Five thoughts on a compelling final battle for the Sprint Cup


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.

‘Baby Borgs’ bring special Indy 500 bonds, memories for Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi

Ganassi Ericsson Indy
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner

THERMAL, Calif. – Winning the Indy 500 is a crowning achievement for driver and car owner, but for Chip Ganassi, last May’s victory by Marcus Ericsson had meaning even beyond just capturing one of the world’s greatest sporting events.

When Ganassi was 5 years old and growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his father, Floyd, attended a convention in Indianapolis in 1963. Floyd went to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to tour the track and visit the former museum that used to stand next to the main gate on 16th and Georgetown.

Ganassi’s father brought young Chip a souvenir from the gift shop. It was an 8-millimeter film of the 1963 Indy 500, a race won by the legendary Parnelli Jones.

“I must have watched it about 1,000 times,” Ganassi recalled. “More importantly than that, something you did when you were 5 years old is still with you today.

“I was 50 years old when I celebrated my Thanksgiving with Parnelli. It dawned on me that something I did when I was 5 years old took me to when I was 50 years old. That’s pretty special.”

Ericsson and Ganassi were presented with their “Baby Borgs,” the mini-replicas of the Borg-Warner Trophy, in a ceremony Feb. 2 at The Thermal Club (which played host to NTT IndyCar Series preseason testing). The win in the 106th Indy 500 marked the sixth time a Ganassi driver won the biggest race in the world.

Ganassi will turn 65 on May 24, just four days before the 107th Indianapolis 500 on May 28. The 2023 race will mark the 60th anniversary of the victory by Jones, who is now the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500 at 89.

Jones wanted to do something special for Ericsson and Ganassi, so each was given framed photos personally inscribed by Jones.

Parnelli Jones (Steve Shunck Photo For BorgWarner)

“Congratulations Marcus Ericsson and my good friend Chip Ganassi on winning the 2022 Indianapolis 500,” Jones said in remarks conveyed by BorgWarner publicist Steve Shunck. “There is no greater race in the whole world and winning it in 1963 was by far the biggest thrill in my life.”

Ganassi’s relationship with his racing hero began 60 years ago, but the two have shared some important moments since then.

It was Jones that signed off on Ganassi’s first Indianapolis 500 license in 1982. Jones was one of the veteran observers who worked with Ganassi and other rookie drivers that year to ensure they were capable of competing in the high-speed, high-risk Indianapolis 500.

When Ganassi turned 50, he got to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with Jones.

“We’ve been friends over the years,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “He wrote me a personal note and sent me some personal photographs. It really says what this race is all about and how important it is to win the biggest auto race in the world.”

Michelle Collins, the director of global communications and marketing for BorgWarner, presented the “Baby Borgs,” first to Ganassi and then to Ericsson.

“More special is winning the Indianapolis 500,” Ganassi said during the presentation. “It’s been a big part of my life. I want to call out my buddy, Roger Penske, and thank him for the stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it means to us. It’s about the history, the tradition and, to me, it’s about the people that have meant so much in my life.

“Thanks for the trophy, Marcus.”

Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi hold their Baby Borgs while posing with the Borg-Warner Trophy (Bruce Martin).

The Baby Borg presentation also came on the birthday of sculptor William Behrends, who has crafted the Bas-relief sterling silver face of each winner on the Borg-Warner Trophy since 1990. The “Baby Borg” presents each winner with a miniature of one of the most famous trophies in sports.

“I have to thank BorgWarner for everything that has happened since winning the Indianapolis 500, including the trip to Sweden,” said Ericsson, who took a November victory lap in his native country. “I’m very thankful for that because it’s memories that are going to be with me for the rest of my life.

“To bring the Borg-Warner Trophy to my hometown, seeing all the people there on the city square on a dark day in the middle of November. It was filled with people and that was very special.

“I’m very proud and honored to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing. To win the Indianapolis 500 with that team is quite an honor. It’s a team effort and a lot of people worked very hard to make this happen.

“Our focus now is to go back-to-back at the Indy 500.”

If Ericsson is successful in becoming the first driver to win back-to-back Indy since Helio Castroneves in 2001-02, he can collect an additional $420,000 in the Borg-Warner Rollover Bonus. With Castroneves the last driver to collect, the bonus has grown to an astronomical amount over 21 years.

Ericsson is from Kumla, Sweden, so the $420,000 would have an exchange rate of $4,447,641.67 Swedish Kronor.

“It’s a nice thing to know I could get that if I do win it again,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “But the Indianapolis 500 with its history as the biggest and greatest race in the world, it doesn’t matter with the money, with the points, with anything. Everyone is going to go out there and do everything to win that race.

“It’s great to know that, but I will race just as hard.”

Marcus Ericsson points at the newest face on the Borg-Warner Trophy (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

A popular slogan in racing is “Chip Likes Winners.” After winning the 106th Indy 500, Ganassi must really love Ericsson.

“It doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it? I’m very thankful to be driving for Chip,” Ericsson said. “He likes winners and winning the Indianapolis 500, it doesn’t get better than that.”

When Ericsson was presented with his Baby Borg, he stood off to the side and admired it the way a child looks at a special gift on Christmas morning. The wide-eyed amazement of his career-defining moment was easy to read and met with delight by executives of BorgWarner (an automotive and technology company that has sponsored the Borg-Warner Trophy since its 1935 debut).

“I noticed that immediately and I was watching him look at it wishing I had a camera to capture that,” Collins told NBC Sports. “But maybe not because we always have our phones in front of us and it’s nice to take in that moment as it is. That is what makes the moment well worth it.”

Marcus Ericsson (Bruce Martin)

Said BorgWarner executive vice president and chief strategic officer Paul Farrell: “It’s very special to have the big trophy that has been around since 1935 and to have a piece of that. Hopefully it’s something that (Ericsson) cherishes. We think it’s special, and clearly, Marcus Ericsson thinks it is very special.”

The trophy process begins shortly after the race as the winner has the famed Borg-Warner Wreath placed around his neck, and the Borg-Warner Trophy is put on the engine cover. The next morning, the winner meets with Behrends, who has been sculpting the faces on the trophy since Arie Luyendyk’s first victory in 1990. Later in the year, the winner visits Behrends’ studio in Tryon, North Carolina, for a “Live Study.”

The process takes several more steps before the face is reduced to the size of an egg and casted in sterling silver. It is attached to the permanent Borg-Warner Trophy and unveiled at a ceremony later in the year. Ericsson’s face was unveiled last October during a ceremony in Indianapolis.

That’s when it hit Ericsson, a three-time winner in IndyCar after going winless in Formula One over 97 starts from 2014-18.

“Until then, it was strange because you are so busy with your season right after the Indy 500 you don’t really get much time to sit back and think about what you had accomplished,” Ericsson said. “It was the offseason before I really realized what I had done.”

The permanent trophy remains on display at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but has been known to travel with the winning driver on special tours, such as the Nov. 3-7 trip to Sweden.

“It’s been incredible to see the amount of interest in me and the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500,” Ericsson said. “The trophy tour with the Borg-Warner Trophy we did in November really made a huge impact in Sweden. I was on every TV show, morning TV, magazines, newspapers, everywhere. People are talking about IndyCar racing. People are talking about Marcus Ericsson. It’s been huge.

“I was back in Sweden last month for the Swedish Sports Awards and I finished third in the Sports Performance of the Year. Motorsports is usually not even nominated there, and I finished third. That says a lot about the interest and support I’ve gotten back home in Sweden.”

Ericsson continued to reap the rewards of his Indianapolis 500 victory last week at the lavish Thermal Club, about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs, California.

Earlier in the day before the Baby Borg presentation, Ericsson, and Chip Ganassi were among the 27 car-driver combinations that completed the first day of IndyCar’s “Spring Training” on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile road course. The next day, Ericsson turned the test’s fastest lap.

The 32-year-old still seems to be riding the wave, along with his girlfriend, Iris Tritsaris Jondahl, a Greece native who also lived in Sweden and now lives with Ericsson in Indianapolis.

“Today, receiving my Baby Borg, it was another thing of making it real,” Ericsson said. “It’s not a dream. It’s reality. To get the Baby Borg and bring it home. My girlfriend, Iris, and I are house hunting, looking for a house in Indianapolis. It will definitely have a very special place in our new home.”

Marcus Ericsson and girlfriend Iris Tritsaris Jondahlc share a kiss at the Baby Borg presentation (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

Ericsson told NBC Sports his most cherished trophy before getting his Baby Borg was for his first NTT IndyCar Series win in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in 2021.

“It was such a huge win for me and such a huge breakthrough for me and my career,” he said. “After that, it catapulted me into a top driver in IndyCar.”

The Brickyard win was another level for Ericsson, who moved to Ganassi in 2020.

“Marcus kept himself in the race all day,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “Anybody that ran a race like Marcus ran, maybe you deserve the race win, but you don’t always get it. Marcus did everything that it took, and we are really, really proud of him.”

Ericsson also proved last year to be one of the best oval drivers in the series, a much different form of racing than he experienced until he came to the United States.

“Racing in Europe and around the world, I always liked high-speed corners,” he explained. “It was always my favorite. I always had this idea if I go to IndyCar and race on the ovals, it is something that would suit me and my driving style. I was always excited to try that. When I came to IndyCar and started to drive on ovals, I liked it straight away. It worked for me and my style.

“The first few attempts at Indy, I had good speed, but it was always some small mistakes that got me out of contention. I learned from them. I’m very proud I was able to pull it off, but it was a lot of hard work behind that.”

Michelle Collins of BorgWarner presented Baby Borgs to Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi at a ceremony also attended by Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

The victory in the Indianapolis 500 is etched in history, as is Ericsson’s face on the trophy.

“It’s such a special thing,” the driver said. “The BorgWarner people and IndyCar and everyone at IMS, I get to experience so many cool things since winning the Indy 500. It’s a win that keeps on giving. It never ends. It still does.

“I can’t wait to get back to Indianapolis, the month of May, as the champion. I still have to pinch myself. It’s a dream, for sure.”

Ganassi doesn’t have to pinch himself — all he needs to do is look at his collection of Baby Borgs.

His first Indy 500 win — as a team co-owner with Pat Patrick — came in 1989 with Emerson Fittipaldi’s thrilling duel against Al Unser Jr.

In 1990, Ganassi formed Chip Ganassi Racing. Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, Scott Dixon in 2008, Dario Franchitti in 2010 and 2012 and Ericsson in 2022.

“It’s a feather in the team’s cap for sure just to have our representation on the Borg-Warner Trophy with five other drivers,” Ganassi said. “It’s a testament to the team, a testament to Mike Hull that runs the team in Indianapolis. I just feel really lucky to be a part of it. It’s great to work with a great team of great people.

“Just to relive that moment again and again never gets old; never goes away. I’m really lucky to be in the position I’m in. It’s an honor to represent the team with the great people that it took to bring Marcus across the finish line. He and I get to celebrate events like this, but it’s really about the people at Chip Ganassi Racing in Indianapolis that pull this all together.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500