So here we go…
There are just two races remaining to decide a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, one race to decide who gets there and five drivers set to fight for the one available spot.
Phoenix is gonna be lit.
The AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was full of surprises too. It seems as if all season we’ve talked about Martin Truex Jr. and the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 team with this air of invincibility. We’ve known since at least since August that Truex would make the Championship 4. After all, he just had too many playoff points to falter during the chase for the championship.
Then came the ‘Team of Destiny’ narrative that held up all the way through the first seven races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. Truex has won three times during the chase and added two other runner-ups.
But there was something about the way Harvick hounded Truex over the final green flag run that seemed nostalgic. His bold pass in lap traffic on the outside of one-groove Texas was reminiscent of ‘The Closer’ of lore and was the focus of my Sunday night column after the race:
Overall, Texas was a good enough time. Thanks to a first lap collision, the opening stage was as compelling as an intermediate track event can get and the addition of stage points had my eyes glued to the monitor from the press box.
The middle half was dull as ever, but the finish was satisfying and set-up an intriguing penultimate race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway.
Here are some other things we learned over the weekend in the Lone Star State:
Mathematically, the penultimate race of the season will come down to five drivers vying for one open spot, but it’s realistically down to three — Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney.
First, let’s look at the standings:
1. Kyle Busch (1 win, advanced)
2. Kevin Harvick (1 win, advanced)
3. Martin Truex (Advanced on points)
4. Brad Keselowski +19
5. Denny Hamlin -19
6. Ryan Blaney -22
7. Chase Elliott -49
8. Jimmie Johnson -51
Keselowski controls his own destiny. He will make the Championship 4 should he simply run inside the top-10, score stage points and finish there after 312 laps. With that said, this is not Keselowski’s best track and Hamlin has had some degree of success at the flat one-miler.
More so, Hamlin won the summer race at similar-ish New Hampshire and it’s not inconceivable that Hamlin could knock his deficit down to less than 10 points if he runs inside the top-5 and Keselowski is not.
From there, it could be a straight up race.
Technically, the same holds true for Blaney but there isn’t as much to indicate that possibility. And it stands to reason that Blaney contending for a win means that Keselowski should too, barring a radically different set-up between the two Penske drivers.
And then there’s the must-win Hendrick Motorsport teams.
Jimmie Johnson has four wins at Phoenix but NONE since the track was reconfigured back in 2011. Since then, the case could be made that he’s fairly dreadful there. Since 2015, Johnson has the 16th best overall average finish (14.80) at the track with no wins and only a single top-10.
Meanwhile, Chase Elliott has a less conclusive body of work at the venue but is still looking for his first overall win. That just doesn’t seem likely at Phoenix either.
Ultimately, the most realist outcome is that Keselowski will leave Arizona with the opportunity to compete for a championship.
Martinsville last week served as a pretty fitting reminder why all three NASCAR national touring divisions need more short tracks.
Texas did too, in its own way.
The AAA 500 wasn’t necessarily a bad race, especially by recently-repaved intermediate track standards, but it was just a long race — three hours and 30 minutes to be precise. You can tack on another 10 minutes to that when you take into account the red flag for the Kyle Larson incident on lap 284.
The first stage was exciting, thanks in part to the incident that sent Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch to pit road under green. Keselowski was hanging onto a playoff spot, so watching him march back to a fifth-place provided a degree of drama.
Similarly, Chase Elliott’s surge from a 36th-place start to 11th and just outside of a playoff spot was equally compelling. The possibility of Elliott scoring stage points at the expense of Keselowski, if he couldn’t recover gave the race some legitimate talking points.
But then came the second stage, Keselowski’s recovery and Elliott’s impeded progress. The third stage was exciting because of the thrilling finish.
All told, the problem with intermediate tracks are the length — they just take too dang long to complete. Fans don’t have this kind of patience anymore. That race could have cut out the middle 100 laps and be considered a borderline exceptional race.
Pocono cut 100 miles from both races back in 2012 without a single complain from fans or the competition.
Marquee events like the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400 are fine the way they are — tradition and all. But NASCAR and its partner tracks could do much to eliminate fatigue and evaporating interest by cutting some of these 500 mile races.
(Looking at you too, both Talladega races)
I don’t think anyone at Hendrick Motorsports would seriously entertain the idea of breaking up the No. 48 dynamic duo of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.
With that said, it’s been so fascinating to watch that team struggle in the second half this season. The two have often bickered over the radio and the results just haven’t been there. It’s worth noting that Hendrick had endured a rough year across the board and they are still one walk-off home run away from competing for a record-setting eighth Cup Series championship.
Even with a rebuilding year at Hendrick, it was awfully surprising to see the No. 48 struggle at both Martinsville and Texas. Those are banner races for Johnson. Even last year, which presented similar struggles, saw Johnson capitalize on his best tracks at Charlotte and Martinsville to advance to Homestead.
Barring a similar ‘come from behind’ performance at Phoenix, this off-season will be the first since the milk and cookies summit in which their continued partnership could be questioned.
(It still shouldn’t)
But wait there’s more: We’re going to have a lot more to say about Matt Kenseth once the season ends, but let’s take a quick moment to question everything that’s wrong with the current NASCAR business model when a still-contending, former champion has to step away from the sport because he can’t afford a legitimate full-time ride.
It goes without saying, and the questions are easier to state than the answers, but the NASCAR community has to find some way to lower costs or maximize resources to allow drivers like the 2003 champion to find a ride.
NASCAR will now have lost Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The latter three at least no longer wanted to do this on a full-time basis. But losing Kenseth and his connection to blue collar short tracker fans is going to leave a void.
Two laps to go …