ONE: Chase Elliott Comes Of Age
So much happened at Martinsville Speedway Sunday (Nov. 1) it’s easy to forget just how important Chase Elliott‘s win was for his NASCAR Cup Series career. For the first time in five years, Elliott came into the Round of 8 finale needing to cash in on a must-win situation to make his first Championship 4 appearance.
Keep in mind the 24-year-old NASCAR Most Popular Driver had never won at the short track before. His pit crew nearly landed a devastating penalty for a jack man over the wall too soon only for officials to take it back. (A story for another day; in the end, the stop cost Elliott track position and he still had to drive back to the front.) The No. 9 Chevrolet has been fast here before only to play second fiddle to Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. in recent years.
But there was no playing second fiddle this time. Elliott didn’t just win; his margin of victory was an astounding 6.577 seconds at Martinsville. That’s nearly one-third of a lap, a lead created in just 51 circuits from a young driver with a history of finding every which way to lose in clutch situations.
“We proved to ourselves that we can do it,” Elliott said post-race. “I think we have always believed we can do it. But to go out there and achieve it certainly is something we haven’t experienced yet as a group.”
Now, the potential reward for Elliott could be life-changing. He already made history as the youngest driver ever to make the Championship 4 since the new Cup format was created in 2014. He’s the first Chevrolet driver involved in the title race since Jimmie Johnson in 2016. And while Denny Hamlin is also seeking his first Cup title trophy, he’s a driver who’s used to actually competing for it. The other two Championship 4 participants, Joey Logano and Keselowski, have won once already and find their way into this finale more often than not.
For Elliott to carry the 20-something mantle is a sign the young drivers are finally on the verge of a breakthrough. Good friend Ryan Blaney ran second Sunday and quietly rang up five top-10 finishes in six weeks after his unlikely first-round knockout. Could the generational transition we’ve anticipated for years finally be happening in front of our eyes?
We’ll know this Sunday.
TWO: Kevin Harvick Learns The Hard Way … Modern Day NASCAR Playoff = Stick-And-Ball Sports
Kevin Harvick‘s 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season will be up there with teams like the 2007 New England Patriots and 2001 Seattle Mariners. Those teams set impressive regular-season marks that collapsed with a resounding thud in the moments that mattered the most.
Harvick had his worst three-race stretch at the worst possible time. 67 playoff points should have led to invincibility, especially in a round where only two of the eight playoff drivers won a race. But everything that had to go wrong did go wrong for Harvick. There was the oh-so-close runner-up finish to Logano at Kansas Speedway with a faster car. There was the terrible luck of NASCAR inexplicably keeping the race under green at Texas Motor Speedway while the track slicked up with moisture. Harvick was one of several drivers to hit the wall and his racec ar never recovered, leaving him vulnerable heading to Martinsville.
A closer look at the No. 4 team’s results here and we should have known trouble was brewing. Harvick hasn’t led a lap at this track since 2016. His last finish of fourth or better came in 2011… with Richard Childress Racing. Every Hall of Famer still has an Achilles’ Heel, and this paperclip-shaped oval just happens to be Harvick’s.
Add in a flat tire, some short track contact, badly timed cautions and Harvick just never could get in gear fast enough. Still, despite all that, a last-ditch effort to spin Kyle Busch nearly worked. If the No. 4 could just squeak past the No. 18, Harvick would have advanced based on a tiebreaker and snuck into the title race.
Alas, it just wasn’t meant to be. But there’s nothing for Harvick to hang his head over with a format that’s truly a stick-and-ball playoff. How often do we see the top seeds in MLB, NFL, NHL and the NBA go down without a title? It’s widely accepted in those sports the best regular-season teams don’t always win a championship.
NASCAR purists are screaming for changes after Harvick’s inexplicable TKO in the Round of 8. But what would we have had with a non-playoff point system? Harvick would have clinched the title after Texas, holding a 134-point advantage while turning the championship into a yawner.
Count me on the side of no changes needed. The only satisfactory switch for traditionalists would be to kill the playoffs altogether and, like it or not, that ship has sailed. To summon up the quote of 2020, “It is what it is.”
THREE: Team Orders Getting Tougher To Prevent
After a post-race investigation, NASCAR chose Monday not to levy penalties against the No. 20 Toyota of Erik Jones for failing to pass Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin in the closing laps. Jones appeared to have a faster car but stayed behind Hamlin as his points position to advance to the championship hung in the balance.
NASCAR: After conducting a review of the on-track competition and 20 team radio communication from Sunday’s race at Martinsville, NASCAR will not issue any penalties to the 20 team.
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) November 2, 2020
It was surprising to see Jones hang back considering he’s employed at JGR just one more week. On a far different note, it was heartening to see Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola hold their positions in front of Harvick. Stewart-Haas Racing made no attempts to slow them down, manipulation which would have handed Harvick a free pass to the championship.
Bowyer knows all too well the backlash of such a decision. His intentional spin at Richmond Raceway back in 2013 to help teammate Truex Jr. brought down his former team, Michael Waltrip Racing. But you wonder how much longer NASCAR and team owners are truly going to be able to hold off on manipulation. We already see teammates helping each other all the time as it is. Whether it’s teaming up in a draft at Talladega Superspeedway, giving up better pit crews to title contenders or giving up a pit stall itself in the season finale (which Hamlin did for Kyle Busch back in 2018), the cat’s long been out of the bag.
There’s too much money and exposure involved with the championship to resist the temptation, I fear. But it’ll be a sad day in NASCAR when it happens. This sport is not and was never designed to be Formula 1; fans won’t react kindly to it, even though, from a business standpoint, it makes sense within a multi-car team.
FOUR: Joey Logano Strikes Again?
Many think Elliott or Keselowski has the edge for a title now heading to Phoenix. Hamlin, meanwhile, was the co-championship favorite along with Harvick much of the year before limping through the playoffs. I seem to remember Kyle Busch suffering a similar fate before putting together a masterful finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November to steal it.
Once again, like two years ago, Logano seems to be the driver no one is talking about. In 2018, he faced the Big Three of Truex, Harvick and Kyle Busch who had won the majority of races that year. He entered the race with no pressure, and only because of a last-lap bump that sent Truex up the track at Martinsville and gave Logano the win.
Where are we in 2020? Turns out Logano earned his spot through an unlikely Kansas Speedway victory where he used strategy and clearly wasn’t the fastest car. Once again, the strength of teammate Keselowski and popularity of other drivers leave him overlooked. But who won the race at Phoenix last time out? None other than the No. 22 team in the final race before COVID-19 forced a two-month suspension of the schedule.
A championship Sunday for Logano would be his second in three years and elevate him a notch among his Cup rivals at age 30. He’s who I’ve got my eye on.
FIVE: A Trio Of NASCAR Finales
So much is happening this week that a trio of NASCAR retirements will almost certainly be swept under the rug. Bowyer, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson will all leave their Cup rides for good at the end of 2020.
Bowyer at least had his day in the sun down the stretch of this NASCAR season. His 89 laps led at Texas and late-race strategy play led to hope he’d sneak away with one more victory. Kenseth did have a similar moment at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July, leading 12 laps and ultimately coming home second behind Harvick.
I’m surprised we’ve seen nothing like that from Johnson. The No. 48 team has been downright abysmal during the final 10 races of the seven-time champ’s incredible career. What would I have told you back in mid-2017 that Johnson would spend his final three-plus seasons in NASCAR winless? You would have looked at me like I went crazy.
Yet here we are. Not only is Johnson sitting 18th, tied for his worst ever points finish, he hasn’t had a top-10 run the entire playoff. It’s like missing out at Daytona International Speedway took the air out of this team’s sails and, well, that was that. It’ll be one of the sport’s great mysteries how someone who came to dominate the playoff structure fell so fast, so quickly. Keep in mind Harvick is the same age as Johnson and won nine races this year.
And finally … you’ll probably be reading this column on Election Day. If you haven’t voted yet, I strongly urge you to find a way to do so. Whatever your beliefs, the ability to vote is one of the founding principles of U.S. democracy and a right I feel we shouldn’t take for granted. Hope to see you out at the polls today (and if you did already … congrats!)