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Raining On NASCAR's Parade

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It seems appropriate after a fall filled with controversial, confusing calls NASCAR’s penultimate race at Phoenix stumbled through all of Sunday. Mother Nature literally rained on its parade, turning a “defining moment” in trimming the Chase field from eight to four into painful delays. When the race finally did get going it was around six hours after its scheduled time. The rain-delayed coverage on NBCSN scored a 1.3 Nielsen rating, easily the worst of the 10-race playoff.

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That’s not exactly what you’re looking for in a postseason designed to build toward a climax. Instead, most of NASCAR’s audience simply left, unable to devote their whole day to a race that didn’t officially end until just before midnight eastern. Even then there was controversy, officials pulling the plug 93 laps before the race’s scheduled distance because more rain entered the dryness of the Phoenix desert. A sanctioning body that started a Daytona night race at roughly the same time chose to cut early an event that created their final four Chase contenders.

It’s not the first time a NASCAR race has been ruined by rain and it surely won’t be the last. The problem now, compared to the sport’s peak a decade ago, is its fans now have more entertainment options, less free time and are unwilling to devote 10 hours on Sunday to any one thing in particular, let alone a delayed 500-kilometer event. The Chase, in some cases has diluted the passion for the sport and made the more “casual” fan even less likely to stick around.

So what do you do? Rain tires, while a great idea on paper, don’t seem to be a solution Goodyear is capable of perfecting on oval tracks. Fans also pay their hard-earned money to travel to these races and it’s not fair to them either for an event to be called too early.  An extra day costs everyone money, from the fans staying overnight in hotels to teams having to delay flights, pay overtime, and rework preparation schedules for the following race.

With that in mind, it’s clear the current policy of “waiting it out” isn’t working. Every playoff race should be finished to its conclusion and the subjective decision-making of “when” to call races isn’t doing NASCAR any favors. Every time they choose to wait until Monday, delaying the event a day it seems there’s a window to get the race in and vice versa. So my suggestion is to form a clear set of rules. Perhaps set a time limit. For example, the race will end at 7 p.m. Eastern regardless of weather. If the race is beyond halfway, at that point NASCAR will declare the race official and crown a winner during the regular season. If it’s a Chase race, the remainder of the event will be run on Monday until it reaches an eventual conclusion.

A clear set of rules here won’t make everyone happy but it will at least put everyone on the same page going in. As we’ve seen the past month inconsistency is what has fans up in arms about the sport and NASCAR needs to work on eliminating it everywhere; yes, even when it’s out of their control like with Mother Nature. For what resulted Sunday was a confusing ending where the final four were set long before certain drivers had a chance to assert themselves over the remainder of the 500-kilometer distance they expected. Everyone here deserved more than what a few rainy puddles delivered for them.

Through the Gears we go…

FIRST GEAR: Phoenix Equaled Status Quo

The final four heading into NASCAR’s race at Phoenix were Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex  Jr. That’s how it ended with little, if any, drama in between. The much-anticipated “payback” against Harvick for the race-ending incident at Talladega never happened. Instead Harvick dominated the event, only losing in a weird ending where Dale Earnhardt Jr. essentially beat the No. 4 car out of pit road after a lucky caution. Gordon was already in, a “lock” after his Martinsville victory, while Busch and Truex had the points cushion they needed to somewhat play it safe. Yes, Carl Edwards was only seven points behind Truex, but never showed the speed throughout the weekend he needed to mount serious pressure on those above.

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It was a rough exclamation point to put on a difficult weekend for the sport, one in where fans who did miss the race woke up Monday morning and realized they didn’t miss much. At least the final four heading to Homestead is filled with compelling storylines. Gordon, on the verge of retirement could earn his fifth championship on the way out. He remains a slight favorite in my mind. Harvick, easily the best of the four drivers on paper, is on the verge of completing one of the better seasons in NASCAR’s modern era. He has 15 top-2 finishes this season in 35 starts. That means 43 percent of the time he runs first or second, unheard of in racing circles over such a long year.

Busch and Truex wind up the underdog candidates for different reasons. Busch, missing 11 races at the start of the year following Daytona injuries, needed an exemption just to be Chase-eligible. Four victories over the course of his comeback, though cemented the bid and somewhat legitimized his presence at Homestead. Truex meanwhile drives for a single-car team based out of Colorado, fighting for relevance in an era where $100 million, four-car giants rule the sport. A victory at Homestead for a little guy like Truex, a driver whose girlfriend suffered through a public battle with ovarian cancer, would be a huge boost for the underdog, perhaps enough to give interested owners a second look at jumping into Cup.

SECOND GEAR: Quiet, Solid Season for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt’s Phoenix victory, even though it was the result of luck also cemented a solid campaign for the No. 88 team. While the weird Talladega ending kept them from competing for a championship, new crew chief Greg Ives meshed with the team far better than expected. It’s far from the lifelong, brotherly friendship Earnhardt established with past head wrench Steve Letarte, but the duo works well together and has produced 16 top-5 finishes, tying Earnhardt’s career high from 2004 to go along with three wins.

Yes, you wonder what might have been had NASCAR not thrown the yellow before the No. 88 was out in front at ‘Dega. But Earnhardt could finish “Best of The Rest” with a strong run at Homestead and earn his second top-5 result in the point standings with Hendrick Motorsports. It’s a season to be proud of, results above expectations from what many thought would be a rebuilding year for the team.

THIRD GEAR: The Championships That Could Have Been

Phoenix marked the end of the Chase for Edwards, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano. Logano was easily the most bummed of the four, his season-high six wins not enough to guarantee inclusion after two weeks’ worth of trips behind the wall. Team Penske now has arguably had the best team the past two seasons but has been unable to secure the championship, going 1-for-4 on final four bids in NASCAR’s new format.

Others meanwhile will be looking at the final four and thinking “what might have been.” Jimmie Johnson has flashed speed the last two weeks and would have likely survived each round without a $5 part breaking at his best track, Dover, one that shocked NASCAR and knocked the No. 48 team out of the Chase. Matt Kenseth’s issues have been well documented (see below) and the reality is the veteran had five wins and one of the top-performing teams throughout summer and early fall. The sport’s final four has some good drivers in it but they clearly weren’t the four best on paper, which is still hard for many to accept after the sport went years crowning the champion without any sort of playoff.

FOURTH GEAR: The Emergence of Young Erik Jones

The next domino to fall in NASCAR’s Silly Season 2017 (not 2016) may have asserted itself the last two weeks. Erik Jones, despite being pressed into service on the Sprint Cup side for Joe Gibbs Racing, regained focus in his full-time Truck Series ride, winning Texas and overwhelming rival Matt Crafton at Phoenix. His dominance of those two events forced Crafton’s desperation on a late Phoenix restart, the two dueling side-by-side until the reigning champ took himself out, wrecked both men and virtually guaranteed the 2015 title to Jones in the process.

Jones, meanwhile produced great efforts in the No. 20 Cup ride, producing top-20 finishes at Texas and Phoenix while outgunning any of the sport’s current rookies. With one more year of seasoning, moving to the XFINITY Series next year he’ll clearly be Cup ready and in position to slide into a JGR ride. So who does that leave as the odd man out – Denny Hamlin or Matt Kenseth? It’s easy to see Jones has championship talent and now hard to picture JGR letting him leave and fill a “satellite” ride until one of their four seats becomes available down the road.

OVERDRIVE

Matta Kenseth had a special meeting with NASCAR CEO Brian France this week in advance of his return to the racetrack at Homestead. The 2003 Cup champ has been suspended the past two weeks after his “payback” of Joey Logano took out the No. 22 car while leading at Martinsville. While Kenseth got what he wanted – Logano missing the final four – and has no regrets about the incident, his public rebellion about the penalty clearly irked Daytona Beach officials. Both sides said the talk went well and they’re eager “to put this behind them.”… Now that Sam Hornish Jr. is officially out of the No. 9 Ford for 2016 David Ragan becomes the leading candidate to replace him. Ragan, who has ties to Ford in the past (Front Row Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing), deserves a permanent home after his yeoman’s job as super sub for several teams this season. However, don’t rule out a guy like Cole Whitt if he brings over either sponsorship or investment money. Richard Petty made it clear at Phoenix a little extra cash will be the deciding factor in who gets the ride after sponsorship woes plagued the car throughout 2015.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

(Photos by ASP Inc.)