Two races to go in NASCAR’s epic 36-race Sprint Cup series and thanks to the organization’s convoluted ‘Chase for the Cup’ rules it’s impossible to guess who might win the championship. Prior to this weekend’s race in Phoenix, the only thing that’s clear is Jeff Gordon is guaranteed a place among the four finalists in the season-closer at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22nd. The remaining three title contenders will be decided at Phoenix on Sunday afternoon.
Four-time champion Gordon earned his place by winning at Martinsville two weeks ago. It was the 93rd win of Gordon’s career but his first win this year. Jeff last won the title in 2001 and it would be great to see him take a fifth championship at the moment he retires when the chequered flag waves at Homestead
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To win this year’s championship Gordon has to beat the other three title contenders at Homestead. The Sprint Cup goes to the highest finisher of the four finalists at Homestead. At this stage the other finalists are Kyle Busch, defending champion Kevin Harvick and long-shot Martin Truex, but each of Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano have chances of making it into the final round depending on where they finish in Phoenix this weekend.
As much as it would warm everyone’s hearts if Gordon came through to win this year’s championship, it will be a title that many old-timers will put an asterisk beside because Jeff has hardly enjoyed a championship-winning season. He’s led just 252 laps this year – 12th on the lap leaders’ list – and using a conventional point system would be only tenth in the points.
Without doubt Harvick and Logano have been the men to beat this year. Harvick has won three races and led many more laps than anyone else – 2,105 or 21.2 percent of the season. Logano has won six races and led 1,359 laps, second to Harvick, while his Penske Racing team-mate Keselowski has won only once while leading 1,094 laps. But unless either one of these three wins or finishes among the top three or four at Phoenix on Sunday, they will be eliminated from Homestead’s championship run-off.
It would be silly if defending champion Harvick didn’t make it to Homestead’s final four. Harvick has won three races, finished second eleven times and led almost twice as many as anyone else. He’s been the man to beat most of the year aboard his Stewart/Haas Chevrolet and by any normal standards is most deserving of this year’s championship.
If points were awarded in the once-traditional style Harvick would be leading the championship going into Phoenix this weekend with 1,234 points. Logano would be second with 1,217 points followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1,147), Keselowski (1,138), Martin Truex (1,102) and Jimmie Johnson (1,080).
Six-time champion Johnson won last weekend in Texas but was eliminated from ‘The Chase’ early after a mechanical failure at Charlotte last month. Still, Johnson has won five races this year and Hendrick Motorsports’s four-car Chevrolet team has won a total of eight races, including two with Dale Jr., and one with Jeff Gordon who scored the 93rd win of his NASCAR career at Martinsville two weeks ago.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s factory-backed Toyota team has won the most races this year. Gibbs Toyotas have won 13 of the 34 races run so far this year with Matt Kenseth winning five races, Kyle Busch four times and Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards taking two wins apiece, but only Busch and Edwards have any chance of winning the championship.
Kenseth is fourth in laps led (927) but will not be among those contending for the championship at Homestead-Miami because he was eliminated from ‘The Chase’ in the early going. Then of course, he was suspended for two races – Texas and Phoenix – after deliberately crashing Logano at Martinsville. Kenseth is the first driver in NASCAR history to be suspended for crashing another driver.
Busch and Edwards retain long odds chances of winning the championship. If Busch is able to pull it off it will be one for the books because he missed eleven races early in the season after breaking a leg and foot in an accident at Daytona in February. Busch has never won a Sprint Cup championship but thanks to ‘The Chase’ he has a hope of doing so as does team-mate Edwards.
Also still in with at least a shout at the championship going into Phoenix is Martin Truex who’s won once and led 584 laps this year with Barney Visser’s Furniture Row team. Truex is the lone, one-car “little guy’ team among those in ‘The Chase’.
In total Chevrolets have won 14 races so far, one more than Toyota. Fords have won seven races, all with Penske as Penske’s pair of Fords have blown off Roush Fenway, Ford’s traditional lead NASCAR team. Roush Fenway has been conspicuously uncompetitive in recent years and hasn’t won a single race this year.
Meanwhile, almost everyone in NASCAR – drivers, team owners and media – have expressed their excitement over ‘The Chase’ raving on about the pressure and unpredictability and exclaiming what a great show it makes. Yet not only the crowds at many races but also NASCAR’s TV ratings continue to glide steadily downhill to record low levels.
From the archive: Jimmie Johnson vs Jeff Gordon (January 2012)
Ratings and crowds at most races have been in decline for seven or eight years and show no sign of bottoming out. TV ratings on NBCSports are down 17 per cent from last year on ESPN and the ratings have declined for all 19 Sprint Cup races broadcast on cable this year.
One of NASCAR’s bigger problems is that it has too many races, too many long 500-mile races in particular. Yet this aspect is also impossible to change because none of the 23 tracks that stage the 36 Sprint Cup races have any interest in cutting back. Crowds may be down at many races but the Sprint Cup race weekend continues to be the biggest event and the most important source of revenue by far for every track.
Another element in the declining interest in NASCAR was the arrival, starting in 2007, of the ‘Car of Tomorrow’ and ‘Generation 6’ spec cars. One of NASCAR’s essential building blocks was the appeal of Ford vs Chevy vs Dodge, but despite each brand of the Gen 6 car enjoying individual nose treatments the spec car has made the cars more identical than ever, reducing a key historical draw for many NASCAR fans.
Yet NASCAR remains by far America’s largest, most successful form of motor racing, light years ahead of IndyCar and IMSA sports car racing. The Sprint Cup series may be a weakened animal but it will continue as the big dog of American racing for many years to come.
From the archive: The fight to expand NASCAR (September 2014)