Five thoughts on a compelling final battle for the Sprint Cup

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As I mentioned last weekend, this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup has been much different than last year’s and the changes have been for the better.

Now we’ve come to the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Last year, there was one dominant storyline at this point: The sixth coronation of Jimmie Johnson and him now coming within one championship of NASCAR gods Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty.

This year, there’s four of them. For Kevin Harvick, it’s about seeking the culmination of a 14-year odyssey. For Denny Hamlin, it’s about putting memories of his 2010 title collapse to rest. For Joey Logano, it’s about showing everyone that he is now the beast we thought he would be. And for Ryan Newman, it’s about defying the odds, one more time.

And they’ve been through a Chase unlike any other we have seen. These are my thoughts on it all…

1. Now more than ever, Kevin Harvick needs to be “The Closer.”

Is this the moment at last?

Fourteen years ago, Kevin Harvick was given an impossible task – replace the fallen Dale Sr. at Richard Childress Racing. No one would have blamed him if he couldn’t handle the pressure of it all.

Harvick didn’t just survive. He thrived. But while he cemented himself as a mainstay in the sport during the years that passed, he couldn’t become a champion with RCR.

Deciding that a new home may be the answer, Harvick went to Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of 2013. His first year there hasn’t always been smooth, but with four wins under his belt (including his win-and-you’re in triumph in last Sunday’s Eliminator Round finale at Phoenix), he now has the chance to win stock car racing’s ultimate prize.

“We’ve always come into [a championship] behind, and I think this year, you feel the speed in the car on a week-to-week basis no matter what racetrack we’ve gone to,” he said during yesterday’s Championship 4 Media Day. “I feel like if things don’t go wrong or something doesn’t happen, we’ve been in contention to win the race. For us, I think you come in with that confidence and knowing that your cars have been fast.

“You know your guys have had their backs put against the wall and done a great job under pressure, so you just want to just keep doing the things that you’ve been doing and knowing that if you do those things right, your car is going to run fast enough to win the race, which is what you need to do.”

Technically, all he needs to do is beat Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But with all of them surely bringing their best to South Florida, it may very well take a win to do the job.

And if Harvick’s in position for a win, he had better make it count.

2. Redemption on the way for Denny Hamlin?

Since losing the 2010 Cup championship to Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin has had to fight his way back toward the top. That fight got particularly painful last year when contact between himself and former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano on the final lap at Fontana put him into the wall and out of action for four races with a fractured vertebra.

But despite missing a race this season (at Fontana, ironically enough) and earning just one win at Talladega and seven Top-5 finishes, Hamlin’s come in as the lone member of the Championship 4 to have ever been in this position.

Four years ago, he didn’t seem to handle the spotlight well. Hamlin entered as the points leader, but was coming off a poor result at Phoenix caused by having to pit late.

Both Johnson and Kevin Harvick proceeded to needle him constantly during the contenders’ press conference going into Homestead. Hamlin then qualified for the finale in 37th, spun early in the race, and finished 14th, while Johnson locked up his fifth Cup title with a second-place finish.

But there hasn’t been a spotlight on Hamlin as he’s progressed through the Chase. Unlike Harvick and Logano, who have a combined nine wins this season, he’s gone under the radar. The pressure hasn’t been as high as it was in 2010.

And as Hamlin himself said earlier this month, he’s changed.

“I feel like I’m better now at thinking forward versus thinking backwards,” he said. “And in 2010, I feel like at Homestead, I was still kind of bummed about what happened at Phoenix, where [now] I think that no matter what happens at Phoenix this time around, I’m totally looking forward on what’s in front of me and completing each task…

“…My job is just to do whatever is in front of me at that point and that’s what I feel like I’ve learned throughout the years of being in these kind of championship pictures.”

Those comments were made before last weekend’s Eliminator Round finale at Phoenix, where Hamlin rallied from being put a lap down to finish fifth and make Sunday’s Championship Race.

Looks like this guy is ready for some redemption.

3. Joey Logano’s not a kid anymore.

The teenage image of “Sliced Bread” has been hard to shake for Logano, but here he is with an opportunity to bury it once and for all. A championship on Sunday would be the final step in what has been an up-and-down journey to becoming one of the strongest competitors in the sport.

Logano has been able to rebuild himself with Team Penske after failing to meet sky-high expectations in his early years with Joe Gibbs Racing. This year has been especially good for him with five victories, including two in the Chase at New Hampshire and Kansas.

But while those Chase wins are impressive, he should be just as commended for saving his team from disaster not once, but twice in the Eliminator Round at Texas and again last week at Phoenix.

That tells me Logano has the mental fortitude to overcome what obstacles may come on Sunday – or in the days leading up to then.

Case in point: During yesterday’s Championship 4 Media Day, the drivers were asked about their approach for Homestead. Kevin Harvick referenced Logano’s blocking tactics to protect teammate Brad Keselowski in his victory at Talladega a few weeks ago.

“I thought you were going to say you were going to send Brad out to be a moving chicane like you were at Talladega,” Harvick said.

Harvick can play those mind games as good as anyone. But while such tactics may have eaten the younger Logano alive, you wonder how effective they can be against a grown-up, matured Logano.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Logano replied to Harvick’s attempt at rattling his cage. At the end of the formal media session, he patted Harvick on the shoulder and said “Nice.”

4. On accepting a winless Sprint Cup champion

I can’t help but note the potent words that have been used regarding winless Ryan Newman’s bid to claim the Sprint Cup title.

It just strikes me that this quiet, unassuming Hoosier that spends much of his off-track time helping his wife rescue unwanted animals is the one that’s causing writers and pundits to say that he could give NASCAR a black eye by winning the title, or that he could do NASCAR a favor by beating a flawed championship system in front of the world.

I wonder if Newman’s amused by all of this.

And I also wonder how some fans in the base find the idea of a winless NASCAR champion as abhorrent.

As my colleague, Tony DiZinno, told me the other day, Newman making the Championship 4 is akin to an 11 seed making the Final Four in college basketball.

That would be almost universally loved in March Madness. So why isn’t that happening with Newman as he gets his chance to slay the giants?

Seems rather strange.

5. How I’ve learned to accept the Chase

Recently, I got a call from my mother. She was out shopping, noticed some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures, and thought of how I used to play with them when I was little.

But the Turtles she noticed weren’t like mine. They were the bulked-up, more NFL defensive lineman than Ninja Turtles from the recent Michael Bay version.

“I don’t like them,” she said. “They don’t look like yours.” She’s right. But I still noted that almost 30 years after I came into this world, the Turtles are still rolling along – even if the movie ones aren’t quite the “Heroes in a Halfshell” I grew up with.

Later that day, my 3-year-old little brother came over to my home and watched a bunch of Spider-Man cartoons. At first, he delved into the early 1980s Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends but was later enthralled by the current version, which has Spidey as a teenager still learning on the job.

Again, I thought about how Spider-Man, like the Turtles, had evolved over the years but was still the hero of choice for many youngsters like my little bro.

And it all made me realize: How is NASCAR any different with this new Chase for the Sprint Cup format?

It’s all variations on a theme – basic elements retained with others changed to suit the times. This new Chase is certainly different from what I was first exposed to regarding NASCAR.

Is it perfect? No, it’s not. But this is where NASCAR’s evolution currently sits. Don’t like it? Just wait a while.

Chances are you’ll see tweaks done to the Chase, sooner or later. And if we stick around long enough, we could see an entirely different way to crown a champ.

We’re all welcome to keep our preferences, whether they lie with the original points format or with the Chase. But we’ve gotta remember that the latter is just a sign of the times – nothing more, nothing less.

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”