Editor’s Note: Race results, race notes and updated driver standings follow this story.
This should have been the year of the Next Generation car and it was indeed a celebrated year.
We’ve seen a season of parity that we’ve never seen in probably at least a few decades, if not longer. We’ve seen drivers win races that may not have done so in most other years.
On the other hand, we’ve seen drivers fail to win even once, when they should have won many times otherwise, guys like former Cup champions Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski, as well as Ryan Blaney, the only one of the three who made the playoffs.
But Sunday’s win by Bubba Wallace in Kansas, following Erik Jones’s win at Darlington last week, means the first two playoff races — races believed to mark the best of the best and the best of the best. to beat – are races that have suddenly shown that any driver of any team can win on any day, period, end of sentence.
It’s a bit like that old motorcycle documentary from 1971, “On Any Sunday”, where really any rider can really win when Lady Luck shines on him.
At the same time, Jones and Wallace’s victories have thrown the playoffs into a daze. Instead of going to the Round of 12 in two weeks with three winners earning automatic berths – or at least two playoff candidates – we now have ZERO playoff candidates from the original 16 who received automatic berths .
That means next Saturday night’s race in Bristol, which concludes the first lap — also known as the Round of 16 — will eliminate four drivers as usual, but in a not-so-common way because so much more depends on what’s going on. happens in that 500-lap race (barring overtime, which is likely).
And what happens if we have another winner who isn’t a playoff qualifier? Maybe someone like Michael McDowell, or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or maybe even Truex or Keselowski?
Do not get me wrong. I love the Next Gen car. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the biggest innovation in the sport since…well…since the playoff format was first introduced in 2004 and Kurt Busch emerged as the first champion of the elimination system.
The Next Generation car has made it so that no team – not Hendrick, nor Gibbs, nor Childress, nor Penske, nor Stewart-Haas can claim any superiority over some of the lesser teams like Front Row, Petty GMS, Roush Fenway Keselowski , Spire and others.
I love that there is such equality. Sure, I bet there are fans who hate it, expect guys like Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson or Kyle Busch or Joey Logano or Denny Hamlin to win every week. But if you take your loyalty to a certain driver for a while and let go of your loyalty to look at the bigger picture, isn’t this what you REALLY want to see as a racing fan?
That’s right, don’t you want YOUR driver to win through his own merits and talent, rather than just because he rides for one of the best teams that can give him the best equipment or over the best personnel in the sport?
I’m sure I want to see a driver win honestly, rather than just winning because he’s driving for a supposedly “better” team.
Let’s face it, and with all due respect to the teams they ride for, Erik Jones isn’t riding for one of the best teams in Petty GMS, nor is Bubba riding for one of the best teams in 23XI. Perhaps one day both teams will be able to claim to be one of the best, or should they be counted against the Hendricks, Gibbs, Penskes, etc.
But for now let’s face the reality that those teams are not among the best.
But that’s what makes their respective wins in Darlington and Kansas so important, because they beat the best of the best on those particular Sundays. They proved that even though they didn’t qualify for the playoffs, they are still worthy of beating all the newcomers, especially with the Next Gen car.
I remember all too well that Tony Stewart won his second NASCAR Cup championship in 2005, but failed to qualify for the next season’s playoffs. Missing the big dance lit a fire under Smoke that he went out and kicked the collective ass of everyone who qualified for the playoffs, winning three of the 10 playoff races (out of his five total wins that season).
And while he achieved nothing but an 11th-place finish in the final standings (that was before the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 2014), many feel—and still do (with apologies to the actual champion that year, Jimmie Johnson) — Stewart was the real champion in their minds in 2006, as three of his five wins that year were in the playoffs as he competed with the best of the best.
I can’t wait for Saturday night’s race in Bristol. If we go 3-for-3 and win yet another non-play-off contender, that will set a tone that can probably continue through the rest of the play-offs.
And then, what happens if, on November 6, the season-closing and championship-defining Championship 4 race in Phoenix, another non-playoff candidate wins the race (or maybe the top 5 finishers are non-playoff contenders), and the highest -finishing Championship 4 contender finishes, say, sixth to win the title?