Editor’s note: Race scores, race notes, and updated driver standings follow this story.
This year was supposed to be the year of the next generation car and it was a really popular year.
We’ve had a season of parity unlike any we’ve likely seen in at least two decades, if not longer. We’ve seen drivers win races that they probably haven’t in most other years.
On the flip side, we’ve seen drivers fail to win even once when they had to win multiple times, guys like former Cup champions Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski, as well as Ryan Blaney, the only one of the three to make the playoffs.
But Sunday’s Bubba Wallace win in Kansas, which followed Eric Jones’ victory in Darlington last week, means the first two playoffs — races that are supposed to highlight the best of the best that beat the best — are the races. Which suddenly showed that any driver of any team can win any day, period or end of sentence.
It’s kind of like that old motorcycle documentary from 1971, “Any Sunday,” where really any rider can win anytime Lady Lake shines.
Meanwhile, Jones and Wallace’s victories added excitement to the playoffs. Instead of heading into the Round of 12 in two weeks with three winners getting automatic berths – or at least two playoff contestants – we now have zero contestants out of the original 16 getting automatic berths.
This means that next Saturday night’s race in Bristol, which will conclude round one – aka the round of 16 – will see four drivers eliminated as usual, but in an unusual way because so much is riding on what happens in a 500-lap race (except for overtime, which is likely ).
And what happens if we have another winner who isn’t a qualifier? Maybe someone like Michael McDowell, or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or maybe Trux or Kiselowski?
Don’t get me wrong. I love the next generation car. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s the sport’s greatest innovation since… well… since the supplement format was first introduced in 2004 and Kurt Bosch emerged as the first champion in the elimination system.
The next generation car made it so that no team – not Hendrik, not Gibbs, Childress, Pinske, Stuart Haas, nor Stuart Haas could claim any supremacy over some of the lesser teams like Front Row, Betty GMS, Roush Fenway Keselowski, the Spire and others.
I love having that kind of parity. Sure, I bet there are fans out there who hate her, and they expect guys like Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Kyle Bush, Joey Logano, or Denny Hamlin to win every week. But if you take your loyalty to a particular driver away for a second and fire your loyalty to look at the bigger picture, isn’t that what you really want to see as a racing fan?
That’s right, wouldn’t you want to see your driver win with his merits and talent, rather than just drive him to one of the best teams that could give him some of the best equipment or have some of the best staff in a sport?
I know I definitely want to see a driver win fairly and squarely, rather than winning just because he’s leading the so-called “best” team.
Let’s face it, and with all due respect to the teams they lead, neither Erik Jones leads one of the best teams in Petty GMS, nor does Bubba lead one of the best teams in 23XI. Perhaps one day, both teams will actually be able to claim to be one of the best, or they should be counted with Hendrix, Gibbs, Penkis, etc.
But for now, let’s face the fact that those teams aren’t among the best.
However, this is what makes their victory in Darlington and Kansas so important because they beat the best of the best on specific Sundays. They proved that even though they failed to qualify for qualifying, they still deserved to beat any and all comers, especially with the next generation car.
I remember well when Tony Stewart won his second NASCAR Cup Championship in 2005, but failed to qualify for the playoffs the following season. His absence from a big dance sparked a fire under Smoke as he went out and kicked the collective ass of everyone who qualified for the playoffs, winning three of his 10 playoff races (out of his five total wins that season).
And while he failed to earn anything but eleventh place in the final standings (that was before expanding the playoffs to 16 teams in 2014), many feel—and still feel today (with apologies to that year’s de facto champ, Jimmy Johnson)—that Stewart was the The real champion in 2006 is on their mind because three of his five wins that year came in playoffs while he was competing with the best of the best.
I can’t wait for Saturday night’s race in Bristol. If we go 3 vs 3 and take another win for an opponent other than a playoff again, that sets a tone that will likely continue through the remainder of the playoffs.
And then, what happens if, the season 4 championship race that ends and decides the championship comes in Phoenix on November 6, another non-playoff contender wins the race (or perhaps the top five contestants are no playoff contenders), and the top-end Championship contender 4 ends, for example Example, sixth place to win the title?