Who … should you be talking about after the Season Finale 500?
A year ago, Kyle Larson watched the NASCAR Cup Series finale on TV and wondered what might have been. Now, a little older and a lot wiser after he chose to learn from a mistake that saw him banned for most of 2020 and dropped by his major backers, Larson stood alone on the back of a dominant 2021 season. He captured the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway and the Cup title that goes along with it.
It’s the first time in almost 15 years that a driver has won 10 races in a single season. Jimmie Johnson did it in 2007 in the midst of a five-year stranglehold on the title. And it’s hard to overlook the fact crew chief Cliff Daniels had a year with Johnson under his belt before taking the reins for Larson.
Larson didn’t have the best car all day, but he was fast enough, and he had the best pit crew and pit selection. That allowed him to capitalize on one of the fastest pit stops the No. 5 team completed all year on the final stop of the day. He got the jump on Denny Hamlin on the last restart with 24 laps to go… and then built a gap he’d never relinquish. Larson held off a hard-charging Martin Truex Jr. to take the win.
And don’t forget Ryan Blaney. He was strong all day, leading twice in the first stage for a total of 33 laps and keeping the leaders in sight all day before passing Chase Elliott in the closing laps for a fourth-place finish. That makes Blaney the only driver to run ahead of a championship contender in the finale during the last two seasons.
What … is the buzz about?
Are drivers too “vanilla,” leaving much to be desired when it comes to showing personality and do fans like them that way? After Alex Bowman won at Martinsville last week, Hamlin cut off his victory celebration on track in a spicy move and got booed for it. Kyle Busch let his disappointment show as he was eliminated from title contention and was derided for using inappropriate language (and rightfully sent to sensitivity training by NASCAR).
But the line between being vanilla and poor sportsmanship is all kinds of wide. Fans weren’t asking drivers not to show emotion, they were voicing their displeasure in Hamlin and Busch for throwing their sour grapes all over the track.
Drivers can show personality (if their sponsors allow them to; that’s a whole other ball of wax) in ways that resonate. Just watch Ben Rhodes’ championship press conference. He’s authentic, if slightly off the rails, and the result is far from vanilla but in the best way. Fans have embraced it.
The problem here isn’t that drivers don’t resonate; it’s that too many sponsors don’t allow it. There was a time when fans felt like they knew the drivers in any given series and that’s what needs to happen again. Vanilla personalities are a big reason not to engage with the sport from a fan’s perspective. Personality and poor sportsmanship, though, aren’t the same thing.
Where … did the other key players wind up in the Season Finale 500?
Truex may have had the best car of the day, particularly as the sun began to set, and he certainly had the best luck. He had just pitted under green in the final segment when the caution flew for Anthony Alfredo. That could have easily left Truex a lap down, but he squeaked out of his pit in front of leader Elliott.
That made Truex the leader after stops instead of at the back of the field, as he’d have been if he’d had to take the wave-around. The No. 19 Toyota just didn’t quite have the short run speed that Larson’s Chevrolet did. While Truex mounted a furious charge in the last five laps, it wasn’t enough for the win. He leaves Phoenix as runner-up in both the race and the season.
Hamlin couldn’t quite shake the playoff demons that have plagued him for his entire career. He’s entered the final race as a contender five times, including once as the point leader before the current system evened the points for the finale. Five times, he’s fallen short of a title.
This time, Hamlin had the inside of the front row on the final restart but couldn’t get the launch he needed to race Larson for the lead and the win. He wound up third having never led a lap, the third time he’s finished third on the season in his career.
Elliott led four times for 94 laps, but his car struggled in traffic, and that was where he found himself on the final restart. Elliott dropped fourth spot to Blaney and was unable to defend his 2020 title down the stretch. As good as Elliott’s car was early, he illustrated how hard it is to keep up with a changing racetrack and how hard it really is to successfully defend a title.
When … was the moment of truth in the Season Finale 500?
Three days, three very different champions and championship seasons. Larson capped off the weekend with an exclamation point, on the heels of a 10-win season, something that’s only been accomplished 17 times by 11 drivers in NASCAR’s modern era, a span of nearly 50 years. It’s happened only twice since 2000, including this year.
The Xfinity title came on consistency and a little luck, the embodiment of the current playoff system. Daniel Hemric had never won a race at any national level until Saturday but pulled one out of the bag on the biggest stage of the year to wrap up the title for Joe Gibbs Racing. He had the fewest wins among title contenders and only Noah Gragson had fewer top fives and top 10s than Hemric. But the others couldn’t catch him at the line.
Ben Rhodes won the Camping World Truck Series title from somewhere in the middle. Among the four contenders, only John Hunter Nemechek had more wins (five to Rhodes’ two), but Rhodes had the best average finish, while Nemechek led more laps.
Fans may not embrace the current title format the way NASCAR hoped they might when it was implemented. However, this year, the champions run the gamut from dominant to lucky. That’s what NASCAR intended: a title that’s unpredictable to the last race.
Why … should you be paying attention this offseason?
The offseason is short; go do something else for a few weeks.
Seriously, though, this winter is worth keeping an eye on the NASCAR front because there will undoubtedly be test sessions for the new racecar that are worth watching. Look for the oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway to be an important proving ground. The series still runs a lot of 1.5-mile tracks and these are the ovals where the car’s performance will really matter. If it’s too aerodynamically dependent, catching and passing the leader still won’t happen the way fans are hoping.
There’s a lot riding on this car. So much is being taken away from the teams that, in order for it to win over skeptics, it has to perform on track. If the car does that, it’ll be easier to overlook some flaws. If it doesn’t, there’s no going back. The sport needs the Next Gen to be a success.
How … much momentum can drivers carry into 2022?
Remember that new car thing? That may take away some momentum from veterans like Larson, Hamlin and Truex, all of whom clearly thrived with the 2021 package. That winning feeling may stick with Larson and carry him a little early, but 2022 is a whole new ballgame. As I said above, repeating a title is incredibly hard.
Falling short of a title can take the fire out of a team for a long time. Hamlin finished a lackluster ninth a year after finishing runner-up to Johnson. Backward momentum, especially if a team struggles with the new car, could be difficult to overcome early. Though the top drivers and teams are going to figure out the cars, don’t expect a lot of surprises going deep into the playoffs.
Teams will be hard at work this week, preparing those brand-new cars for 2022. How fast they adapt will determine who comes out swinging next year.
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