By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
NASCAR drama personified as Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway sure got people fired up in more ways than one.
While Chase Elliott took the checkered flag and punched his ticket to the Championship 4, there was a lot of frustrated drivers because a shot at a championship were officially dashed. Four in particular had their dreams crushed like my Seattle Mariners do every year were Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex, Jr., and Kevin Harvick.
Yes indeed, the biggest shock of the season was the most dominant driver (Harvick) in the sport not making the Championship 4. All that hard work can be viewed as almost for not because the biggest goal was winning a title, but now they won’t have that opportunity which I’ll certainly dive into.
Without Harvick, this championship has now become wide open where a true favorite isn’t definitive because you do have Joey Logano battling against the likes of Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski at Phoenix Raceway next Sunday (3:00 p.m. ET on NBC).
Let’s jump into my takeaways from a wild penultimate round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
That Reversed Penalty Call
The moment NASCAR rescinded Chase Elliott’s pit penalty for the jack man going over the wall too soon, I wasn’t crazy about the decision.
It was bright as day that he jumped the gun, but as soon as he realized the mistake, he went back but it led to a messy pit stop. I was almost going to say man, they’re really going for controversy on this dramatic cutoff race, but then comes the NASCAR Rule Book.
Here is the rule. Correct call: pic.twitter.com/7tjMFpZX3H
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) November 1, 2020
Elliott’s jack man did the right thing, but man did he become such a burden to the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports crew. I’d feel bad for him, but a mistake is a mistake and it bit the team which kind of defines Elliott’s campaign.
At least he was self-aware of his error and tried fixing his wrongdoing which NASCAR saw, thus reversing the penalty call.
As a result, Elliott had to work his way back to the front because he was below the cutoff line. Who did it benefit? Harvick up to that point.
But wait! There’s more! Following the caution for James Davison with 100 laps to go, another round of pit stop happened and Elliott’s crew went full yikes mode.
An extremely slow left rear tire change punted him completely out of the top-three. This crew have beaten themselves up in the most inopportune times and I’m going to say it, pit stops are the team’s kryptonite.
They’re so damn lucky that Elliott is a wheelman and went on to lead a career-high 236 laps en route towards his fourth win of 2020.
— #NASCARPlayoffs on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 1, 2020
They’re so lucky because stuff like that cannot happen whatsoever next Sunday. Had Elliott not won that race or that penalty wasn’t reversed, oh man the crew will be chewed by a lot of people.
As monumental that win was, those two pit mistakes is what’s preventing me from saying Elliott being a title favorite in this wide open title fight. I’m not confident with that No. 9 crew right now.
Rewarding Sudden Mediocrity Isn’t the Answer to a Flawed System
Finally, let’s tackle the biggest elephant in the room because Harvick not fighting for a championship after scoring nine wins may be the biggest disappointment since Jeff Gordon missing out at a title in 2014.
Harvick finished 17th following a dump gone wrong as he tried getting by Kyle Busch for the ninth spot to cut the deficit. As you saw, both ended up spinning around with Harvick’s shot at a second Cup title being over.
One last effort … and then heartbreak for @KevinHarvick.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 1, 2020
Harvick’s collapse in my eye really began when he was collected in that wreck at Talladega in the Round of 12. It seems like the entire team fell off the rails where they weren’t as good as they were in the regular season. Sure, Texas is what put him in that pretty rough spot, but it’s just been a rough month.
As disappointing as that sounds, Harvick just didn’t got the job done when it absolutely mattered, but my biggest gripe involved something else.
Throughout the race, people were saying the regular season champion should automatically get a Championship 4 berth which is absolutely blasphemous. As if this playoff system can’t get any more ridiculous, how’s that fair? What if the regular season champion collapses so badly?
You’d be rewarding mediocrity and people are going to complain about that as well. You just know they will throw a fit, so when I heard about that idea. I was like, ‘what kind of drink are they’re having?’
People just need to pause and think about the ramifications of rewarding a spot because they were good the first 26 races. Sometimes, you see other sporting teams do damn good in the regular season, but when it comes to crunch time, they often can’t replicate their dominance. It happens and fans need to understand this.
Who’s the Favorite Now?
As I’ve said twice now, this championship trail is wide open without Harvick’s presence. I’ve already said that Elliott’s crew has to be flawless in order to have a remote shot of giving Hendrick Motorsports its first title since Jimmie Johnson in 2016.
Keselowski may be consistent but he’s the long shot out of the four guys in my book. Hamlin has to put on a strong showing and replicate his victory last November to cap off a dream season. This is it for Hamlin too because how many more times can he be in that pristine spot and not capture the Bill France Cup.
Those doubts in mind, Logano may be on fire in the absolute perfect time which is a nightmare for the rest of the competition. Having a win at Phoenix in March certainly makes him a title favorite in a year that he’s been an afterthought up until the Round of 8.
Much to the chagrin of many folks, this is Logano’s title to lose right now because his momentum is just better than the rest of the competition right now. Not just race performance, but all across the board. That’s what wins championships in this system, having the least amount of problems during crunch time and Logano is that guy right now.
Sunday’s race at Martinsville had all the emotional drama fans could want on a Cup event. You saw the Goliath (Harvick) being taken down by arguably the strongest David (Elliott). You had drivers giving it their absolute all to punch their ticket to Phoenix. Hell, you even had guys try different things they wouldn’t done at any point of the year.
This is playoff madness at its peak where sense of urgencies skyrocketed and what we saw is what we saw. Some say drivers don’t have the heart and soul to step up their game, think again because this was a perfect example of guys doing such task.
Now we just have one more round left to cap off a long and winding 72nd Cup championship tour. One man will hoist the Bill France Cup while three will leave Phoenix with broken hearts. Hope the finale can be as good as what we saw tonight.