Through the Gears: The four things we learned in Phoenix
Twenty-four hours after NASCAR’s Phoenix finish, the landscape within the sport is buzzing with more diverse opinions than we’ve heard in any recent election. On one side sits a growing chorus of voices claiming this new format is the best decision CEO Brian France ever made, a life-saving choice for stock car racing that turns the tide for NASCAR after years of steady decline. Early returns help support that theory, as Sunday’s race pulled a 12 percent increase in the overnight ratings, joining Texas to give the Cup Series two straight audience increases for the first time this year. The Phoenix grandstands were sold out, a rarity these days and the hope is Homestead’s season finale will be just as jam-packed.
The pro-NASCAR faction — growing after Sunday’s last-lap madness — has plenty of ammo in its corner. One: the sport is on the verge of a first-time Sprint Cup champion, the first time that’s happened since Jimmie Johnson started a dynasty in 2006. Two: the Final Four includes a driver, Kevin Harvick, who has arguably been the most dominant all year (series-best 2,083 laps led) that would be unable to compete for a title under the old system. Joey Logano has had a breakout year (five wins) and also gets a chance he wouldn’t have had. Three: the intensity has brought out more raw emotion in drivers within the last 10 weeks than perhaps the last 10 years. Keep in mind a lot of those happy fans skew younger, part of the crucial 18-to-34 crowd NASCAR needs to hook if its sport is set to survive another generation.
On the flip side sits the older, traditionalist fan fed up with any type of playoff system. Their first argument hangs on the following stat lines, presented without comment:
ELIMINATOR ROUND RESULTS
OUT: Jeff Gordon (four wins, series point leader without a Chase system)
OUT: Brad Keselowski (series-best six wins)
IN: Ryan Newman (zero wins, four top-5 finishes, ranked 22nd in laps led (41))
IN: Denny Hamlin (one win (Talladega), seven top-5 finishes, one top 5 in the Chase, missed a race this season, 14th in points without a playoff reset)
The very racing that sparked emotional outbursts is also the kind making fans angry. Newman, to earn his spot at Homestead, chose to dive-bomb rookie Kyle Larson, slamming the No. 42 car in the last turn of the last lap at Phoenix to gain entry. Gordon’s exclusion was the direct result of aggressive racing courtesy of Keselowski that caused a flat tire on his Chevrolet. Gordon joins Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Keselowski as drivers with clear championship credentials this season and nothing to show for it. Playing with points in the form of strategy calls, this group feels is a cover-up for poor side-by-side competition during races, with aerodynamics cutting down passing aside from some frantic double-file restarts.
The opinions are fierce, yet with all the talk heading into the Homestead finale, you have to feel like there’s a tremor building inside the walls of this sport.
People may love it. People may hate it. Either way, there’s talk in the midst of football season — and after a year filled with further decline. That tells you the Chase format is making some sort of impact.
Where does NASCAR end up? At this point, after one of the most unpredictable playoff races since NASCAR went this direction in 2004, I have absolutely no idea. The experts are left scratching their head, knowing any one of a thousand different outcomes are possible on Sunday, running the gambit from “huge boost” of the sport’s popularity to setting it up for permanent destruction. (A Newman title, however unlikely, tops the list of damaging outcomes.)
At this point, there’s only one thing I can tell you for certain: more people will be watching than last year. NASCAR, along with its title contenders, has 400 miles to show a bigger audience that its sport is worth switching over from the NFL for.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Gordon and Keselowski strike out
All eyes were on Gordon and Keselowski Sunday, one week after their pit road fight made national news. Both had top-5 runs, with Gordon second and Keselowski fourth, but it was ultimately not enough to make the Final Four. Both men, whose seasons were worthy of a championship, were ultimately derailed by one bad performance this round: Keselowski’s broken gear at Martinsville which led to desperation — desperation which perhaps led to the aggressive moves and flat tire it caused Gordon one week later at Texas. That incident left Gordon 29th, one lap down and ultimately one point from making the title round.
“That one race, that one race is going to stick with me for a little while,” said Gordon after two second-place finishes this round made him the first loser. “I got over it this week, knowing that we could come here and compete like this. Now it makes it sting that much more.
“I hope we taught somebody that you can race clean and still go out there and give it your best. You don’t have to wreck people to make it in the Chase or win the championship. I’m not going to wreck a guy that’s racing me clean all year long just to make it into the Chase.“
Meanwhile, Keselowski’s aggression didn’t play out into on-track revenge. No drivers knocked him out of the way in crunch time but the speed just wasn’t there for the No. 2 car to contend. No career wins at Texas or Phoenix wound up biting the 2012 champion, who couldn’t pull a second straight save after a Talladega win advanced him into the round of eight.
“It’s been a good effort. It’s been a great year,” he said. “It’s nothing to hang our head on. We controlled the things we could control … that’s just how this deal works. It still feels like it has been a great season, winning six races. Nobody is going to win anymore than that, and that’s something we’re proud of.”
Both men made had just one bad moment. Both men won during this 10-race playoff, something Hamlin and Newman can’t say. But in this format, one catastrophic DNF (or awful performance) is all it takes to cause a knockout, like you’re a 1 seed going down in the NCAA Tournament. No one’s used to that format in a sport where 36 races used to determine the champion — not three-race sprints.
SECOND GEAR: Harvick’s dominating performance
In the meantime, Harvick turned a “must-win” situation into a relaxing walk in the park. Leading 264 laps, the No. 4 car was in another time zone at Phoenix, building leads of well over three seconds during long green-flag runs. He now has three straight wins at the one-mile oval while leading a whopping 488 of the last 624 laps run there (78 percent).
“This is one of those places that for me as a kid, this was our Daytona 500,” said Harvick, a nearby California native. “I don't think we ever talked about anything but trying to come here and win the race.”
Now, the desert served as a save for a man who enters Homestead with a bit of an edge. With four wins, a career high in laps led and the most momentum the No. 4 team is going to be hard to beat. Pit road problems have been patched up with a crew swap prior to the Chase stabilizing stops as Tony Stewart’s former group now services Harvick. The man whose shove started the brawl at Texas now hopes to play it smart with so much on the line.
“I guess you could say, at Homestead, you just go down there and approach the week just like we approached this week,” the driver said. “Have fun with it, prepare your cars just like you've done all year, and feel like you've already been in that position as far as knowing how to prepare and how to mentally prepare yourself going into the week because we just came here and did it.”
As for bad behavior — #Harvicking has gone viral — his lesson learned came in a “what if” for when Harvick’s son, Keelan, asks about the Texas tangle one day: do as I say, not as I do.
“Last week ate me up,” he said. “The biggest failure in the world would be to be a bad dad. The last two weeks have been good learning lessons.”
A championship trophy would be the ultimate reward for them.
THIRD GEAR: David vs. Goliath: Hendrick’s shocking shutout
Four drivers from four teams — Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing — will fight for the title at Homestead. Nowhere on that list is the team that’s won six of the last nine titles on the circuit: Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon’s loss meant an HMS shutout of epic proportions: barring a miracle, the four-car team will have no drivers finish fifth or better in points for just the third time since 2000.
Gordon’s loss came at the hands of furious comebacks by Final Four combatants Logano and Hamlin. Both drivers were a lap down at times, victims of bad handling and self-induced mistakes that left them outside the top 20. For Logano, it was a pit road speeding penalty that left him fighting through traffic; Hamlin suffered a broken valve stem on a tire after winning the pole. It took all their effort to sneak into the top 10, and while neither driver won this segment, consistency gave them the points to move on.
That’s a word lost in the Hendrick shop for much of the nine-race Chase. Johnson, Earnhardt and Gordon all won in the playoffs only to suffer through disastrous performances. For Johnson, it was a spin not of his making at Kansas after a poor qualifying effort; for Gordon, it was a flat tire after leaving an opening for Keselowski; and for Earnhardt, it was a blown tire at Kansas, followed by a shifter issue that cost him too many positions at Charlotte.
HMS, long regarded as the model for racing teamwork, also saw cracks in the armor. Earnhardt won at Martinsville while Gordon finished second; a swap there sees Gordon, not Newman, in the Final Four. Johnson and Earnhardt also failed to work together at Talladega during the closing laps, ruining a dominant day and opening the door for Keselowski to advance. Even Kasey Kahne seemed on an island for much of the Chase, quietly fading when a strong Talladega effort would have left him, not Matt Kenseth, sitting inside the final eight. It’ll be a long offseason for HMS now, going through at least two crew chief changes (Kahne and Earnhardt) while Gordon mulls retirement and Johnson enters the last year of his sponsor agreement with longtime backer Lowe’s.
FOURTH GEAR: Was Newman right?
The most hotly debated item, post-Phoenix, is whether Newman was right to nudge the rookie Larson out of the way. With a Chase spot on the line, the freshman driver understood Newman’s rationale even though he wasn’t completely happy with it.
“Coming to the finish, there were a lot of cars racing really hard,” he told Motor Racing Network. “I knew (Newman) was right around me and knew he needed to gain some spots to keep from getting eliminated from the Chase. It's a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall, but I completely understand the situation he was in and can't fault him for being aggressive there.”
“I didn’t want to do what I did at the end,” added Newman. “But I did what I had to do.”
Luckily, no team orders came into play. But this one push ultimately made the difference, setting a precedent along with the last couple of weeks that success in this Chase is defined by aggression, aggression and more aggression.
“I’m afraid if it was that ugly the last couple of weeks,” said Gordon. “It’s going to get really ugly next week [at Homestead].”
As a domestic investigation surrounding Kurt Busch continues, owner Gene Haas is vocally supporting his driver. Haas never considered removing Busch from the car (he was seventh Sunday) despite a damning deposition from the driver’s ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, in which she claims Busch bashed her head against the wall during a race weekend at Dover. Innocent until proven guilty? Absolutely. But Haas was so brazenly outspoken this weekend about the facts of the case he’s going to look like a fool if it goes the other direction — especially with domestic violence a hot-button issue in the sporting world these days. … ESPN took great care Sunday to ensure fans saw every piece of debris that caused a caution. Were there some flags thrown that were bad calls? Certainly. But at least each fan was able to see the trash on the track with their own eyes so they know a yellow wasn’t thrown just because NASCAR wanted to bunch up the field. In our rules-driven culture, that practice was good to see in advance of a Homestead finale that will be heavily scrutinized. … Chase Elliott, just 18 years old, became both the youngest Nationwide Series champ and the first to win the title as a rookie. Congratulated by heavy hitters in Victory Lane including primary owner Earnhardt Jr., father Bill (a 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee) and Rick Hendrick, it’s clear he’s got a bright future. Kahne, on the verge of a crew chief change and with just three top-5 finishes this year, better hope Gordon considers retirement next season; that’s the only way Elliott doesn’t bump him out of the No. 5 Cup car in 2016. … Clay Rogers, running for a new NASCAR owner and sponsor, Mark Beard and Beard Oil, failed to qualify at Phoenix. Instead, Mike Bliss driving a third car for Tommy Baldwin Racing made the field only to start-and-park. While the practice of showing up for a check, not to compete has declined significantly this season it was still disappointing to see it cost a new program. NASCAR needs fresh teams, desperately and every time this practice occurs, to the detriment of new competitors is one time too many.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.