Who… should you talk about after Season Finale 500?
One year ago, Kyle larson watched the NASCAR Cup Series final on TV and wondered what could have been. Now a little older and much wiser after choosing to learn from a mistake that saw him banned for most of 2020 and abandoned by his major backers, Larson was on his own following a dominant 2021 season. He won the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway and the accompanying Cup title.
This is the first time in almost 15 years that a driver has won 10 races in a single season. Jimmie Johnson did so in 2007 amid a five-year stranglehold on the title. And it’s hard to ignore the fact that team manager Cliff Daniels spent a year with Johnson under his belt before taking the reins from Larson.
Larson didn’t have the best car all day, but he was pretty quick, and he had the best crew and the best pit selection. This allowed him to capitalize on one of the fastest pit stops that the No.5 team had made all year on the last leg of the day. He beat Denny Hamlin on the last restart with 24 laps to go… and then widened a gap he would never have given up. Larson stood up to Martin Truex Jr. for the victory.
And do not forget Ryan blaney. He was strong all day, leading twice in the first stage for a total of 33 laps and keeping the leaders in sight all day before passing Chase Elliott in the final laps for a fourth place. This makes Blaney the only driver to beat a championship contender in the final in the past two seasons.
What … is the buzz about?
Are the drivers too ‘vanilla’ leaving a lot to be desired when it comes to showing off personality and do fans like them that way? After Alex Bowman’s victory at Martinsville last week, Hamlin interrupted his on-track victory celebration in a spicy gesture and was booed for it. Kyle Busch let his disappointment shine through when he was knocked out of the title race and ridiculed for using inappropriate language (and rightly sent to a sensitivity training by NASCAR).
Corn the border between vanilla and lack of sportsmanship is very wide. Fans weren’t asking the drivers not to show emotion, they were expressing their displeasure at Hamlin and Busch for throwing their sour grapes all over the track.
Pilots can show their personality (if their sponsors allow it, it’s a whole different ball of wax) in a way that resonates. Just watch the Ben Rhodes Championship press conference. It’s authentic, albeit slightly offbeat, and the result is far from vanilla but in the best possible way. The fans adopted him.
The problem here isn’t that the pilots aren’t resonating; is that too many sponsors do not allow it. There was a time when fans felt like they knew the drivers of a given series and that’s what has to happen again. Vanilla personalities are a big reason not to engage in sports from a fan’s perspective. Personality and lack of sportsmanship, however, are not the same thing.
Where … did the other key players end up in the Season Finale 500?
Truex maybe had the best car of the day, especially when the sun started to set, and he certainly had the best luck. He had just passed under the green in the last segment when the yellow flew to Anthony Alfredo. It could have easily left Truex for a turn, but he came out of his pit in front of leader Elliott.
This made Truex the leader after the saves rather than at the back of the field, as he would have been if he had to go around the wave. The # 19 Toyota just didn’t have the short racing speed that Larson’s Chevrolet did. While Truex mounted a furious charge in the last five laps, it wasn’t enough for the win. He leaves Phoenix as a race and season finalist.
Hamlin couldn’t quite shake the playoff demons that plagued him throughout his career. He entered the final race as a contender five times, including once as the points leader before the current system tied the points for the final. Five times he missed a title.
This time, Hamlin was inside the front row in the final reboot but couldn’t get the pitch he needed to face Larson for the lead and the win. He was third having never led a lap, the third time he has finished third this season in his career.
Elliott led four times for 94 laps, but his car struggled in traffic, and that’s where he ended up on the last restart. Elliott lost fourth place to Blaney and was unable to defend his 2020 title down the home stretch. As good as Elliott’s car was at the start, he illustrated how hard it is to keep up with an evolving circuit and how hard it really is to defend a title successfully.
When… was the moment of truth in the Season Finale 500?
Three days, three very different champions and championship seasons. Larson closed the weekend with an exclamation mark, the day after a 10-game winning season, something that was only accomplished 17 times by 11 drivers in the modern era of NASCAR, over a span of almost 50 years. This has only happened twice since 2000, including this year.
The Xfinity title came on consistency and a bit of luck, the epitome of the current playoff system. Daniel Hemric had never won a race at any national level until Saturday, but pulled one out of the bag on the biggest stage of the year to clinch the title for Joe Gibbs Racing. He had the fewest wins among the title contenders and only Noah Gragson had fewer top five and top ten than Hemric. But the others couldn’t catch up to him at the line.
Ben Rhodes won the Camping World Truck Series title somewhere in the middle. Of the four contenders, only John Hunter Nemechek had more wins (five to two for Rhodes), but Rhodes got the best average, while Nemechek led more laps.
Fans may not adopt the current title format as NASCAR hoped when implemented. However, this year champions run the gamut from dominant to lucky. That’s what NASCAR wanted: an unpredictable title until the last race.
Why… should you be careful this offseason?
The off-season is short; going to do something else for a few weeks.
Seriously, though, this winter is worth keeping an eye on the NASCAR frontline, as there will undoubtedly be some practice sessions for the new race car worth watching. Look for the oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway to be a major proving ground. The series still has a lot of 1.5 mile tracks and these are the ovals where the performance of the car will really matter. If it depends too much on aerodynamics, catching up and overtaking the leader still won’t happen as fans hope.
There is a lot to drive on this car. So much is taken away from teams that to win over skeptics they have to be on the right track. If the car does this, it will be easier to overlook certain faults. If not, there is no turning back. Sport needs the Next Gen to be successful.
What… what dynamic can drivers maintain in 2022?
Do you remember this new car? It could take some of the momentum away from veterans like Larson, Hamlin and Truex, who have all clearly thrived with the 2021 package. That sense of victory can stay with Larson and wear it a bit early, but 2022 is a whole new ball game. . As I said above, repeating a title is incredibly difficult.
Failure to clinch a title can extinguish a team’s fire for a long time. Hamlin finished in ninth place a year after finishing second behind Johnson. The backward momentum, especially if a team struggles with the new car, could be difficult to overcome early on. While the best drivers and teams will experience the cars, don’t expect a lot of surprises before the playoffs.
The teams will be working hard this week, preparing these all-new cars for 2022. How quickly they adapt will determine who comes out next year.
RACE WEEKEND CENTER: PHOENIX
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