Monday, November 14, 2016

And then there were 4...the Championship 4

With all apologies to the superhero bunch, the way NASCAR got its Fantastic Four after this weekend's racing at Phoenix International Raceway was certainly surprising.

In no particular order, here are a few thoughts on the whole darn thing...

-You just had to sit and shake your head over Matt Kenseth's misfortune. Here he was, a lap and a few 100 yards away from earning his spot to race for the title. Then Michael McDowell's tire decided to give out.

Once they restarted, Kenseth got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time when he tried to go to the low side as Alex Bowman -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s substitute driver in the No. 88 -- tried to grab the spot.

The end result: Kenseth spun and hopes for a shot at a second championship went out with his tattered No. 20 Toyota Camry.

When all was said and done after 12 extra laps, Joey Logano survived the second overtime round and took the checkered flag by just over a half-second in front of Kyle Busch. With his finish, Busch claimed the last spot in the foursome that will run for the title.

The final margin was six points better than teammate Denny Hamlin, who finished seventh and led four laps.

So after all the hype and worry for the non-fans, Joe Gibbs Racing managed to get two cars in the Championship 4. Busch gets to defend his title and Carl Edwards -- thanks to his win at Texas last week -- gets to make a bid to purge the nightmare of the 2011 title hunt from his soul.

There won't be any ties this time around. Finish in front of your challengers, hold the big trophy.

-Let's face facts here: We're all pretty much thankful that Cup driver participation will be limited in the XFINITY Series next season. After what happened for the inaugural Chase, it's easy to understand why.

For the fourth time in the six Chase races, a Cup regular won. For the 10th time in his 17 starts (half the schedule), Kyle Busch ended up in Victory Lane at the Ticket Galaxy 200.

It was Busch's third win in the last four races he's entered, and it was dominating as usual. He led 190 of the 200 laps at Phoenix and finished the year with 2,052 laps led out of a possible 2,995.

That's 69 percent of the total, folks. Is it any wonder why his presence was so reviled by the skeptics? Personally, it's hard to stomach a race when someone is so off-the-charts dominant.

Not quite like the days when the race winner won by laps, but it's pretty close.

Rant aside, the Championship Four for Homestead will be Elliott Sadler, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Justin Allgaier. The group finished with nine of the 11 victories earned by series regulars. The other two were by part-timers in Justin Marks (Mid-Ohio) and Sam Hornish Jr. (Iowa 1).

With Allgaier in the mix for the title, we could very well finish with a champion that didn't win a race for the year. The odds are long, but it will leave a bad mark on the series if it happens.

-The Camping World Truck Series has drivers from four different race teams who will run for the title Friday night at Homestead. Johnny Sauter (GMS Racing), Matt Crafton (ThorSport), Christopher Bell (Kyle Busch Motorsports) and Timothy Peters (Red Horse Racing) are the ones who made it through the inaugural Chase for NASCAR's No. 3 series.

On the surface, Sauter could easily be pegged as the favorite following back-to-back wins at Martinsville and Texas. He added a runner-up effort at Phoenix, so serious momentum is on his side.

Matt Crafton -- Sauter's former teammate at ThorSport -- already has two truck titles on his resume and would move into second place on the all-time series list behind Ron Hornaday's four if he beats his challengers at Homestead.

Crafton was runner-up to Sauter at Texas and finished third at Phoenix. As he looks for title No. 3, it's not about racing for points now.

Christopher Bell kept KBM in the title hunt and made up for the loss of teammate and pre-Chase favorite William Byron. Byron's Chase hopes went up in smoke when he lost an engine and finished 27th at Phoenix.

And like the XFINITY Series, we could crown a champ who didn't win a race. Peters finished with four top-5s in the six Chase races, so that will serve him and Red Horse Racing well.

Will the champion be required to take the checkered flag to win the title? It's a mystery that will be fun to explore this weekend, particularly on the XFINITY and Truck side. Unknowns are good, but holding great big trophies will be much better.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

Homestead-Miami Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Homestead, Florida.
-SPRINT CUP: Ford EcoBoost 400, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch.
-XFINITY SERIES: Ford EcoBoost 300, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Larson
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Ford EcoBoost 200, Friday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 201 miles, 134 laps.
2015 champion: Matt Crafton.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Edwards has shot at erasing bad memory

We all knew the drill. Fans of Carl Edwards knew it all too well.

In one of the best NASCAR Sprint Cup title fights ever witnessed, Edwards and Tony Stewart couldn't have been any closer as the season finale happened at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20, 2011.

When they left Phoenix, Edwards had a three-point lead over Stewart. It was hanging by a thread, and Carl needed one more performance to hold the Sprint Cup championship trophy.
As things turned out, we got...a tie.

Wait. Ties happen, but you have to break them. So when all was said and done, Stewart's five Chase wins netted him his third championship. Edwards? He only had one.

And now, five years later to the very day, Edwards gets another shot, and it will be much different this time around.

With his win at the multi-hour rain-delayed AAA Texas 500 that finished 41 laps short of the full distance, Edwards has his chance to erase the sadness, the disappointment of his battle with Tony Stewart ending in a tie.

Unlike 2011, Edwards will have three drivers to worry about. Jimmie Johnson is already in, and two more will be joining them in the race for the 2016 Sprint Cup title.

Five years ago, there were mind games. Stewart said he wasn't worthy of being in the Chase when it began, but he went out and won the first two, then closed with three wins in the last four.

The duel between Smoke and Edwards was off the charts in competitive goodness. Here's how they finished in the final three weeks:
-Texas: Stewart won, Edwards second.
-Phoenix: Edwards second, Stewart third (Tony won extra bonus point for leading the most laps).
-Homestead: Stewart won, Edwards second. Stewart gets tiebreaker to crown him as champion.
Stewart will watch from his driver's seat as he races for the final time in the No. 14 for his own Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. And it won't be complicated.

Just win, baby. That, or keep the other challengers behind you.

We have documented here that both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch won at Homestead to claim the Sprint Cup as their own in this system of the Chase. Winning mattered in 2011, and it matters even more now.

But who will join Johnson and Edwards as the other members of the third Championship Four at Homestead? You'd think Harvick would find a way to get in with how much he's owned Phoenix of late -- six wins in the last eight trips with 994 laps led in the last five.

All good streaks must end sometime, but Harvick isn't one for following scripts. That's why he'll be dangerous.

And if we grouped the final four for Homestead right now, the battle is tighter than a car that won't turn anywhere at any track without serious steering wheel abuse.
With Johnson already locked in to Homestead, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch would be the last two who would race for the crown. Lurking around the next curve and eating at their rear bumpers, Matt Kenseth is one point behind and Denny Hamlin is two points back.

And all that talk about Joe Gibbs Racing making Homestead their own championship battle ground would be as shocking as what happened to Hillary Clinton last night.
Past performance is no guarantee for future results.

-On the XFINITY side, the Saturday night race at Phoenix will be one worth watching because it's anyone's guess who's worthy of the Championship Four.
Daniel Suarez, Elliot Sadler, Erik Jones and Blake Koch are in at the moment, but Justin Allgaier is within a point of Koch and Ryan Reed is only five points behind.

A win by a series regular will change everything, but we haven't had one since Suarez at Dover three weeks ago. Thank goodness for the rule changes that will limit Cup drivers' presence in these races starting next season.

-For the Camping World Truck Series, Johnny Sauter has come into this round of the inaugural Chase and stolen all of William Byron's thunder. Byron is still out in front, but the separation from him to Timothy Peters -- who is on the outside looking in -- is exactly five points.

Between Byron, Christopher Bell, Matt Crafton and Peters, it's conceivable any one of them could see their title dreams denied after Phoenix on Friday night.

Let's go racing, folks. The boogity is happening all on its own.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or @Tomzsports. Email him at

Phoenix International Raceway (1-mile oval), Avondale, Arizona.
-SPRINT CUP: Can-Am 500, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 kilometers (312 miles), 312 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch
-XFINITY SERIES: Ticket Galaxy 200, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Lucas Oil 150, Friday, 8:30 p.m ET/5:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 150 miles, 150 laps.
2015 champion: Timothy Peters

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mr. Johnson heads to Homestead

After two years of wondering what's wrong with Jimmie Johnson, we can safely say he's finally got this new Chase thing pretty much down pat.
At a track he's basically dominated in the past, Johnson grabbed another dose of Martinsville Speedway magic and earned his ninth career win Sunday in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at the paper clip. Another grandfather clock -- the standard trophy the track awards to the race winner -- is nice, but a shot at his seventh championship likely has the driver of the No. 48 a little more excited this week.
Johnson can use the upcoming races at Texas and Phoenix to get himself mentally ready for the mission at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Unlike in years past, where he basically had to stay out of trouble and get a decent-enough finish to claim the checkered flag trophy, Johnson actually has to -- wait for it -- race hard come Nov. 20.
He'll only have three other drivers to worry about, but finishing ahead of them is the only way to guarantee he'll be alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty with the most championships in NASCAR history.
The 41-year-old from El Cajon, Calif., now has 79 career wins, only four behind Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time list and five behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. Elite company, indeed.
In his 15 full-time seasons in Sprint Cup, the fewest wins Johnson has had is two (2011). With his win at Martinsville, this is the third time the Hendrick Motorsports driver has had four checkered flags in a season (2005, 2014).
So how well will Jimmie really need to do at Homestead? He's finished ninth in each of the last three races there. Not bad, but both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch won to make sure they secured the championship.
Johnson hasn't so much as led a lap at Homestead since 2012. Take it for what it's worth, but it's clearly go time this time around.
There are still two races left in the final round before the Championship 4, but Johnson has dealt a big blow to all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars in their Chase for the title. Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch finished third, fourth and fifth at Martinsville, but Joey Logano is lurking as another potential party spoiler after he finished ninth.
Then again, winning matters, and Carl Edwards -- even though he finished 36th after wrecking Sunday -- still has a shot.
He needs a win, but it's still a shot. Same goes for Harvick and Kurt Busch.
Edwards won at Texas in April. Harvick has won six of the last eight at Phoenix and led 994 laps in the last five trips there.
Strap yourself in for the last two races before we set the final four. Nothing is over until the guy in the flag stand says it is.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or @Tomzsports. Email him at
Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Fort Worth, Texas.
-SPRINT CUP: AAA Texas 500, Sunday, 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 501 miles, 334 laps.
2015 champion: Jimmie Johnson
-XFINITY SERIES: O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Brad Keselowski
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Longhorn 350, Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance; 350 kilometers (219 miles), 146 laps.
2015 champion: Erik Jones.