Is NASCAR's regular season finale too desperate for a Cinderella story?
NASCAR’s first regular season finale at Richmond Raceway was also its most memorable. On that fateful Saturday night in 2004, Kasey Kahne crashed himself out of the Chase while teammate Jeremy Mayfield snuck in the back door. Leading 151 laps, he won the race and pulled ahead of Jamie McMurray by 15 points to vault himself into the postseason. Mayfield jumped five spots in the standings to make it in while McMurray’s desperation played out over the final laps in the type of live-TV moments of drama NASCAR craves.
It was a fantastic race that also set impossibly high expectations. Ever since, we’ve been waiting for a similar fairy tale ending at Richmond that’s never really happened. This year appears to be no different; all 16 playoff spots are set unless someone currently on the outside looking in wins the race.
That’s always a possibility considering the big names on the verge of missing the postseason include Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Clint Bowyer, among others. But with all of them suffering through disappointing years, all struggling to run up front, it’s far more likely Saturday night will be a letdown for those seeking a Cinderella story.
Moving forward, Richmond will move into the playoffs, the second short track race in the final 10 events while Indianapolis replaces it as the season finale. But considering the past history of the Brickyard 400, it’s hard to believe one of the series’ crown jewel events will suddenly deliver a playoff nail-biter. Those special races tend to bring out the best in the best teams – all of whom will have likely clinched a spot.
No, NASCAR’s regular season finale has a chance to be just as deflating come 2018. That’s why an idea that Kevin Harvick shared on SIRIUS XM Radio last week was so intriguing. Harvick suggested that after the regular season finale, before the first playoff race NASCAR hold a “wild card” event at a short track of their choosing. Only those who haven’t clinched a spot would be invited and the winner would receive the final automatic bid into the playoffs.
Now, putting the sport back at places like South Boston, Myrtle Beach, perhaps even the Nashville Fairgrounds with so much on the line? That is a midweek race a lot of people could get behind. It may take an outside-the-box idea like that to inject some energy into a finale that increasingly seems to fall flat.
NASCAR hopes such a trend gets broken this weekend. So does Richmond, whose attendance was a sore spot back in the spring. But even a great race Saturday night, in the best of circumstances, can do little to change the reality of this system. The sport might want to truly consider giving their final regular season race a tune-up.
Federated Auto Parts 400
Time: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Richmond Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kurt Busch
It’s easy to point to Toyota, now six-for-eight after Denny Hamlin’s comeback Southern 500 victory. But Hamlin’s win was labeled encumbered this week after failing post-race inspection, causing the loss of five playoff points and the suspension of crew chief Mike Wheeler for two races.
With a black cloud over the No. 11 team, then let’s note the performance of the “other” Busch. This year’s Daytona 500 winner placed third, producing back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time all season. Right now is the right time to get hot and Busch, a former champion knows how to manage the playoffs. Could this Stewart-Haas Racing team, in limbo awaiting a decision from sponsor Monster Energy, emerge as a title contender after all?
Who’s at the Back: Clint Bowyer
Bowyer, Busch’s SHR teammate, picked the wrong time to go stone cold by comparison. His engine blew 18 laps into the Southern 500, a last-place finish that put the nail in his coffin on making the playoffs on points. Three straight runs outside the top 10 leave him in a position where it’s win-or-bust at Richmond Saturday night. That’s not the way Tony Stewart’s replacement, still seeking sponsorship, wanted his first season with the team to wind up.
A rear suspension violation, one that Joey Logano suffered through earlier in the year, was assessed to Denny Hamlin’s race-winning car this week. As mentioned above, crew chief Mike Wheeler is gone for Richmond and the Chicagoland playoff opener while Hamlin’s five playoff points for winning were taken away. The penalty also included the loss of 25 regular season driver and owner points along with a $50,000 fine.
Thinking of cheating during the postseason? You better think again. On Friday, NASCAR asserted that should a rear suspension violation be found during the playoffs, it would come with a whopping 40-point penalty, a $75,000 fine and a three-week suspension for the crew chief. Keeping with their theme this year, officials are trying to draw black-and-white lines surrounding NASCAR inspection they feel the sport sorely needs.
Some notable 2018 rules changes announced Thursday concerned backup cars and Cup Series engines. Starting next season, any team that goes to a backup car at any point during the course of a weekend has to start at the rear of the field. As for horsepower, full-time teams must run 13 short block engines for multiple race weekends next season. Part-time teams may not run more than two consecutive races without using a sealed, short block engine that has been used in a previous Cup Series event.
Finally, several Cup Series racetracks including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway are opening their campgrounds to southeastern residents fleeing Hurricane Irma. The Category 4/5 storm is expected to strike south Florida this weekend not far from the site of the postseason finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Joey Logano since his Richmond victory was labeled “encumbered” in the spring. He had led 240 laps in the first nine Cup races before the incident.
Average finish of Kyle Busch over the last five races. That includes two Cup victories at Pocono and Bristol.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Considering the momentum described above, why wouldn’t you pick Kyle Busch heading into Richmond? While 16th in the spring, Busch does have two runner-up Richmond finishes in his last four races and is itching for one last victory before the playoffs. If anything, just beware of some boom-or-bust potential considering Busch has already clinched a spot and doesn’t have to worry about points.
Teammate Joey Logano needs a win much more than Brad Keselowski. But consider he’s got an average finish of 3.0 and 110 laps led in the last two Richmond races. Keselowski is the kind of driver that’ll sneak up on you in this type of event.
If there’s anyone likely to break through among the winless crowd I think it’s a guy already in the playoffs. Matt Kenseth would make it in on points as long as no Cinderella stories win the race but he’s just as likely to take the checkered flag himself. Leading 164 laps in the spring after winning the pole at Richmond, the best runs for the No. 20 Toyota this season have come on short tracks. He’s earned three top-10 finishes at Bristol and Martinsville while a 23rd at Richmond was the result of bad luck, not bad handling.
Another sneaky pick, with back-to-back top-10 finishes at Richmond, is Jamie McMurray. While unlikely to win, he’s been strong here in recent years and a consistent, 10th-place result or better would be perfect for this position on your fantasy roster.
Aric Almirola may be slumping since his return from injury but he remains one of the best drivers at Richmond. This spring, he ran ninth and since the start of 2013 has never run worse than 21st at the track. In order to return to Richard Petty Motorsports next season, he’s going to need to start producing and I expect him to deliver on Saturday night.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr. were tied atop the board with 11/2 odds earlier in the week. Practice has given Truex Jr. a bit of an edge as Friday wore on.
What I Think
Kurt Busch has been putting it together as of late. This short track lends itself to his driving style so don’t be surprised to see the No. 41 team bookend the regular season, matching their Daytona 500 victory with one in the Richmond finale.
(Top photo by ASP Inc.)