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

Johnson Wins Sixth Title

Jimmie Johnson finished 9th in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, enough to comfortably claim the 6th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship of his career, all of which have come in the last 8 seasons.  His 6 championships place Johnson just 1 title short of the record of 7, shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.  While breaking that record is likely one of Johnson’s career goals, he has a legitimate shot at winning 10 titles in his career.  Johnson won the title by 19 points over Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champ in his first year for a new team, Joe Gibbs Racing.  Kenseth ran well, leading the most laps and finishing 2nd, but when Johnson finished the race without issue, the 28-point deficit at the start of the day was insurmountable.  Kevin Harvick, who still had a mathematical chance at the title at the start of the day, finished 34 points back after struggling most of the day before rallying to a 10th place finish.  The top 5 in the standings were rounded out by Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson (File) (Photo credit: AmyKay1974)

The title is the 11th for Hendrick Motorsports, adding to an all-time record which already exists.  As mentioned, Johnson has won 6 titles in the last 8 seasons (by the way, that’s never been done before; Earnhardt won 6 in 9 seasons from 1986-1994), all with Hendrick.  In addition, Jeff Gordon’s 4 Cup Series titles (1995, 1997-98, 2001) are all with Hendrick, and 1 of Terry Labonte’s 2 titles came for Hendrick (1996).  Sunday’s title for Johnson adds to Hendrick’s already historic career.  First I figured up that Hendrick has won 11 titles in his 30 seasons in the Sprint Cup Series, which is true.  But when analyzing the titles, I realized that all of the 11 are in the last 19 seasons, an unbelievable feat.

Kenseth’s runner-up finish was behind Denny Hamlin, who grabbed his first victory of an otherwise dreadful season.  Hamlin broke his back in March in an accident while racing for the win at the Auto Club Speedway.  He returned at Talladega, but ran only 23 laps before being relieved by Brian Vickers, before finishing 2nd the following week at Darlington.  After that, however, Hamlin was continuously nagged by accidents and bad breaks.  Hamlin’s win continued a streak of winning a race in each of his full-time Sprint Cup seasons, now 8 in a row.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 3rd in the race after leading some laps in the second half of the event.

Martin Truex Jr. was the best among those in their final ride for their current teams, with a 4th-place finish.  Truex will be moving to Furniture Row Racing next year after his current team, Michael Waltrip Racing, was forced to let him go after losing NAPA’s sponsorship.  Kevin Harvick, who, as mentioned, finished 3rd in the standings and 10th in the race, will leave Richard Childress Racing after 13 Sprint Cup seasons for Stewart-Haas Racing.  Ryan Newman finished 17th in his final ride for Stewart-Haas Racing, and will drive for Richard Childress Racing next year.  Kurt Busch ended his only season at Furniture Row Racing with a 21st-place finish, as he prepares to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Others either took the track for the final time on Sunday, or face an uncertain future.  Mark Martin finished 19th and Ken Schrader finished 34th, both in their final race in the Sprint Cup Series due to emending retirement.  Juan Pablo Montoya ended a 7-year NASCAR career with a 18th-place finish.  Montoya isn’t retiring, but instead moving back to the IZOD IndyCar Series, trying to duplicate success he had in open-wheel racing in both Indy and Formula-1 earlier in his career, including an Indianapolis 500 win in 2000.  Jeff Burton finished 23rd in his final race for Richard Childress Racing, and Dave Blaney finished 38th in his final race for Tommy Baldwin Racing.  Both veterans are unsure of their futures in the sport at this time, as well as Bobby Labonte, whose replacement for next year at JTG Daugherty Racing, AJ Allmendinger, drove the team’s car on Sunday.

Johnson wasn’t the only champion this weekend in South Florida.  Austin Dillon won the Nationwide Series championship, and Matt Crafton won the Camping World Truck Series title.  Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress, and drives #3 to honor both Childress (who drove the number in the 1960s-70s) and Dale Earnhardt, who made the number both famous and symbolic.  Dillon won the 2011 Truck Series title, in his 2nd season in the series, at age 21.  Now 23, Dillon won the Nationwide title in his 2nd season in the series.  Dillon will move to Sprint Cup in 2014, and will be the first to drive #3 in the Cup Series since Earnhardt’s death in 2001.  Should he continue the trend of winning a title in his 2nd season in each series, he would match the record of, you guessed it, Earnhardt, who won a title in his 2nd season in 1980.  Dillon won by just 3 points after a season-long points duel with former IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr.  Crafton is a 13-year Truck Series veteran, having driven his whole career for ThorSport Racing.  He has 3 career wins in the series, including one in April at Kansas Speedway.  Consistency is what won Crafton the title, as he finished in the top 10 in the first 18 events of the season, and had a season-low finish of 18th, which is remarkable over the course of a whole season.  Crafton’s consistency is a trademark of his career, as he has finished in the top 10 in 175 out of his 316 career starts.  Crafton clinched the title simply by starting the finale on Friday night.

I was privileged to watch Sunday’s race in the High Octane Theater inside the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.  A friend of my aunt gave her 2 tickets for this race viewing party.  We watched the race on the big screens, which featured the ESPN broadcast (but without commercials!) as well as on-board cameras for Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.  The Hall also provided race scanners, which allowed us to listen in on the radio channels used by the drivers to communicate with their crews and spotters.  While Johnson and Kenseth would have been two interesting drivers to listen to, given the championship battle, I figured ESPN would keep us updated on anything interesting being said by those two, so I kept my scanner on Jeff Gordon’s channel for most of the race.  He is, after all, my personal favorite and was also my pick to win the race in a fantasy league I play with a friend and his family.

NASCAR Hall of Fame

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The highlight of the day, however, was meeting 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ned Jarrett.  He was making an appearance at the hall to unveil a car, which will be put on display in the coming weeks, that he drove in 1966, the year he retired midway through the season.  Jarrett is the only driver to retire as the reigning Cup Series champion, having won the title in 1965, as well as one earlier in 1961.  After completing his driving career in which he won 50 races, he began a career as a racing broadcaster, first for MRN Radio in 1978, before joining CBS and ESPN from the late 1980s to the late 1990s.  His most memorable moments as a broadcaster are clearly being in the booth for a handful of wins by his son, 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Dale Jarrett:  his first win in 1991 at Michigan, and his first two Daytona 500 wins in 1993 and 1996.  Jarrett, following the unveiling of the car, answered questions from fans, before taking pictures with those, like me, who became Hall of Fame members on Sunday.

 

 

 

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:  2013 Chase for the Cup, Final Standings
1. Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, 2419
2. Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2400, -19
3. Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing, 2385, -34
4. Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2364, -55
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports, 2363, -56
6. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, 2337, -82
7. Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing, 2336, -83
8. Joey Logano, Penske Racing, 2323, -96
9. Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing, 2321, -98
10. Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing, -110
11. Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing, 2286, -133
12. Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports, 2283, -136
13. Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing, 2282, -137

 

2013 Ford 400, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Denny Hamlin, 5, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 72, 47
2. Matt Kenseth, 1, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 144, 44
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 21, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 28, 42
4. Martin Truex Jr., 8, Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, 0, 40
5. Clint Bowyer, 25, Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, 0, 39
6. Brad Keselowski, 4, Penske Racing, Ford, 9, 39
7. Kyle Busch, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 37
8. Joey Logano, 3, Penske Racing, Ford, 0, 36
9. Jimmie Johnson, 7, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 35
10. Kevin Harvick, 6, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 8, 35
Notables:
11. Jeff Gordon, 26, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 33
12. Carl Edwards, 18, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 32
13. Kasey Kahne, 13, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 31
17. Ryan Newman, 15, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 27
19. Mark Martin, 22, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 25 (final career start)
21. Kurt Busch, 2, Furniture Row Racing, Chevrolet, 4, 24
24. Greg Biffle, 16, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 20