As NASCAR decides its final four, you’ve gotta recognize this transformed Chase

8 Comments

One year ago, NASCAR got what it needed.

In the wake of the Michael Waltrip Racing race manipulation incident at the regular season finale in Richmond, NASCAR acted swiftly with major penalties against MWR and the insertion of Jeff Gordon as a 13th Chase driver.

But with all of the controversy that Richmond generated, the sport needed a post-season run that was based primarily on competition, not drama.

Luckily for them, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth emerged as the main contenders. They weren’t looking for controversy and they respected one another. Ultimately, Johnson got his sixth Sprint Cup title and Brian France likely heaved a sigh of relief while the 48 team celebrated once again.

But he and NASCAR couldn’t just say ‘Bullet dodged’ and move on. And so this past January, the Chase got its fourth retooling of its existence: 16 drivers, eliminations after every three races, wins putting you through to the next round, and a four-driver, winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

And once again, NASCAR has gotten what it needed. In this case, though, it’s the opposite of what they needed last year.

Today, the Chase reaches Phoenix International Raceway this afternoon for the Eliminator Round finale with eight drivers still in the mix for the championship.

Thanks to wins from non-Chase competitors over the last two weeks, none of them are safely locked into that final battle at Homestead. Separated by a mere 18 points, all of them are going to go as hard as possible today to earn one of those four spots in the title race.

But most important of all, the cordiality and friendliness that marked the 2013 duel between Johnson and Kenseth has given way to bitterness, tension, and yes, drama.

Granted, as Johnson himself touched on following his win last weekend at Texas, said drama has been no accident. But with all due respect to him and Kenseth (who, along with Carl Edwards, is behind the cutoff to advance to Homestead by a single point), this year’s run to South Florida has been infinitely more compelling to watch.

While we can make do without the post-race rumbles on pit road, the emotion and the intensity that has played out over this post-season has been everything we could have hoped for – and everything France and his team could have hoped for, too.

It’s within this setting where the four championship finalists will be decided. Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin have respective top finishes in this Eliminator Round of fifth and eighth, yet are tied for the Chase Grid lead (+13 points) ahead of Ryan Newman (+11 points) and Jeff Gordon (+1 point).

But behind the cutoff lie the aforementioned Kenseth and Edwards, plus NASCAR’s current black hat in Brad Keselowski (-5 points) and Kevin Harvick (-6 points), who has to be considered the favorite today to win at Phoenix (a place where he’s already won five times) and get in the title race via automatic berth.

At the center of it all lies Keselowski, who has helped touch off two post-race fights during this Chase with his aggressive driving style.

The second such donnybrook came at Texas, and in the days that have followed, multiple drivers including Hamlin, Gordon, Johnson, and Harvick have all mentioned what they see as Keselowski’s lack of respect towards them.

But Keselowski himself remains unrepentant and is not worried about what anyone else has to say. The only thing that matters is coming through again at Phoenix in a must-win situation like he did in the Contender Round finale at Talladega just three weeks ago.

Of course, that all fuels the prospect of payback for Keselowski in today’s 312-lap race at PIR.

If any of the Chasers that have felt recently besmirched by Keselowski falter on the track and accept that their championship hopes are gone, they just might take their frustrations out on Keselowski and ruin his hopes too.

“We’ve all gotta do the best we can but if we have a bad day, this is typically the point of the season where people get back at each other if they feel like they’ve been done wrong,” Hamlin said earlier this week of such a scenario.

Joy. Heartbreak. Revenge?

We could very well see all of that this afternoon in the Valley of the Sun.

Chip Ganassi to be honored in Petersen Museum exhibit

Joe Skibinski / IndyCar
Leave a comment

This Saturday, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles will debut a new exhibit honoring one of the most successful teams in American motorsports.

Titled “Chip Ganassi Racing: Fast Tracks to Success | 30th Anniversary Tribute,” the exhibit will display several significant cars, trophies, and other artifacts from CGR’s storied racing history. Ganassi will formally be honored April 15, 2020 at the Petersen’s Annual Racers Night before the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Dario Franchitti’s 2010 Dallara IR-05. Photo Kahn Media

Vehicles displayed in the exhibit will include the 1983 Patrick Wildcat MK9B raced by Chip Ganassi to his best finish in the Indianapolis 500, the Lexus-powered Riley MK X1 raced by Scott Dixon in the 2006 24 Hours of Daytona, the Dallara IR-05 driven to victory by Dario Franchitti in the 2010 Indianapolis 500, the Ford GT that finished first in the LM GTE category at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 driven by Kurt Busch in the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series.

“Chip Ganassi is an influential member of the automotive community, and his team’s penchant for success is a reflection of his raw skill and passion for the sport,” said Petersen Automotive Museum Executive Director Terry L. Karges. “Complemented by a visually dynamic and compelling 180-degree video, ‘Chip Ganassi Racing’ will celebrate the team’s victories and tell its story while taking visitors on a trip down memory lane.” 

“Chip Ganassi Racing: Fast Tracks to Success | 30th Anniversary Tribute” will run through January 31, 2021. The museum will host a ticketed opening reception on December 13. More information on the Petersen Museum can be found at www.petersen.org.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter