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.

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

Ker Robertson/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?