1. Face the facts: Cup championship is Johnson’s to lose
There’s a good share of NASCAR fans who probably aren’t too happy with what’s coming Sunday afternoon with the sport’s five-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, on the verge of making it six — all in a span of nine years.
Even if Matt Kenseth, Johnson’s closest competitor, can win Sunday’s race by leading every lap, the No. 48 car needs to finish just 23rd.
Of course this is NASCAR, and these are races conducted with machines that have thousands of critical, moving parts that ca fail and human drivers who can make a mistake. Johnson could lose a tire and smack the wall on the first lap, opening the door for Kenseth to capitalize. Even Kevin Harvick, at third in the standings, can’t be ruled out.
History, though, is on Johnson’s side. Each of the four times he’s entered the Homestead season finale with the series points lead (2006-09) he’s held serve and scored the title. Johnson came from behind at Homestead to win his fifth title in 2010 over Denny Hamlin.
Making matters worse for the competition is that Johnson will use the same chassis that dominated at Texas Motor Speedway, won at Dover and led more than 100 laps in Charlotte before a third-place finish.
Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 team. have a long hill to climb. It’s a good bet to think Johnson will make that ascent unscalable.
2. France’s open letter misses on safetyNASCAR CEO Brian France opted to forego his seemingly annual “state of the sport” style address and press conference in Homestead ahead of Sunday’s season finale, and instead authored an open letter directed to NASCAR fans on the sport’s website.
The letter largely focused on France’s version of the sport’s successes over the past season — the Gen-6 car, Darrell Wallace Jr.’s win and the new tracks visited by the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series in 2013 got the most play — and offered broad (and accurate) strokes about where he thinks the sport still needs to improve.
“We want more excitement, more passing, more drama,” France wrote. “We want to give (the fans) more reasons to go to the racetrack and continue to follow our sport week after week. Rest assured that we as an industry are working hard to accomplish this goal.”
However, France’s letter completely missed the issue still brewing underneath the surface of the sport: track safety.
There’s no doubt that the safety devices implemented post-Earnhardt and in the CoT platform have been a rousing success. The low numbers of driver injuries and zero fatalities in the 12 years since Earnhardt’s 2001 death have shown that.
But 2013 featured Kyle Larson’s brutally scary fence-shearing crash at Daytona that injured more than 30 spectators. It also had an incident that ruined a potential championship bid for Denny Hamlin when he crashed into an unprotected wall at Auto Club Speedway in the spring.
Both incidents exposed the sport’s most pressing safety concerns, but neither one produced a sense of urgency for correction from the sport’s leaders.
That lack of priority — both in the incident aftermath and now in France’s proverbial season wrap-up — is disconcerting. We can only hope a meeting with the media will be on the agenda for France in Las Vegas, where he can address such issues, when the sport holds its annual post-season banquet.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has put together an outstanding Chase That Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t won in 2013 will remain the first criticism both his fans and detractors will latch on to should he fail to reach victory lane Sunday night. And while that is a disappointment of Earnhardt’s 2013 campaign, it’s important to realize how good the No. 88 has been for much of the year and in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Earnhardt tied a career-high for top-10 finishes in a season (21) with a fourth-place finish at Phoenix last week and sits just one top-5 finish from his highwater mark of 10 in a season with Hendrick Motorsports.
His Chase performance has been a big improvement on his regular season results — even with a blown engine at Chicagoland Speedway that ruined his title hopes in Week 1 of the 10-race stretch. Earnhardt has averaged a finish of 9.1 during the Chase, and if the Chicago result is excluded his average finish drops to a very competitive 5.9.
In the regular season, Earnhardt averaged a finish of 14.2. Comparatively, teammate Jimmie Johnson has averaged a finish of 4.6 in the Chase.
Earnhardt has been good enough to win often in 2013, and without some key mechanical failures likely would have rolled to victory lane. Still, his improved results bode well for the No. 88 team going in to 2014.
4. Last NASCAR go-round for Jeff Burton, Mark Martin?
Mark Martin seems to be a bit gun shy.
The 54-year-old all but confirmed last weekend at Phoenix that he’ll be stepping away from the competitive driver’s seat in NASCAR after Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But he seemed to stop short of calling it a retirement.
Blame that on his first “retirement” from the sport back in 2005, when a marketing approach that he wasn’t really on-board with was crafted around his planned-for final season at Roush Fenway Racing. He wound up returning the next year, and has taken criticism from fans ever since.
Martin has no confirmed rides in 2014, and plans to do some work with Stewart-Haas Racing as a test driver while Tony Stewart continues to recuperate and potentially serve as a mentor to Danica Patrick.
It’s somewhat a strange bit of fate, too, that Martin’s former Roush teammate Jeff Burton seems to be heading beyond the driver’s seat at the same time. Burton, of course, announced earlier this fall that he’s stepping out of the No. 31 at Richard Childress Racing after he was unable to commit to longer than one year in the ride.
He currently has no spot lined up for 2014, though rumors of a part-time role in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 56 car continue to swirl.
NASCAR’s driver roster is forever in a state of change, a fact not lost on Burton and Martin. Still, it’ll be a bit jarring come February if both are watching the Daytona 500 from the sidelines.
5. Nationwide Series may go to a winless driverKyle Busch has won 12 races in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this year in just 25 starts. If he were eligible for points — he’s not, due to NASCAR rules permitting drivers to accumulate points in just one series — Busch would stand eighth in the series standings despite missing seven of the 32 races.
Meanwhile, point leader Austin Dillon enters Saturday’s season finale with an eight-point cushion on second-place Sam Hornish Jr. Should Dillon hold on to the advantage and claim his first series title without winning Saturday’s race, NASCAR would have its first series champion without a race win ever. In any series.
That’s indicative of a problem, but not necessarily a travesty for the sport. It just continues the dereliction of the Nationwide Series’ importance and stature to fans.
For years, the sport has wrestled with Cup drivers dominating the support series events. Event promoters like the fact that they can sell the sport’s best drivers racing in an event that requires a smaller sanctioning fee. Drivers like cashing in with extra money and trophies.
What’s the answer? If I had my way, I’d stack the deck against Cup drivers but still allow them to compete. Force Cup drivers to qualify on time for all Nationwide Series events, but send them to the rear during the pace laps.
It’d improve the show and make winning Nationwide events tougher for the more experienced and often better equipped Cup drivers. And hey, the 2014 Nationwide champ may actually have a checkered flag to hang up.