the battle bet he for damn sure won’t win the war (as in the title fight) has to be a major concern for the No. 22 bunch.

Surely, the NBC commentators will sound like the Three Wailing Witches for the rest of the season anytime Logano and Truex are on the same straightaway. Recall, too that if Truex does indeed try to take out Logano he has to do so with an air of plausible deniability. Matt Kenseth got parked for the rest of the event after he delivered his on-track mugging to Logano back in 2015.

Again, I understand some other sentimentalists will still be cheering for Logano. Every time I see that cartoon of Lucy yanking the football away just as Charlie Brown tried to kick a field goal I think of Kenseth’s move on Logano at Martinsville three years ago. But that’s just me, I suppose. Too much acid and champagne.  (Tangent: They are giving away Matt Kenseth bobbleheads at the race next weekend. I’ve had a few people ask me if a Kenseth bobblehead isn’t a bit redundant.) Yep, in 2015 Logano had won the previous race at Talladega and was among those tied for the points lead until the incident at Martinsville. Under the traditional points system, Logano would have wound up second to Harvick by just 21 points and the incident at Martinsville certainly cost him at least that many. So someone could make a valid argument Logano is owed a championship. The problem there is finding the pay window to claim your prize you feel you’re owed.  Life ain’t fair. Deal with it.

So if Logano is definitely going to Miami in the championship round and Harvick and Kyle Busch probably are, that leaves one last driver to compete for the title. Again, my guess is it won’t be Truex.

Logano’s only win this year prior this weekend came at Talladega, a plate track and we’re done with those for the year. While he’s never won Texas, Logano has finished second there twice. He won at Phoenix in 2016 but has an average finish of 14.4 at the track. If he makes it, Logano’s average finish at Homestead is less than hopeful. His best finish at the track is fourth (twice) and his average finish in nine Cup starts is 15th. It’s not the sort of stats that get your picture on a gum card.

Chase Elliott may seem like an outlier pick, but talk about a sentimental favorite for the championship. Already the sport’s most popular driver (based on his lineage, not actual race results to date) an Elliott championship many predict would reignite interest in NASCAR in a very big way. And momentum does count for something. Elliott has won two of the last four races and three of the last 12. (Though those are his only career Cup victories to date.) If there’s any team that’s been battle-hardened in the heat of championship hunts, it’s Hendrick Motorsports. I’m not sure how relevant the position is to winning but my guess is HMS has at least three front-desk receptionists that answered the phones during championship seasons. You can’t argue with that kind of depth.

But my guess is given his points deficit, Elliott will need to win one of the next two races to make it to Miami as a contender. Texas hasn’t been an awful track for him, who has a 7.4 average finish in Fort Worth, but a top 10 won’t do this time around. He needs to win. Chase did win a XFINITY Series race at Texas in 2014, his first ever win in that series. In the last two Phoenix races, Elliott finished second and third.

One thing is certain. After nearly nine months, the Magical Mystery Tour that is the 2018 Cup season is almost over. It is far closer to its finish than its beginning and the end is nigh. No matter who wins the championship, that driver’s fans will be absolutely delighted. Some fans of drivers who miss the title will upset and some will almost enraged by the driver who does take home the trophy.

In the end, it isn’t the number of fans who are delighted versus those who are enraged. It’s about how many NASCAR fans are left to watch or attend the races in 2019, a number that has been dropping precipitously this season and over the last few years.

Keep your hands inside the car, campers. The dark ride continues.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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kb

Clarification…Logano DID win at Texas in April of 2014. He led 108 laps.

Bill B

One of the best byproducts of Logano’s win (for me) was the fact that it meant Harvick might be the only SHR car making it to Homestead. Unless one of the 4 drivers currently under the cutoff line wins one of the next two races, I’m still betting that Truex makes the final 4.
But nothing would make me happier than seeing Almirola or Elliott win the championship but I don’t see that happening. Of course with the crapshoot, 1 race, winner take all format, anything is possible.

Mike

+1 for using “Hibernian” in a sentence.

To the extent I care about the, errr, championship it’s that I’d love to see Almirola win with the same team & equipment that a certain obnoxious & overrated female driver had. He seems likeable and in this day & age of identity politics it might be good for the Daytona mafia to have a “dash American” champion.

Best racing in November is this weekend at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway for the All-American 400.

Echo

Wishful thinking, Chase wins Texas, Aric wins Phoenix. Then listen to so many whine as Kyle takes on the underdogs.

Don in Ct

You are a good wordsmith, Matt, but I really hope you can find something more interesting than the NASCAR “playoff”
to write about. Really, does anyone care about Brian’s mess anymore? I don’t.

tcfromaz

Again let me remind everyone. Brian left the 2018 script in his Lexus when he was popped in Martha’s Vineyard.

Chase Elliot will be champion. LET THE FAT GIRLS REJOICE.

Steve

I’m not sure how serious we can take all these stats, considering in the playoffs, all non playoff teams move out of the way of the playoff drivers, so their success is very much inflated during at least some of the playoffs, which skews the average finish if you ask me. Its certainly much easier to win too when 3/4 of the field lets you by, especially late in the race.

You are right about one thing. The folks at NBC will lose their mind for the remaining 3 races when Logano and Truex are anywhere near each other. I can hear the fake excitement now, which will be entertaining in its own right. The will sound ridiculous, but entertaining nonetheless.

I will say this, I can’t remember the last time we have had as good a race to the checkers as we did at Martinsville. At some point, someone smart in Nascar will realize what most have known all along. Getting rid of short tracks was absolutely a bad decision and more of them need to be brought back. Back to ho hum racing this weekend at Texas, though. Yeehaw!

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