(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

5 Points to Ponder: Time to Crown a Champ, Plus Elliott Sadler’s Last Hurrah

ONE: Championship Weekend

So, this is it, then. One more race for all the marbles. 267 laps and 400 miles on the progressive banking of the mile-and-a-half Homestead-Miami Speedway to determine the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have made the Championship 4 four times out of a possible five while both Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr have featured three times. Harvick (2014), Busch (2015) and Truex (2017) all won their respective titles by winning this decisive race.

Titles notwithstanding, however, it’s hard to argue against this particular quartet of drivers making up the Championship 4. After all, they hold the top four spots in average finish this season: Busch (8.4), Harvick (9.0), Logano (10.9) and Truex (11) and have a combined 22 of the 35 race victories. Forgive me, then, for being a touch underwhelmed. But how good would it have been to see Chase Elliott make it all the way to Miami and contend for the title? Imagine the excitement in the stands. Or, Aric Almirola wheeling his way into contention and capping a career year? Put another way, a different dynamic for Championship week – something new, something fresh. I don’t imagine we’ll see much in terms of controversy as the week unfolds. I’m sure there will be some light ribbing likely at Logano’s expense and some talk of revenge from other drives but other than that it will essentially be business as usual. So, let’s hope my somewhat blasé feelings toward the season’s conclusion are blown out of the water by a compelling on track contest this weekend.

TWO: Sadler calls it a career

In the end, the eleventh-place finish at ISM Raceway wasn’t enough for Elliott Sadler to race for a championship in what will be the 853rd and final race of a NASCAR career that stretches all the way back to 1995. “It’s my last race. I’ve been doing this every weekend since I was seven, putting a helmet on,” said Sadler. “So, it’s going to be emotional. It’s going to be more relaxing not racing for a championship, but it’s going to suck too.”

All told, Sadler made 438 starts at the Cup level, winning three races over 17 years. His best overall Cup finish was ninth in his two-win 2004 season, when he drove the No. 38 M&M’s car (a full-year sponsorship, too) for Robert Yates Racing. After 12 full time Cup seasons, Sadler transitioned to the second series where he has been the epitome of consistency. He’s finished second four times, third, fourth and sixth in the overall season standings while picking up 188 top 10s in 264 attempts (71%). But none of that means much in this final effort, falling short at Phoenix to ensure he’ll end his career without that elusive NASCAR championship.

“I can’t even look these guys in the face,” said Sadler of his JR Motorsports crew following his failure to make the Championship 4. “We tried some different things today and I led the team in that direction. I take full responsibility for that. My guys did so much for me this year and we were so fast at the right time…. I really wish my guys were going down there to race for a championship. It’s really about them than it is about me.”

And after coming so close so many times in the XFINITY Series, then, it is a true shame that Sadler won’t get the opportunity to close out his long career with one last run at the title. One of NASCAR’s genuine good guys, the affable and jovial Sadler will be missed in the garage and also in the stands. Here’s wishing him a happy and healthy retirement, a great final race and why not one last win.

THREE: Next up, Homestead-Miami

For one last time in 2018, we head to Florida and Homestead-Miami Speedway to crown our season champions across the three top series. This will be Cup race number 20 and the 17th straight time the track has hosted the season finale weekend. It will also mark the 15th time the season champion has been decided through the “Chase” playoff format and the fifth time under the final race winner takes all approach.

Denny Hamlin leads active drivers with a pair of wins at Homestead while Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr and Kyle Busch all have one win apiece. In the past two seasons, Kyle Larson has led 50% of the laps (132 of 267 laps in 2016; 145 of 267 in 2017) so don’t be surprised to see him pace the field at some point in the race – likely a handful of inches from the outside wall.

In each of the four years under the last race for all the glory format, the eventual champion has won the race: Harvick (2014), Kyle Busch (2015), Jimmie Johnson (2016) and Martin Truex Jr this time last year. By that math, one of the Championship 4 participants will almost certainly win the race. As to which one? Well, for one last time in 2018, you’ll have to tune in on Sunday to find out.

FOUR: Ten Wins for Hamilton

A quick word on 2018 Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton who won the penultimate race of the season in Brazil this past Sunday, his tenth victory in twenty attempts this season. The win gave Hamilton’s team, Mercedes, the constructor’s championship to go along with the driver’s title (his fifth) that he secured in Mexico two weeks ago. One final race remains in Abu Dhabi on November 25th. For Hamilton, Sunday’s win was an astonishing 50th victory in 99 attempts during the Formula One turbo-hybrid era: a remarkable clip that speaks to both his prowess as a driver and ability to maximize the opportunities provided by the top-level equipment.

On Sunday, Hamilton had some fortune on lap 44 of 71, when Max Verstappen tangled with Esteban Ocon, who was desperately trying to get back on the lead lap. The Red Bull driver who was leading the race at the time spun allowing Hamilton to take a lead he would not relinquish. “You had more to lose than he did. He had nothing to lose.” Said Hamilton to the young Dutch driver in the green room prior to the podium celebrations, as Verstappen protested Ocon’s actions. Wise words from the veteran champion on what was yet another great afternoon, personally speaking. Expect Hamilton to close out the year with one more win at Yas Marina Circuit in two weeks’ time.

FIVE: Alonso back to the Indy 500

Fernando Alonso will once return to the Indy 500 in 2019 as he seeks to become just the second ever driver to win motorsport’s coveted Triple Crown: The Indy 500, the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 hours of Le Mans. Legendary British champion Graham Hill remains the only driver ever to have managed this illustrious trio of race wins and Alonso needs a victory in the Indy 500 to get it done. Alonso will race for McLaren, in what team boss Zak Brown notes will be a “whole separate team” to the existing champion F1 operation. “We’re a large racing team with lots of resources, and I’m extremely confident – or we would not have entered – that we will give maximum effort to F1 and this Indy 500 effort without one compromising the other.” said Brown.

Back in 2016, Alonso’s participation in the race spurred massive interest from the global racing community and despite a 24th place finish after his engine expired in the late going, Alonso led four times for a total of 27 laps and acquitted himself very well. It should be fun watching him taking another shot at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

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Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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2 comments

  1. Avatar

    Alonso yes!!!!!!!
    Danica no!!!!!!!!

  2. Avatar

    I don’t understand anyone bemoaning what we’ve seen this year. 2 drivers won 16 of 35 (almost half) of the races in a back and forth battle for track dominance with the reigning champ trying to get back in the mix. This is the kind of competition, 3 professionals at their peak battling it out week after week, that any sports fan should be excited about watching.

    You have to go back a few years to recall this kind of dominance. 1998 comes to mind, when Jeff Gordon won 13 (of 33) races! Mark Martin won 7, and almost any other year in NASCAR history Martin would have been crowned Champion with the results he had in ’98, but Jeff was simply unstoppable.

    I like Chase, Aric, and Ryan too, and they will make their mark on the sport in due time. But for now, anyone who doesn’t respect and appreciate what took place this year because it was “the wrong drivers” is being quite short sighted, IMO. Despite all of NASCAR’s flaws (and there are many), these 3 guys have collectively performed at a level that doesn’t happen often and put on a great show in the process.