Chase about over, exiting drivers ending on a good note
Chase suspense over, Kenseth and Johnson worth heralding: The suspense for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finale is about as great as my chances of driving in the race. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth had been bump drafting each other in the Chase, swapping points leads and maintaining narrow margins through the first eight races. But a poor day at Phoenix for Kenseth's No. 20 team - a mixture of Kenseth's worst handling car all season and a botched pit stop or two - relegated the 2003 Cup champ to a 23rd-place finish, the team's worst finish in a couple of months. This Arizona demise was similar to Denny Hamlin's title-hurting run there in 2010. Sunday was a microcosm of how a championship is lost: a stumped crew chief Jason Ratcliff not knowing how to dial in Kenseth's car and then not properly telling the pit crew to do a four or two-tire stop. The loss in position and inability to drive through traffic to make it up was essentially the difference between Kenseth entering Homestead-Miami Speedway with a manageable "drive the snot out of it to win" deficit and a "hope the 48's engine blows on lap 2" points gap. Kenseth knows his fate is not in his hands and is quoted as saying, yes, he is disappointed, but this still is the greatest season of his career. The numbers speak that: seven wins (career-high had been five in 2002 and no more than four any other year), 1,639 laps led (over 500 more than he paced in 2006). His number of top 5s and top 10s could be higher, but engine reliability issues tapered those. And just think - the No. 20 probably could have won two more races at least. This all from a team that won only twice in four years with Joey Logano at the wheel and never made a Chase with "Sliced Bread". This from a 41-year-old driver who changed teams for the first time in his Cup career and was just acquainting himself with Joe Gibbs Racing. But they are trailing what traditionally has been the better Chase championship team.
Fans and even this writer are not on fire when the Jimmie Johnson team wins. His seasons read almost like Genesis 1: And there was evening, and there was morning, and Jimmie Johnson wins. It seems a way of life and in this age of instant gratification we constantly want something new and inspiring. When Johnson won in dominating fashion at Texas last week and then nearly sealed up his 2nd-all-time sixth championship Sunday at Phoenix by finishing 3rd, there was a collective groan on Twitter. At a time when NASCAR has been losing its edge for over a half-decade, the questions being asked are "Who's not gonna watch?" not "Can you not wait for the next race?" Lost in all the boredom with the inevitable is the fact that we have watched a driver win 66 races since 2002. 66. He could race ten more years and maybe win 100…or more. He could possibly win eight or 10 championships. And this isn't ARCA. The Sprint Cup Series is arguably the most competitive racing on the planet. But Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have the right potion and the right support system, not to mention the most competitive team behind them. Kenseth's three-team Joe Gibbs Racing stable isn't far behind, if not almost even with Hendrick Motorsports. But the edge is the No. 48 team's Chase experience and their ability to make a bad day alright, a good day great, and a great day dominating. Barring a collapse of 2012-like proportions (when Johnson finished poorly in the last two races and handed Brad Keselowski his first Cup crown), Johnson will hoist his 6th-Sprint Cup championship in one week. TV channels nationwide will change and people will miss greatness that may only be appreciated in the post mortem of his domination. Remember Jeff Gordon of the 1990s?
Lame ducks flying high in final days: On a different note, how about Kevin Harvick winning the fall Phoenix race for the 2nd year in a row? Sure, he took the top point when spring winner Carl Edwards ran out of fuel, but Harvick had one of the day's best cars and put his "divorce" from longtime car owner Richard Childress behind him. I really thought that the ill will from Harvick's comments after the Martinsville Truck race two weeks ago would be a gut punch to the No. 29 team's chemistry. Instead, Harvick has finished 6th, 8th, and 1st the last three Cup races and is the only driver besides Kenseth with an ice cube's chance in Miami of catching Johnson for the title. Kudos to Harvick and the No. 29 team for not folding the table a few races early and instead ending their tenure on a higher note.
Juan Pablo Montoya also had a good Phoenix race, placing his No. 42 Target Chevy 6th. Montoya's two previous finishes had been 13th at Martinsville (where the heavy braking plays into his road course prowess) and 20th at Texas. Montoya's routinely pedestrian results and tendency to find crashes are bringing his seven-year Cup career with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to an end. Rookie Kyle Larson drives the No. 42 in 2014. Montoya will move to Penske Racing's IndyCar team next year, having amassed only two Sprint Cup wins (both on road courses) and one Chase appearance. But at least the sun will set with smiles and a good top 10 finish at Phoenix for Montoya's Cup career.
GA drivers have tough outings at Phoenix: David Ragan at least has one win to smile about in 2013, but his last three races in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford have stunk. DNFs with engine problems at Martinsville and Texas met a garage trip at Phoenix, because of voltage issues. Ragan started 34th and finished 35th. Reed Sorenson made at start and park appearance in the Leavine Family Racing No. 95 Ford again and placed 37th. No Georgia drivers competed in Saturday's Nationwide Series race. Friday's Truck race saw Georgia driver Max Gresham make contact with and spin Chase Elliott. Elliott rebounded to finish 10th, Gresham 15th, Ryan Sieg 17th, and John Wes Townley 27th. Michigan's Erik Jones won the Truck race in Kyle Busch's No. 51, breaking Elliott's recent record of youngest driver to win in the series. Jones' Georgia tie is his multiple late model appearances at Gresham Motorsports Park.
Next: All three series hit Homestead-Miami Speedway for the end to the NASCAR season. Camping World Trucks Series races Friday at 8 p.m. on FS1 - Matt Crafton only has to start the race to win his first championship. Nationwide Series sees a green flag just after 4:30 on Saturday on ESPN2 (the main ESPN network didn't see the NNS championship race as worthy to show, we suppose). Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. are only separated by eight points for the title - so the NNS crown could go either way. And the Sprint Cup Series will bring its finale race Sunday at 4 p.m. Johnson leads Kenseth by 28 points, which probably seals the deal for Team 48.