November 20, 2018 - Maybe the age of opinion echos has just manifested itself again or maybe those with the perpetual sour taste about the state of NASCAR in their mouths simply have it again. But after a thrilling Ford EcoBoost 400 that saw statistically the four best drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series compete for the Championship 4 and race near each other all 400 miles, this same crowd couldn’t see the forest for the trees. This year’s championship race delivered.
The sport’s “Big Three”, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr., combined to win 20 races and did almost all of that damage in the first two-thirds of the season. The championship would undoubtedly go thru them. But as Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, and eventually Aric Almirola started tallying wins, the spotlight on the other three dimmed. However, none of this winning group really emerged as “the guy” to slay the three-headed dragon. So this seemed to set up the Homestead-Miami race as one that obviously Harvick, Truex Jr., or Busch would win.
There is a reason races aren’t run in simulators. Busch or Harvick should have put on a clinic Sunday, as Truex Jr. and the soon-closing No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota had seen their recent performance wane a bit. But Logano, who had been consistent but not front-running all season, secured his Homestead ticket by running Truex Jr. hard to the finish and taking the Martinsville win from him. And suddenly, the No. 22 team looked like a contender. But certainly Harvick, who had dominated the Texas race (with an illegal spoiler), and Busch, who had won the previous week at Phoenix, would be firing on all cylinders in Homestead. As it turns out, all four championship drivers were in some respect.
As you may remember, Busch, Truex Jr., and Logano started in the top 5 and Harvick had to climb up from 12th at Homestead. Harvick took no time driving up into the top 10 and took the lead after the first pit stops to win Stage 1. And then these four stayed right on each other all race long, with pit stops becoming a game of cat and mouse. The stops continuously cost Busch precious time and sunk an already ill-handling car deeper in the pack. But the 2015 champ kept clawing back.
Harvick had the race won after the last green flag stop. Truex Jr. had the speed on that long run at the end, but Harvick and Logano came to pit road one lap before him and Harvick was poised to win the championship. But Busch, with no chance to win conventionally, stayed out on old tires, hoping and praying for a caution to freeze him in the lead.
When Keselowski (Logano’s teammate) got into Daniel Suarez (Busch’s teammate) and brought out a yellow, Busch got the miracle he needed and his crew delivered him the lead from the first pit stall. Here’s your game seven moment: the Championship 4 would comprise the first two rows for the 15-lap shootout. Wouldn’t betting money land on Busch? He’s widely regarded as the best restarter in the sport and the driver with likey the most raw talent. With a championship on the line, the pendulum had swung in favor of Busch.
Busch got the break, but couldn’t capitalize. With equal tires and nearly equal track position, Truex Jr. and Logano dusted him and pulled away. The 2018 title would come down to last year’s MENCS Cup winner, whom Logano roughed up for a Martinsville win and who said Logano would not win the war. The war would be decided by them.
The two drivers had made contact incidentally, racing close in the race, but this battle came down to man vs. machine vs. the weather/time-worn track. Logano made a champion’s move on Truex Jr. on the fourth lap of this final run. Logano sailed the No. 22 high into a turn to a degree that made announcers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton think he missed the corner. And Logano wrested the lead away and never looked back. If the race had 30 or 40 laps remaining, Truex Jr. would have won. Or maybe Harvick. Busch finished well back in 4th. But it was Logano, who rivals Busch in the boos he gets from fans, who now joins the Big Three as a single-Cup championship winner.
For those who thought they saw bad racing on Sunday, the broadcast didn’t do any favors. NBC did a poor job covering any battles on the track that didn’t involve the lead or the Championship 4 drivers and they need to address this. Also, despite there being multiple grooves, the aero-factor definitely spread the field out. But tire wear and the difference in setups allowed drivers to make up these differences over a long run. Neither the Camping World Truck Series race Friday (race and championship won by Brett Moffitt) or the Xfinity Series race Saturday (race and championship won by Tyler Reddick) had any cautions that weren’t stage breaks. That usually prompts fans to give bad marks.
The drama Sunday may be seen as manufactured by some, but it was real. The four title contenders raced each other hard all 267 laps. And while there were some lulls in this race...like most any race...the drama and tension were palpable in those closing laps. Each move felt like it would decide the title. Not two drivers, but four decided the Monster Energy Cup and their battle was one for the ages. Or at least I hope. Could we as fans let this one live in the canon of great battles or will the sour tastes and negative fog taint this one also? Hopefully the former.
Watch the race rewind and fast forward to 10 minutes to see that final restart.