Is Phoenix Raceway the right track again for the NASCAR finales next year?
Luken Glover: While the spring NASCAR Cup Series race was good, the championship event wasn’t quite as exciting. There were some good battles among the championship drivers, but behind them we didn’t see a lot of action. It could be that non-playoff drivers were racing the title guys differently, and the traction compound also could have played a role. Phoenix’s facility and fan experience should help it remain a playoff race. However, I would like to see the title race move to a track like Atlanta Motor Speedway. Homestead-Miami Speedway provided multiple grooves and entertaining racing. Despite how worn out it is, a repave is likely coming to the track in the near future. Add on multiple lanes, high speeds and a great fan experience, and a championship-deciding return to Atlanta could be a good show.
Clayton Caldwell: No, because it wasn’t the right race this year. Phoenix is just an OK racetrack. It wasn’t given the date because it was this action-filled track that put on the best show in the sport. So I don’t get the surprise over Phoenix being lackluster all weekend. When you move the race for alternative motives, usually you get snoozers.
Adam Cheek: While I’m certainly all for an eventual rotational schedule of the finale venue between different tracks, it’s probably best to give Phoenix another year as the championship site. Sunday’s race wasn’t all that exciting, but Phoenix’s configuration is certainly different from Homestead, and NASCAR succeeded in giving fans a different viewing experience compared to the Florida circuit. However, the time should be altered just a bit; it felt very odd to see the race finish and a champion crowned in daylight. Granted, we’re used to the East Coast time zone at this point in the year — the sun setting earlier and all that — but regardless of the lighted venue, that should be the backdrop for the end of the season: the race taking place as the sky transitions from afternoon, to evening, to night and the champion essentially riding off into the setting sun (or night sky) as the offseason begins.
Mark Kristl: Yes. Phoenix hosted the season finale this year with limited capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions and still put on three exciting races. It deserves to host the Championship 4 next year.
Jared Haas: Yes. Phoenix has a better raceday vibe at the track during championship weekend than Homestead did. The product of the race, which matters more than the location, during the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series races had phenomenal finishes to their seasons. The Cup race did not leave up to the hype of the other races, but that race was more of an outlier. Even though it might have been a snoozer compared to other races this weekend, the race should not raise concern for finding a new venue to close out the season. A change of the racing venue should not happen that fast for the track to change every year.
Only one of three regular season champions claimed the title. Should the regular season points champ get a free pass to the Championship 4?
Haas: No. Usually the points leader has a good cushion when entering the playoffs, especially with stage points and playoff points. Kevin Harvick, who was the clear favorite in the Cup regular season, had an awful run to end the season. Brad Keselowski made up a gap of 33 points in two races in the Round of 8. The racing product would decrease, as the regular-season champion would slack until the finale. The regular-season champion still has to earn the championship in all 36 races, not 26 plus the finale.
Caldwell: Absolutely not. Basically what people who believe that are asking for is the regular-season champion to have nine bye weeks before the championship race. That makes absolutely no sense. The regular-season champion gets a lot of perks. It would have to be a real choke job for the regular-season champion to not make the final four. The championship is about performing in big moments and not in July. We need to face that reality.
Cheek: This is something I’ve been mulling over for a while, and I still don’t have an opinion one way or the other. I don’t know if the automatic bye should extend as far as the championship round is concerned, but I could see it working with the regular-season champion clinching an automatic berth in the Round of 8, essentially giving them two rounds to relax and plan for the final four races. At the same time, though, it just doesn’t feel quite right; sure, in MLB, NFL and other major sports the automatic bye is a yearly thing and gives the teams a one-game pass based on their regular-season performance. But NASCAR has a different feel to it, with each race its own animal, and the venues are different every week (as compared to, say, football, where the venues change but the playing field is always the same).
Glover: They should at least get a bye into the Round of 12 or 8. However, I would like to see how one would perform in the playoffs to make sure they keep up the same performance. While both drivers were dominant in the regular season, both Denny Hamlin and Harvick struggled at times in the playoffs, Hamlin more so. Harvick should have been there, considering he had a regular season for the ages. The format that worked best was the Chase from 2004-2006. It brought it down to the 10 best drivers who could make arguments for winning the title. If the regular-season champ were to continue with their pre-postseason dominance, they would have a strong chance to win the title, while we would also still see some championship drama.
Kristl: No. Ask Florida Gulf Coast University and University of Maryland, Baltimore County in college basketball, Appalachian State University in college football, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants beating the undefeated New England Patriots. Upsets happen in sports. NASCAR rewards the regular-season points leader with 15 additional playoff points. They should race rather than simply play it out on paper.
Was Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus the best ever driver/crew chief pairing in NASCAR history?
Cheek: Being so recent, part of me wants to say yes, but the pairing of Dale Inman and Richard Petty yielded twice the victories. Granted, this was three decades prior, and the Jimmie Johnson/Knaus team navigated its way to seven titles in multiple championship formats, but Inman and Petty won 166 races together and were the first to reach seven crowns. Inman and Petty also recorded more than 400 top-five finishes together and nearly 500 top-10 results; the pair finished just under 70% of their races in the top 10. Comparing eras involves so many different factors, from the cars to the tracks to the competition, but the Inman/Petty relationship gave way to some of the most impressive results in NASCAR history.
Kristl: Johnson and Knaus were the second-best all-time duo behind Inman and Petty. Keep in mind Inman won his last race atop the pit box in 1984. Knaus has been the best crew chief this century.
Caldwell: I’d have about all of Randleman, N.C., out to have my head if I said yes, but what Johnson and Knaus did together should not be overlooked because of the era they did it in. They did it with multiple different point systems, multiple racecars and did it consistently over a 15-year period. They forced NASCAR to change the point system multiple times because they won it too much. If they aren’t No. 1, they’re a close No. 2, and that’s not too shabby.
Haas: Yes. Knaus has come from humble beginnings by working his way up with Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Melling Racing to being a seven-time champion crew chief. Knaus gave Johnson an edge to win five straight championships and seven overall. The pairing outlasted modern duos like Matt Kenseth with Robbie Reiser and Tony Stewart with Greg Zipadelli. The only pairing that gives the Knaus-Johnson pairing a run for their money is Petty and Inman. Johnson and Knaus will both be first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Glover: They certainly make a strong argument. Statistically, Petty and Inman recorded more wins, but there were more races then and a different format of racing. Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham should be in the conversation too, and it’s painful to imagine what could have been if they had stayed together. In the end, you could make an argument for all three. Inman, Evernham, and Knaus all had a strong knowledge of the car and strategy. The five straight titles from Johnson/Knaus are also appealing. And then of course you have Evernham and Gordon recording a modern era-record 13 wins in 1998. You could almost toss a coin to decide who was the best.
It’s never too early to look ahead. Who is your 2021 Cup championship favorite?
Kristl: Kyle Larson. He is a superb dirt-track racer, and the Cup Series is racing on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway. He also ran quite well in his four starts this year, with one top five and three top 10s. Larson also enters Hendrick without the expectations of leading the team in wins and a championship; Chase Elliott won the championship and William Byron and Alex Bowman won this year, too.
Glover: The parity that existed for race winners in the early 2000s is not as strong, but the parity for who could win the title is at its peak, mainly because of the playoffs. Looking at the field, there are three Hendrick guys that are deep threats. The same go for Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. And of course Harvick is a perennial contender. My favorite, though, is Elliott. The kid has proven now that he is cool and calm under pressure, a very dangerous aspect for such a young driver. Hendrick seems to be finding its groove again, and its lineup could be lethal next season. Coming off a championship season, Elliott is going to be a serious threat once again.
Haas: Besides stating the obvious with Harvick winning a lot of races, Penske will be strong again in 2021. Keselowski was the third-best driver behind Harvick and Hamlin throughout the entire season. Joey Logano was a consistent force during this season, which led him to a spot in the final four. Ryan Blaney scored six top 10s after being eliminated after the first round of the playoffs. After the crew chief shuffle, the Penske drivers are finding their mojo again. Don’t be surprised if a blue oval hoists the championship trophy in 2021.
Cheek: Hamlin. Harvick will be strong as well next year, but the prowess Hamlin’s shown over just the past three years — six wins in 2019, seven in 2020 (in total, the most of any driver the last two seasons) and two oh-so-close chances to win the title in both seasons — has my confidence up for the Virginia native next year. Fifth time might be the charm for Hamlin in his 16th season of full-time Cup competition.
Caldwell: I really like what Keselowski and Jeremy Bullins did in their first year together. They were a position away from taking the title, and I believe both are ready for a strong 2021 season.