NASCAR Championship Round Preview

After a choatic Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs has reached its finale, the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are the four drivers competing for the title, and whoever finishes highest among them on Sunday will win the title.  All four have had exciting seasons, and they bring four excellent storylines to the event.

The biggest storyline is Jeff Gordon.  He is retiring after Sunday’s race, and will attempt to win the Cup championship for the fifth time in his storied career.  Gordon has won 93 races in his 23 year career, which started in the finale of the 1992 season, on a day with storylines similar to this year’s finale, with a frantic championship battle occurring alongside Richard Petty’s final start.  This time, however, the legend who is retiring is also one of the title contenders, and could become the first driver since Ned Jarrett to walk away from the sport as reigning champion (and the first to win a title in his final start).

While Gordon does have four titles, he has never won a championship since NASCAR established the Chase format in 2004, something he has said he would like to accomplish.  Gordon qualified for the Championship Round with a win at Martinsville, and Hendrick Motorsports has won each of the last three races.

The other three storylines are mildly overshadowed by Gordon, but are all still very compelling nonetheless.  Kevin Harvick won last year’s Sprint Cup title in the first year of the Chase Grid format (the Chase was previously the accumulation of points from the final 10 races), after finishing third in points on three previous occasions.  If Harvick could win the championship, he would be the first back-to-back titlist since  Jimmie Johnson’s five straight titles from 2006-10, and the first excluding Johnson’s historic run since Gordon in 1997-98.  Harvick won the title last year in his first year at Stewart-Haas, so if he wins another on Sunday, through two seasons Harvick will have not lost a title with the team.  He came to Stewart-Haas after 13 seasons at Richard Childress Racing, where his highest points finish was third, on three occasions.

Martin Truex Jr. has never finished higher than 10th in the final points standings, and yet he can win the championship on Sunday.  Truex is driving for Furniture Row Racing, a small, one-car team based in Denver, CO, far away from the metro Charlotte area where a majority of the teams are based.  While the team does have a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, they are still officially a one-car team, and would be the first such team to win a championship since, ironically, Childress in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt.  With three career wins, Truex would have the least career wins by any Cup champion in the modern era if he wins the title without winning the race, or would tie the mark if he wins the race (Terry Labonte had four in 1984).  Truex and the little team that could are certainly underdogs, although throughout his career Truex has performed well at Homestead (see below).  Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex are an inspirational story, as Pollex has been fighting a courageous public battle with ovarian cancer, giving Truex a unique perspective that, while this race is certainly important, it is, after all, just a race.

Kyle Busch entered 2015 as one of the title favorites, but his season came to an abrupt halt at Daytona.  In the XFinity Series event the day before the Daytona 500, Busch broke his right leg and his left foot in a vicious accident, and missed the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup Series season.  He received a waiver from NASCAR to allow him to be eligible for the Chase, and won four out of five races during a superb summer stretch.  Some have questioned why the one-time prodigy should be eligible for the championship after missing nearly a third of the season, but NASCAR’s current rules are written to allow such a scenario, which makes sense in such a dangerous sport.  Busch has never finished higher than fourth in points, and this is easily his best shot so far in his career to win the Sprint Cup title.

So, who is the favorite in this heavyweight fight?  To figure that out, let’s look at how these drivers have fared throughout their careers at Homestead, as well as on the intermediate-length tracks this season.

Looking back through each Homestead race since 2006 (Truex’s first full season in the Sprint Cup Series), if each Homestead race were hypothetically for the championship amongst these four, Harvick would have won the title four times, Truex three times, and Gordon twice, while Busch would not have won the title once.  Over that span, Harvick and Gordon have each won once, but the hypothetical title would have been won with a top four finish each year.  I will provide the disclaimer that the race may have been run differently if these four had been competing for the title, so this isn’t exactly the most scientific formula to pick the winner.

Since 2006, Harvick has an excellent average finish of 6.6 at Homestead, with a career average finish of 7.6 at the track, and has six top fives and 12 top 10s his 14 starts there, winning last year’s race to clinch the title.

Gordon’s numbers at the track are similar, although the average is a little lower at 10.6, and is 11.3 since 2006, with a win (in 2012), seven top fives, and 12 top 10s in 16 starts (NASCAR started racing at Homestead in 1999; otherwise Gordon might have 23 starts).

Homestead is one of Truex’s best tracks on the circuit, with an average of 7.6 since his first full-time season (and 10.0 when including his start there during a part-time 2004 season), and although he has never won at the speedway, he has a second, a third, and a fourth, and seven top 10s in 10 starts.  His only finish outside the top 11 was a 17th last season, during a horrible season in which his Furniture Row team led one lap all year, a stat which makes his run to Homestead that much more remarkable.

For Busch, Homestead is not one of his better tracks, as he has struggled to an average finish of 23.1 in 10 starts, with nearly as many DNF’s (2) as top 10 finished (3), and only three lead lap finishes in 10 starts.  The three top 10s for Busch at Homestead are fourth, seventh, and eighth, meaning he will likely need to have the best Homestead race of his career on Sunday to have a shot at the title.  However, all three of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have all had success at the track, and with Busch being the only Gibbs driver in the championship fight, he can use the organization’s full resources (although each of the four can say the same thing).

At intermediate tracks this season, Harvick was the highest finisher in seven of the 11 races, with Busch the highest in three, Truex in one, and Gordon in none.  While that sounds one-sided favoring Harvick, remember that Busch missed nearly a third of the season with injury, during which time Harvick was the highest finisher at all four intermediate races.  After Busch came back at Charlotte, however, the two drivers were even with three such races as the highest finisher.

In these 11 races, Harvick and Busch each won one, although Harvick finished in second on four occasions, and third once.  Besides his win, Busch’s highest finish is fourth.  Truex has a second and a third, and eight total top 10s.  Gordon’s highest intermediate finish is a fourth, and his next highest is a seventh, with only five top 10s, showing this type of track isn’t Gordon’s strongest.  On the other hand, however, Gordon has improved throughout the year, both on intermediate tracks and overall, so these numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Other than Gordon’s 13.5 average finish at intermediate tracks this year, the other three contenders have nearly identical averages, with Busch at 8.1, Harvick at 8.4, and Truex at 8.7.

It would not be surprising for any of these four to win the championship on Sunday, as all have earned the right to compete for the title in the finale.  As for making a pick, it’s nearly impossible to narrow even the small field of these four down to one favorite.

While Busch may be at a slight disadvantage with his less than stellar Homestead record, he has shown through his career he can be a threat anywhere, and that he can be successful at an intermediate track.

Truex is the definite underdog, but he’s a threat for a strong finish any time he cranks his engine at Homestead.

Harvick is, to many the clear favorite, and has earned that distinction with his strong season, particularly at similar circuits, as well as his Homestead record, and his experience in winning the title in this format a year ago.

The numbers don’t favor Gordon as much as the others, but he is the sentimental favorite, as he is trying to finish off the Hollywood ending to one of the greatest careers the sport has ever seen, and ride into the sunset as a five-time champion.  He also has the most recent race win of the four, three weeks ago at Martinsville, and posted the fastest 10-lap average in Saturday’s final practice.

While Sunday’s race will be unpredictable, one thing is for sure:  this crazy NASCAR season is going to have an incredible finish.

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The Day Modern NASCAR Was Born

November 15, 1992 was a historic day on multiple levels for NASCAR, as a race in Atlanta marked the end of the closest points battle at the time in the sport’s history, the end of the career of Richard Petty, and the career debut of Jeff Gordon.

As fondly as the day is remembered by NASCAR fans, the statement that it was one of the greatest races the sport has ever seen doesn’t do justice to the day and its impact.

No, the date of November 15, 1992, should be remembered as a birthday, because the NASCAR in its modern form was born that afternoon in Georgia.

An Assortment of Storylines

The race was the perfect storm of events, as while Richard Petty, “The King”, was making his final Cup Series start, that arguably wasn’t the biggest storyline.

Six drivers entered the race with a mathematical shot to win the Cup title, with the threesome of Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and Bill Elliott all having realistic chances at the title.  Of course, the storyline surrounding Gordon’s first start wasn’t a big deal until later, as Gordon went on to become one of the best drivers in NASCAR history.

Petty, who won a record 200 races in his illustrious 35-year career, along with a record seven Cup championships (Dale Earnhardt would tie this record in 1994), was 55 years old in 1992, and had not won a race since 1984.  His best finish in his final season had been a modest 15th, and he would finish 26th in the series point standings, but that didn’t stop the fans from adoring him at each track along his “Fan Appreciation Tour,” as they wanted a glimpse of The King’s final season.

In addition to the three main title contenders, Petty’s son Kyle, along with Harry Gant and Mark Martin, had mathematical chances at the title, marking the only time in NASCAR history that six drivers had a chance to win the championship in the season’s final race.  However, unless Allison, Kulwicki, and Elliott all had problems or did poorly in the race, Kyle Petty, Gant, and Martin had no realistic shot.

The three main contenders for the title got to where they were in 1992 in three different ways.

Davey Allison was the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer and 84-time race winner Bobby Allison.  Davey had a rapid rise to NASCAR stardom, winning Rookie of the Year in 1987 after becoming the first rookie to win multiple races, and finishing second to his father at the Daytona 500 the following year.

While the road was made easier by Allison having a father among the sport’s greats, he had still gotten to the point of title contention in 1992 through hard work, and had had a rough season.

The humble Alabaman had several vicious crashes causing injuries which he continued to drive through in subsequent races, and also suffered the death of his brother, Clifford, in a racing accident at Michigan International Speedway.  Despite all this, Allison led the points entering Atlanta, on the strength of five wins.

Elliott had come up through the ranks of racing as part of a family operation based in small-town Dawsonville, Georgia, and had won the Winston Million bonus in 1985, winning three of the sport’s four biggest races to do so, before winning the Cup Series title in 1988.

He was with a new team in 1992, with owner Junior Johnson, which was at the time one of the top rides in the sport.  Elliott entered the finale in Atlanta with four wins on the season.

Kulwicki was the underdog (so much so that during the Atlanta race, his Ford Thunderbird had a sticker over the “Th” so it simply read “Underbird”).  He had moved south in 1985 to pursue a full-time NASCAR career, beginning with very little money and resources.

By the start of 1992, as a driver-owner with his own team, Kulwicki had won three races, and had grabbed the attention of big-name team owners, including Junior Johnson, but was determined to do it his own way, and continued racing for his own team.

The Wisconsinite won two races in ’92, which was less than both Allison and Elliott, but was consistent enough to be in the thick of the points battle heading into the final battle, and had overcome nearly all of a 278-point deficit with six races remaining (in the old points format, with each position worth 3-5 points) with some excellent runs in the weeks prior to Atlanta.

Allison entered the race leading the standings by 30 points, and could clinch the Cup title with a finish of sixth or better.  Kulwicki was second, 10 points ahead of third place Elliott.

An Action-Filled Afternoon

A crowd of 160,000, the largest attendance for any sporting event in Georgia, converged at Atlanta Motor Speedway for this historic afternoon, and they saw action early.

Pole-sitter Rick Mast was involved in a crash on the opening lap, forcing the whole field to scramble to avoid him.  All of the title contenders got through except for Allison, who was rear-ended as he checked up to avoid the crash, and had some minor fender damage.

But it wasn’t too big of a setback, as by the 90-lap mark of the 328-lap event, Allison had gained the race lead.

Petty, who hadn’t been a threat to win for all of the 1992 season, simply wanted to run the entire race.  But on lap 95, The King was caught up in an accident that started in front of him, as he rear-ended Rich Bickle, causing heavy front-end damage and breaking the oil cooler, causing the car to catch on fire.

Petty’s car would not appear back on the track until the very end of the race, when he drove the car, without a front end, for the final two laps, but The King was able to avoid a dreaded DNF in his final start.

As the race went on, Kyle Petty, Gant, and Martin all fell out of contention, leaving the top three to battle it out for the championship.

With the race’s many storylines, Gordon’s debut was, as most debuts are, an afterthought — although on another day it may have gotten a small amount of attention, considering Gordon had finished fourth in the 1992 NASCAR Busch Series (now XFinity Series) standings.

However, after Gordon’s novice pit crew left a roll of duct tape on the hood, and it fell out on the track, Gordon became part of the championship storyline, as Allison ran over the tape, causing a moderate amount of damage.

Allison’s car didn’t handle as well from that point forward.  He fell backward after running over the debris but, as the race entered the closing stages, had worked his way back up into the sixth position, the very spot where he could clinch the title no matter what Kulwicki or Elliott did.

Then, disaster struck.

With 74 to go, Ernie Irvan blew a tire exiting turn four and spun right into Allison’s path, leaving him with no way to avoid hitting Irvan.

Allison tried to drive the car away, but the crash had ruined both his steering and his championship hopes.  He would finish 43 laps down in 27th, and after his misfortune, the championship battle was down to Kulwicki and Elliott.

Allison, who was known for his contagiously positive attitude, responded afterward to a reporter’s statement that the outcome was “almost cruel” by saying, “Nah, it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Allison was known for saying, “Whatever life throws at me, there’s nothing me and the Lord can’t handle together.”  Life had thrown plenty at Allison, both on this November day and throughout all of 1992, and yet Allison showed tremendous grace in defeat, finishing third in the final standings.

Chasing the Battle — And the War

Kulwicki had taken the lead with 118 laps to go over Elliott, who was running second.  As the final pit stop of the race approached, Kulwicki’s crew determined that if he stayed in the lead until lap 309 he would clinch, at minimum, a tie with Elliott for leading the most laps — and five bonus points.

In waiting until lap 309, however, Kulwicki nearly ran out of fuel.  When he did pit with 19 to go, Elliott, who still had to pit, inherited the lead.  Kulwicki couldn’t get off of pit road quickly due to a transmission issue, so when Elliott pitted at lap 314, he stayed in front of Kulwicki.

Terry Labonte stayed on the track to lead the following lap, before Elliott retook the lead with 12 to go.  That lap led by Labonte ensured that Kulwicki would lead the most laps outright, meaning he would, in fact, get the five bonus points (and Elliott would not; had they tied for the most laps led, both would have received five points).

Kulwicki’s crew wasn’t sure if they got enough fuel in the car, meaning that for the final laps, Kulwicki had to save fuel, and couldn’t try to run down Elliott for the win.

However, Kulwicki’s crew knew that if their driver could just stay in second behind Elliott, he would still gain enough points to win the title, because he was assured of the laps led bonus.

Elliott took the checkered flag as the race winner, for his fifth win of the year.  Ironically enough, the next driver to cross the finish line behind Elliott was Richard Petty, 233 laps down in 35th.

Eight seconds behind Elliott, Kulwicki crossed the line to finish the race in second, and clinched his first Cup series championship.

Three Celebrations

Elliott went to victory lane, where he called the win a hollow victory, as he won the battle but lost the war to Kulwicki.

Kulwicki celebrated the title by doing a backwards victory lap, which he called the “Polish victory lap”.

He had celebrated with the Polish victory lap after his first Cup win at Phoenix in 1988, but NASCAR wasn’t particularly fond of this celebration so Kulwicki agreed not to perform it again until he won a championship.

So that afternoon in Atlanta, Kulwicki, who was the first owner-driver to win a title since Petty in 1979, got to celebrate just like he ran his team — his way.

After Elliott and Kulwicki were interviewed on ESPN’s race broadcast, the stage was set for Petty’s farewell.  He drove his battered car around the 1.522-mile track one last time, at a much slower pace to allow everyone a final glimpse of The King as he waved out the window to the throngs of his adoring fans.

Gordon’s debut wasn’t a memorable one.  After the pit road gaffe which subsequently affected Allison, Gordon, while battling a loose racecar, spun out and hit the wall on lap 164.  He was unable to continue, and finished 31st, a finish that was not at all indicative of the incredible career that had just begun.

A Chase is Born

The impact of this race on the history of NASCAR is matched by very few individual races, ranking alongside the 1979 Daytona 500 (the first live flag-to-flag telecast, ending in a classic finish, and an infamous fight) and the 2001 Daytona 500 (the first race of NASCAR’s lucrative new FOX/NBC television deal, ending with the death of Dale Earnhardt), among others.

Such a close championship battle was unusual in 1992 — the 10-point margin was the closest in the history of NASCAR at the time, beating the 11-point margin in 1979 when Richard Petty beat Darrell Waltrip — and in many years the championship had already been decided before the final race.

It is certainly possible, however, that after the 1992 finale, the wheels started turning among the suits at NASCAR to try to figure out a way to have the same level of drama each and every year.

It was another 12 years before the Chase for the Cup was born in 2004, but in the interim there were very few close championship battles, and none nearly as tight or intense as the battle between Kulwicki, Elliott, and Allison that afternoon in Atlanta.

Once the first Chase was established, using the final 10 races of the season as a form of playoffs for the sport, the first edition in 2004 was very similar to 1992, with five drivers (including both Martin and Gordon) entering the final race at Homestead-Miami with a mathematical shot at the title, and three with a realistic chance.  The record for the closest championship battle was broken, as Kurt Busch won the title by a mere eight points over Jimmie Johnson, with Gordon 16 points back in third.

Over each of the first 10 editions of the Chase, the championship came down to the final race, although some years the battle was closer than others.  In 2011, in the first year of a simpler points system in which the basis is that each position is worth one point, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the Chase exactly tied, with Stewart winning the title based on the tiebreaker of most wins.

Beginning last year, in NASCAR’s new Chase Grid format, the title fight comes down to a winner-take-all finale with the top four championship contenders.  In the first finale of this new system, with drama to match the championship fight from 1992, Kevin Harvick won the race and the championship, with title contender Ryan Newman finishing in second, and three of the four Chase drivers having a shot to win the title on the final restart.

Sunday, as the latest installment of the Chase comes to a dramatic close, Gordon will be the only driver in the field who was on the track in the 1992 finale, and will also be one of the four drivers competing for a championship, alongside Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr.

As Gordon competes for a title in his final start before retirement, perhaps he should reflect on the historic championship battle in his first start 23 years ago as a big part of the reason he is trying to win a title in this format, and be thankful for the Chase.  Without the playoff-style series of races, Gordon would have had no shot at a series-long points championship this year, as he struggled for much of the season before running well enough in the Chase to qualify for the Championship Round.  (On the other hand, without the Chase Gordon would have theoretically won championships in 2007, 2010, and 2014.)

Changing of the Guard

Another impact the 1992 finale had on the sport is that it was a changing of the guard, with Gordon starting his career just as Petty ended his.

Petty wasn’t the only time to retire around this time, as Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons, and David Pearson had all retired within the six years before Petty’s farewell, and Buddy Baker had run his final race earlier in the 1992 season.  Bobby Allison’s career also ended, albeit by injury and not retirement, four years before Petty retired.

Just as these stars were all leaving the sport, it created space for the stardom that Gordon would enjoy over the rest of the 1990’s, and through the rest of his career until his swan song season this year.

But Gordon’s entry wasn’t the only one during this time, as Bobby Labonte, who had debuted in 1991, moved up to the Cup series in 1993, and within ten years of that fateful Atlanta afternoon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson had all entered the Cup Series ranks.

The stars being phased out during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s were all from the South, and the statement that NASCAR was simply a regional sport based in the South still had some resonance.  Only five of the top 15 finishers in Atlanta in ’92 were from outside the South.

Gordon, on the other hand, was originally from California, and grew up in Indiana, giving the sport a national star to take into a new era and an explosion in popularity from coast to coast.  This continued with the rest of the drivers who came to the Cup ranks shortly after Gordon, with every driver mentioned above except Earnhardt Jr. coming from outside the South.

Kulwicki and Allison might would have been stars through the rest of the 90’s too — both were entering their prime with the 1992 championship battle — but within eight months of the 1992 finale, both were gone.

Kulwicki died on April 1, 1993, when a plane taking him and sponsor representatives for Hooters to a race at Bristol crashed on approach to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, killing all five on board.

Allison died on July 13, 1993, while attempting to land a helicopter he was piloting in the infield during a test session at Talladega Superspeedway.

Kulwicki was 38, and Allison was 32, robbing the sport of the remaining careers of two of its best drivers.

While Elliott didn’t suffer an untimely death like his fellow ’92 title contenders, his career did go downhill after that day in Atlanta.  He only won one more race over the following two seasons with Junior Johnson, before racing as an owner-driver for the following six seasons, going winless, then winning four races in a three year stint with owner Ray Evernham (who was Gordon’s crew chief from his debut at Atlanta in ’92 through 2000).  Elliott’s final full-time season was 2003, although he ran occasional races until 2012.

While his career did extend into the new millennium, Elliott’s prime ended with his win at Atlanta and his near miss in the championship.

Full Circle

This weekend, as Gordon has shot at a career-ending title, the thought of such an ending is quite remarkable when compared to how all of the aforementioned stars ended their careers.  Those drivers didn’t so much finish with a flourish, but instead faded into the sunset.

Although Gordon is 11 years younger than Petty was in 1992, the emotions of the final season are similar, yet Gordon has a chance to end with a championship, something that has never been done (although Ned Jarrett retired midway through 1966 as the reigning champion), whereas Petty struggled through a mediocre farewell.

The storylines of this Sunday are similar to that of 1992, except this time the legend that is retiring doubles as one of the championship contenders.

Looking through the prism of this weekend’s championship battle in the Sprint Cup Series, it is important to look at 1992 as the first suspenseful and dramatic championship battle.

The finale in Atlanta that afternoon laid the groundwork for the sport’s future in more ways than one, making November 15, 1992 the day that NASCAR, in its modern form, was born.

 

 

1992 Hooters 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Run, Laps Led, Points)

1. Bill Elliott, 11, Junior Johnson & Associates, Ford, 328, 102, 180
2. Alan Kulwicki, 14, AK Racing, Ford, 328, 103, 180
3. Geoffrey Bodine, 8, Bud Moore Engineering, Ford, 328, 1, 170
4. Jimmy Spencer, 18, Bobby Allison Racing, Ford, 328, 0, 160
5. Terry Labonte, 6, Hagan Racing, Chevrolet, 328, 1, 160
6. Rusty Wallace, 15, Penske Racing, Pontiac, 328, 0, 150
7. Sterling Marlin, 12, Junior Johnson & Associates, Ford, 327, 0, 146
8. Jimmy Hensley, 34, Cale Yarborough Motorsports, Ford, 326, 0, 142
9. Ted Musgrave, 22, RaDiUs Motorsports, Ford, 326, 0, 138
10. Dale Jarrett, 32, Joe Gibbs Racing, Chevrolet, 326, 0, 134
Notables:
13. Harry Gant, 29, Leo Jackson Motorsports, Oldsmobile, 324, 0, 124
16. Kyle Petty, 20, SABCO Racing, Pontiac, 320, 0, 115
23. Darrell Waltrip, 24, Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, Chevrolet, 307, 0, 94
26. Dale Earnhardt, 3, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 299, 44, 90
27. Davey Allison, 17, Robert Yates Racing, Ford, 285, 5, 87
31. Jeff Gordon, 21, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 164, 0, 70
32. Mark Martin, 4, Roush Racing, Ford, 160, 47, 72
35. Richard Petty, 39, Petty Enterprises, Pontiac, 95, 0, 58

 

1992 Winston Cup, Final Standings
1. Alan Kulwicki, AK Racing, 4078

2. Bill Elliott, Junior Johnson & Associates, 4068, -10
3. Davey Allison, Robert Yates Racing, 4015, -63
4. Harry Gant, Leo Jackson Motorsports, 3955, -123
5. Kyle Petty, SABCO Racing, 3945, -133
6. Mark Martin, Roush Racing, 3887, -191
7. Ricky Rudd, Hendrick Motorsports, 3735, -343
8. Terry Labonte, Hagan Racing, 3674, -404
9. Darrell Waltrip, Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, 3659, -419
10. Sterling Marlin, Junior Johnson & Associates, 3603, -475
Notables:
12. Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress Racing, 3574, -504
13. Rusty Wallace, Penske Racing, 3556, -522
19. Dale Jarrett, Joe Gibbs Racing, 3251, -827
26. Richard Petty, Petty Enterprises, 2731, -1347
79. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, 70, -4008

NASCAR Season Preview

A new NASCAR season is upon us, beginning with the exhibition event, the Sprint Unlimited (formerly the Budweiser Shootout), on Saturday night in Daytona, before the official start to the new season with next Sunday’s Daytona 500.  There’s a lot of excitement down in Daytona, for several reasons.

One reason is the new points format.  Drivers will be eliminated as the season (particularly the Chase) goes along, with the top 4 drivers racing a winner-take-all showdown in the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.  The so-called “Chase Grid” has received both praise and criticism both throughout the garage area and the racing media, although most of the feedback has been positive.  More on the Chase Grid format, and particularly the 2014 edition, is coming up.  For more explanation of the format itself, read my post here:  https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/nascar-changes-chase-format/

Another change that has the garage roaring with more than just the engines is the new qualifying format.  While the lineup for the 56th Daytona 500 will be set as usual, starting with the March 2 race at Phoenix the Sprint Cup Series will begin what has been called “knockout qualifying” by some.  In the past, every car would take to the track by itself for a 2-lap time trial, with the fastest lap being recorded as that car’s qualifying time, and the fastest time winning the pole.  Now, there will be multiple cars on the track at the same time, and eliminations will be instituted for more excitement in the process.  At tracks longer than 1.25 miles (with the exception of road courses), all drivers will turn laps for 25 minutes, before a 5 minute break.  Then the top 24 will run for 10 minutes, before another 5 minute break.  The 12 fastest will run a final, frantic 5-minute stint, racing for the pole.  At tracks shorter than 1.25 miles, and at the 2 road courses, the first segment will be 30 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break and only one more segment, in which the fastest 12 will run for 10 minutes.  This format brings excitement with numerous cars on track at once, and the window of time used for a qualifying broadcast being shortened to an hour from the former 2 or 3 hour qualifying programs.

Finally, a handful of drivers are with new teams, or are new to the Sprint Cup Series altogether.  Kevin Harvick moves from Richard Childress Racing to drive the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.  He will be joined at SHR by Kurt Busch, who will drive the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet after moving from Furniture Row Racing.  Leaving Stewart-Haas is Ryan Newman, who will drive the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.  The #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet ride left by Busch will be taken by Martin Truex Jr., after he left Michael Waltrip Racing after the team lost NAPA’s sponsorship in the aftermath of last year’s Richmond debacle (https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/napa-drops-waltrip-truex-after-scandal/).  Speaking of MWR, Brian Vickers takes over the #55 Aaron’s Toyota full-time in 2014 after sharing it with Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin for parts of the last 2 seasons, including a 2013 win at New Hampshire.  AJ Allmendinger returns to NASCAR full-time after racing both IndyCar and NASCAR last year while trying to repair a reputation damaged by a 2012 drug suspension, driving the #47 for JTG Daugherty Racing, who switched from Toyota to Chevy in the offseason.

Perhaps the biggest news, when it comes to team changes, is the return of the #3 Chevrolet for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt, as Austin Dillon, who is Richard Childress’ grandson, brings the fabled number back to the Sprint Cup circuit after winning both a Nationwide Series title in 2013 and a Camping World Truck Series title in 2011 driving #3.  Childress will only allow a member of the Earnhardt or Childress family to drive The Intimidator’s number.  Other rookies include Michael Annett (#7 Flying J/Pilot Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing), Kyle Larson (#42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing), Justin Allgaier (#51 Brandt Chevrolet for the newly rebranded HScott Motorsports, formerly Phoenix Racing), Alex Bowman (#23 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota for BK Racing), Ryan Truex (#83 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota for BK Racing), Cole Whitt (#26 Swan Energy Toyota for Swan Racing), and Parker Kligerman (#30 Swan Energy Toyota for Swan Racing).  This is the biggest class of rookies I can ever remember in my years following NASCAR.

Among those not racing full-time in the 2014 season are Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, and Mark Martin.  Burton and Labonte will run part-time after their contracts with full-time rides expired, with Burton leaving Richard Childress Racing, and Labonte leaving JTG Daugherty Racing.  Martin began 2013 running part-time for Michael Waltrip Racing, but filled in for Tony Stewart after Stewart’s broken leg in August for 14 of the last 15 races before announcing he would continue at Stewart-Haas in an advisory role, not running any races in 2014 and beyond.

Now, let’s look at what I’m projecting to happen with the 2014 season.  First, I projected the first 26 races (picking a winner), and there were, surprisingly, 16 different winners, filling out the entire “Chase Grid” first round.  Here are the 16, in the order that they would be seeded going into the Chase:

Jimmie Johnson (3 wins), Matt Kenseth (3 wins), Jeff Gordon (3 wins), Kevin Harvick (2 wins), Kyle Busch (2 wins), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2 wins), Denny Hamlin (2 wins), Kasey Kahne (1 win), Tony Stewart (1 win), Clint Bowyer (1 win), Kurt Busch (1 win), Brad Keselowski (1 win), Greg Biffle (1 win), Ryan Newman (1 win), AJ Allmendinger (1 win), Marcos Ambrose (1 win).

This projection has, among others, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, and Martin Truex Jr. missing the Chase.  Edwards would certainly be the biggest surprise, but his close calls running for titles in the past have been based on consistency, and I didn’t project him to win a race in the so-called regular season.  Other potential sleepers include Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard, and Kyle Larson.  And by the way, the wins for Allmendinger and Ambrose both came on road courses.  While both may struggle on ovals (Ambrose is more likely to struggle than Allmendinger), a win on a road course would get them into the Chase.

Starting the Chase is the Challenger Round, with races at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover.  Here is how the field is projected to rank after the 3 races, with the top 12 advancing:

Moving On: Jimmie Johnson (2 wins), Denny Hamlin (1 win), Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman
Eliminated:  Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose

The elimination of Biffle, and not Newman, came down to 1 finishing position at one of the 3 tracks (I ranked the drivers 1-16 at each track, and added the results).

Next, the series moves onto the Contender Round, with races at Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega.  (You thought elimination races for the last 10 years of the Chase format at Richmond were wild; wait until we have an elimination race at Talladega!)  Here is how the field stacks up, with the top 8 advancing:

Moving On:  Matt Kenseth (1 win), Kasey Kahne (1 win), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1 win), Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon
Eliminated:  Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman

This time the last spot came down to a tie, with Gordon winning based on having more wins throughout the entirety of the season.  With the last race of that round coming at Talladega, I can certainly see a photo finish deciding who moves on.

With 4 races remaining, the Eliminator round begins, as the field is cut from 8 to 4 after the 3 races at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix.  Here is how those 8 rank in those 3 events:

Moving On:  Jimmie Johnson (2 wins), Matt Kenseth (1 win), Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon
Eliminated:  Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne

Once again, the final spot came down to 1 point (and it was ironically Jeff Gordon battling with Clint Bowyer, at Phoenix, the site of their brawl in 2012).  With that, it comes down to the 3 drivers who battled for the title at Homestead in 2013, with the addition of a 4-time Cup champion to the mix.  The easiest part of all these projections was the Homestead race, as it is only 1 race, and the highest finisher wins the title, plain and simple.  Here is the final projection:

Champion:  Jimmie Johnson
Eliminated:  Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon

As much as it would alienate many within the NASCAR fan base, I am picking Jimmie Johnson to win his record-tying 7th Sprint Cup Series title.  While his stats at Homestead aren’t that good, each time he’s won the title there he hasn’t had to do anything spectacular, he’s just had to finish.  Johnson is very good on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead, so I think when the pressure is on, he’ll beat the other 3 to the checkered flag.  There is, after all, no one better when the pressure is on than Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Here is a season preview for each of the top 12 picked in my Chase Grid:

1. Jimmie Johnson
As mentioned, Johnson is trying to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who each won 7 Cup titles, although Johnson would have accomplished the feat in a much shorter period of time.  It’s not wise to pick against him until a team consistently beats him.

2. Kevin Harvick
His first year at Stewart-Haas Racing could very well see him contend for a title.  He has finished 3rd in points 3 of the last 4 years, so the move to SHR (which pretty much uses Hendrick equipment), could put him over the hump.  Many also have him winning a 2nd Daytona 500 title.

3. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth, who will turn 42 in March, comes off a career year, with 7 wins and a runner-up finish to Johnson in points.  Recently there’s been a runner-up curse in the Sprint Cup Series, but I think Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliffe are too solid to fall into the trend.

4. Jeff Gordon
The 4-time champ and 88-time race winner says he may retire if he can win the title.  After being added to the Chase in 2013 due to the events at Richmond, Gordon finished 6th in points, his highest finish since 2009, and won at Martinsville, showing he’s still got some competitive fire at age 42.

5. Clint Bowyer
Speaking of the events at Richmond in September, Clint Bowyer and all of Michael Waltrip Racing are ready to put their mistakes behind them.  The best way to do that would be with a solid season, which they are more than capable of having.  Remember, Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie finished 2nd in points in 2012.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Yes, I had Junior winning 3 races.  One was at Michigan, where his last 2 wins have come, with two others on restrictor plate tracks, where he has always run well.  He does have 19 career wins, by the way.  There will be a greater sense of urgency, as crew chief Steve Letarte will leave for the NBC broadcast booth in 2015.

7. Brad Keselowski
The 2012 Sprint Cup champ will rebound after a tough 2013 to win a couple of races and be competitive in the Chase Grid.  The talented yet controversial Michigander has already amassed 10 career wins in just 161 starts.

8. Kasey Kahne
Kahne may be picked the lowest out of the 4 Hendrick Motorsports cars, but 8th really isn’t bad, particularly when that means the team would occupy half of the 8 spots in the Eliminator Round.  Kahne made the Chase in 2013 before struggling to a 12th place points finish, a year after a career-high 4th in 2012.

9. Kyle Busch
Whether you call him “Rowdy” or “Wild Thing”, it’s clear Kyle Busch is one of best known and most talented drivers on the circuit, and a “love him or hate him” type of figure.  While many have him contending for a title, the 3 race stretch of Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega during the Contender Round will have Busch out earlier than he would have hoped.

10. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin would rather forget 2013, a year in which he missed 4 races and lost a title shot with a broken back, before suffering through a series of tough breaks on his way to a 23rd place points finish, although he did win at Homestead.  Like Busch, the stretch of Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega will prevent Hamlin from a deep Chase run.

11. Tony Stewart
Like Hamlin, Stewart is coming off an injury, although his injury is a broken leg and caused him to miss 15 races, and has Stewart, in his own words, at about 65% strength to start the season.  Expect him to start slowly (he usually does anyway), before heating up in the summer to qualify his Chevy for the Chase.

12. Ryan Newman
Newman moves from Stewart-Haas Racing to Richard Childress Racing, where he will be the senior driver at the age of the 36.  Newman comes off his Brickyard 400 win in 2013, and has won 17 races and 51 poles in his 13 seasons.  He joins up-and-coming crew chief Luke Lambert for the 2014 campaign.

(Note:  As you might have figured out, I didn’t account for the fact that a non-Chase driver, or someone already eliminated, could win one of the Chase races.  I simply picked the driver with the highest likelihood of winning out of the drivers who were left for each event.)

NASCAR Changes Chase Format

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced today big changes to the format of the annual “Chase for the Sprint Cup”.  Beginning this year, there will now be 16 drivers instead of 12 to make the Chase, with the 16 drivers entering the “Chase Grid”.  Those 16 will be race winners from the first 26 events of the season, and the highest point-earners without a win, if there aren’t 16 winners.  The 10-race Chase will be broken up into 4 segments, or “rounds”.  The “Challenger Round” will consist of the first 3 races.  Any Chase driver who wins in those 3 races will move on to the “Contender Round”, along with the highest earning drivers in points, totaling 12 drivers in all.  After the points are reset, those 12 will compete in a similar system over the following 3 races, Chase races 4-6, the “Contender Round” to cut the field to 8, with race winners, followed by the highest drivers in points moving on.  After another points reset, those 8 compete in the “Eliminator Round” in Chase races 7-9 to cut the field to 4, with race winners and at least 1 highest points earner advancing to the “Sprint Cup Championship” at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Chase race 10.  That event will be a winner-take-all finale, with the highest finisher among those top 4 drivers taking home the championship.

Let’s start with the first 26 races; the “regular season”, if you will.  Winning a race will, in fact, almost guarantee a spot in the chase, as the 16 spots will go to up to 16 race winners and (if there aren’t 16 race winners) the highest remaining drivers in points.  By the way, drivers do have to attempt to qualify for all 26 events and remain in the top 30 in points to be eligible.  While France said part of the reason for the changes is to somewhat eliminate points racing (and instead make everyone race for wins), there will still be some points racing most years for the final spot or so, depending on how many winners there are.  Only twice has there been more than 15 winners over the first 26 races of a NASCAR season (and only once in the “Modern Era”), so it is very likely there will still be some points racing going on at Richmond in September.  One scenario flatters me, however:  it is theoretically possible for, if there are 16 or more winners, a driver to finish 2nd in every race from Daytona to Richmond and not qualify for the Chase.  Whatever happened to consistency being such a big deal?  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Kurt Busch all failed to win races last year, and Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, and Jamie McMurray all failed to win in the first 26 events before winning during the Chase, so its possible some very good drivers who have solid consistent seasons will be on the outside of the Chase (although there were only 11 eligible race winners during the first 26 races, so all of those except McMurray would have qualified; I’m just using those names to say “what if”).  Even still, I find it hard to believe that if the 30th place driver has a win at, say, Talladega, that he’s more qualified to compete for a championship than my hypothetical driver who finished 2nd every week?  I sure don’t think so.

One aspect of the regular season I question is the fact that the winner of the Daytona 500 is very likely to qualify for the Chase, having that assurance several months in advance.  If a driver wins 2 races early, they are a mathematical lock into the Chase.  I don’t know that its right for a team to be locked in after, potentially, 2 races.  That’s practically the equivalent of a team leading the division standings at the end of April to be locked in to the MLB playoffs in October, a theory that wouldn’t be reasonable for the game of baseball.

While in the Challenger, Contender, and Eliminator Rounds winning will automatically advance a driver to the next round, there will still be points racing to fill the rest of the spots.  In some ways, I don’t think the racing during those rounds will be much different, from the perspective of the drivers or the fans, other than the fact there are 3 “elimination races”.  And what’s with these names of the rounds?  Just say the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd (or Semifinal) rounds of the Chase (or playoffs, or raceoffs), like every other sport.

One aspect of this system that will certainly create excitement is the winner-take-all finale.   The highest finishing driver out of the 4 still alive for the championship at the Homestead race in November will be crowned the champion.  These will be 4 drivers running well leading up to the finale, so there’s a good chance that highest finisher will be the winner of the race.  France said that simplicity, particularly for the sport’s casual fans, was important, which is why, as he put it, it was important that the last race was not a math contest, but instead was as simple as possible.  It is theoretically possible a driver could finish down in the 30-somethings and still win the title if all 4 drivers have problems, although, as France mentioned, that’s possible now.  Another possible scenario is something unusual deciding the title, such as fuel mileage.  However, I remind you of the last race in 1992, when Alan Kulwicki risked running out of gas with about 20 laps to go to stay out front and lead one more lap than Bill Elliott to get the bonus points for leading the most laps and win the title.  And that happened after a 29-race points battle, much less a one-off championship event.  (They only ran 29 races back then, and had no Chase.)

As I said, France mentioned the importance of simplicity.  And while it will be simpler to understand the championship battle during the last race, I don’t think it will be during the first 35, and particularly during the first 9 races of the Chase.  Multiple points resets, and some drivers being locked in each week while others are points racing in the final race of a given round, will likely lead to some confusion among fans, particularly those casual fans who don’t watch every lap of every race.  Also, having one set of circumstances for the first 26 races, another set for each round of 3 races, and another set for the finale will likely lead to confusion as fans (and possibly even drivers or the media) get mixed up over what rules and criteria apply for each round.  The explanation of the new system on the NASCAR news site jayski.com was nearly a thousand words long, whereas one could explain the old system in a much more efficient way.  And, by the way, I got into NASCAR at a very young age.  At that time, I could understand the points system, even with the mind of a young child, because it was a year-long, cumulative battle.  Even the original Chase format we’ve used for the last 10 years (in several variations) could make sense to a young child, even if it took a little explanation.  Try explaining this system to a 5-year old and see if they understand it.  Odds are they won’t.

This post may sound like I’m totally against this system, but that’s actually not true.  While there’s certainly bits and pieces of the system about which I’m skeptical at best, the overall concept of a “tournament”, if you will, and a winner-take-all final race will certainly bring excitement at the end of the season, and perhaps draw more fans to the racetrack and to their TVs.  I’m all for anything to spread the sport of racing, just as I am with the other sports I follow and write about (baseball, football, golf, college basketball).  While I won’t give the system a 10 out of 10 rating, a 5 is about right, because (as I mentioned) I am intrigued by the concept but have a few reservations about certain aspects of the overall format rules.

Another positive about this system is that races in the spring may be made more exciting by more aggressive racing, as drivers try to punch their ticket to the Chase while they have a chance.  In the past, while each of the first 26 races have been important, the overall importance was on points, or “the big picture” as many drivers and crew chiefs call it.  Finishing 2nd was a “good points day”.  And while that will still be true, there will be so much stock in winning that drivers will surely be more aggressive in going for wins so that “good points days” don’t matter since they’ve won a race or races.  I use races in the spring as an example, because in the past, after a 2nd place finish in a March race, a driver’s mindset may have been “There’s still plenty of time for me to get more good finishes and qualify for the Chase in the top 10 in points or the wild card.”  Now, that may change to “that may have been my best shot to win, and I just lost that chance.”

Many will say it wouldn’t be fair for a driver to be dominant all season, only to have a tire problem, or a mechanical or engine failure at Homestead and lose the title.  But many people probably said the same thing about the original Chase format 10 years ago.  And besides NASCAR’s fan base swings a little conservative (let’s be honest), so change isn’t necessarily popular anyway.  But consider this about that dominant driver scenario I just mentioned:  in the NFL, a team could go 16-0, and lose in the first round of the playoffs.  In MLB, a team could win their division by 30 games and be swept in the first round of the playoffs.  In college basketball, a 31-1 powerhouse 1-seed will eventually lose to a 17-15 small school 16-seed in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament (and if you don’t believe a 16 will ever beat a 1, choose one of the 7 instances of a 15 beating a 2 to make your argument).  Having to win in the playoffs to validate a great regular season and win a championship is part of sports, across the board.  So from that big picture perspective, seeing NASCAR as one of a number of American sports, this isn’t much different than the playoffs we all love in every other sport (there’s even one in college football starting this year, finally).

Regardless, the news of the day, which shifted a little attention to NASCAR and away from the Super Bowl, at least for a few minutes, reminded us that the NASCAR season is just around the corner.  The Daytona 500 is in just 24 days, and there will be cars on the track at Daytona in just 15 days.  And from a purely points perspective, due to the new rules this will be the biggest Daytona 500 ever, as the winner will be almost guaranteed to have punched their ticket to the “Chase Grid”.

For further reading, go to  http://www.nascar.com/en_us/news-media/articles/2014/1/30/nascar-announces-changes-to-chase-for-the-nascar-sprint-cup-format.html