Editor’s note: Updated race results, race ratings and driver standings follow this story.
It was supposed to be the year of the next generation car and it was a celebrated year indeed.
We have had a season of parity not seen in at least two decades, if not more. We’ve seen riders win races that most other years might not have succeeded.
On the other hand, we’ve seen drivers fail once when they otherwise should have won multiple times, guys like former Cup champions Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski, as well as Ryan Blaney, the only of the three that made the playoffs.
But Bubba Wallace’s win on Sunday at Kansas, which follows Erik Jones’ victory at Darlington last week, means the first two playoff races – races meant to feature the best of the best beating the best of the best – are races that suddenly showed that any driver of any team can win any day, period, end of sentence.
It’s kind of like that old motorcycle documentary from 1971, “On Any Sunday”, where really any rider could really win whenever Lady Luck shined on him.
Meanwhile, Jones and Wallace’s victories sent the playoffs into a whirlwind. Instead of heading to the Round of 16 in two weeks with three winners earning automatic spots – or at the very least, two playoff contenders – right now we have ZERO playoff contenders from the original 16 who received automatic seats.
This means Saturday night’s race at Bristol, which will close out the first lap – aka the Round of 16 – will see four drivers eliminated as usual, but in a not-so-usual way because a lot more depends on what happens. in this 500-lap race (barring extra time, which is likely).
And what if we have yet another winner who doesn’t qualify for the playoffs? Maybe someone like Michael McDowell, or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or maybe even Truex or Keselowski?
Do not mistake yourself. I love the Next Gen car. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the biggest innovation in sports since…well…since the playoff format was first introduced in 2004 and Kurt Busch became the first elimination system champion.
The next generation car has ensured that no team – not Hendrick, not Gibbs, not Childress, not Penske, not Stewart-Haas can claim superiority over some of the lesser teams such as Front Row, Petty GMS , Roush Fenway Keselowski , Spire and others.
I like that there is this kind of parity. Of course, I bet there are fans who hate that, expecting guys like Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson or Kyle Busch or Joey Logano or Denny Hamlin to win every week. But if you take away your loyalty to a certain driver for a second and divorce your loyalty to look at the bigger picture, isn’t that what you, as a racing fan, REALLY want to see?
That’s right, don’t you want to see YOUR rider win on their own merits and talents, rather than just because they’re riding for one of the best teams that can provide them with one of the best gear or have the one of the best personalities in sport?
I know I really want to see a driver win fairly, rather than winning just because they’re driving for a so-called “better” team.
Let’s face it, and with all due respect to the teams they drive for, Erik Jones doesn’t drive for one of Petty GMS’s top teams, nor does Bubba drive for one of Petty GMS’s top teams. 23XI. Maybe one day these two teams can indeed claim that they are one of the best, or should be counted with the Hendricks, Gibbs, Penskes, etc.
But for now, let’s face the reality that these teams are not among the best.
Still, that’s what makes their respective victories at Darlington and Kansas so significant, as they beat the best of the best on those Sundays. They proved that even though they failed to qualify for the playoffs, they are still worthy of beating all comers, especially with the Next Gen car.
I remember all too well when Tony Stewart won his second NASCAR Cup championship in 2005, only to fail to qualify for the playoffs the following season. Missing the big dance lit a fire under Smoke that he came out and kicked the collective ass of everyone who had qualified for the playoffs, winning three of 10 playoff races (of his five total wins this season).
And while he got nothing but an 11th place finish in the final standings (that was before the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams in 2014), many feel – and still feel today. today (with apologies to current champion that year, Jimmie Johnson) – Stewart was the real champion in 2006 in their minds because three of his five wins that year came in the playoffs while facing the best of the best .
I can’t wait for Saturday night’s race in Bristol. If we go 3 for 3 and we have yet another non-playoff contender winning again, that’s going to set a tone that could probably carry through the rest of the playoffs.
And then what if, in the season-ending, championship-deciding Championship Race 4 in Phoenix on Nov. 6, another non-elimination competitor wins the race (or maybe all 5 first are not playoff contenders), and the highest-finish championship contender 4 finishes, say, sixth to win the title?