Long: Cinderella is a Disney movie, not a Cup championship contender

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AVONDALE, Ariz. —  After a topsy-turvy Sunday that saw championship hopes fluctuate much like the highs and lows of the season, NASCAR fans are left with the best Cup championship field in Miami since the elimination format began in 2014.

For most of the season, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — the Big 3 — have dominated and they all advanced to race Joey Logano for the Cup title.

“I would predict this is the best four, the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time,” Kyle Busch said after winning at Phoenix.

Busch wasn’t boasting. He was just telling it like it is.

Busch (eight wins), Harvick (eight), Truex (four) and Logano (two) have combined to win more than 60 percent of the races this season. Never have the Championship 4 drivers won more than 50 percent of the races that season.

“You always want to go up against the best of the best, and the strength of the season has kind of been the top three guys, the best three, which has been (Harvick), us and (Truex), and (Logano),” Busch said. “(Logano) has been solid. He’s been consistent, and he’s been good, especially these last nine weeks, eight weeks, I guess.

“So I think that this is a good group of four that we’re going to race for a championship with.”

One can argue about the playoff format and say that it rewards only those who get hot late, but Busch, Harvick and Truex did what was expected by advancing. They showed the value of dominating the regular season and building a treasure trove of playoff points that proved valuable.

Even with those advantages, they still had to squirm in this round.

Harvick celebrated his berth in the Championship 4 last weekend after winning at Texas only to find out three days later that NASCAR had taken it away because of a violation so egregious that series officials also suspended Harvick’s crew chief and car chief for the rest of the playoffs and penalized Harvick 40 points.

Instead of being assured a spot in Miami, Harvick entered Sunday’s race three points ahead of teammate Kurt Busch for the final transfer spot.

As he often does when under pressure, Harvick thrived, winning the pole and showing he had the fastest car in Saturday’s final practice. Nothing changed Sunday when he led the opening 72 laps before what a Goodyear official said was “quite possibly” a puncture that caused Harvick’s right front tire to deflate. Harvick had to pit before the end of first stage on Lap 75 and did so when pit road was closed. He lost a lap and the penalty meant he couldn’t take the wave-around on that caution to get back on the lead lap.

“My main job was to try to get it back to the pits without crashing into the wall or having a tire blow out and rip the fenders off,” Harvick said after placing fifth. “I felt it go down going into Turn 1 and just kind of tried to nurse it into Turn 3 and back around. 

“I couldn’t get down over there, and I just drug everything all the way around. I drug the splitter off. It never really handled as good after that, but we made some adjustments to our car and got ourselves back in contention there in the second stage staying out, and it worked out okay.”

Harvick was back on the lead lap less than 30 laps later when Logano had a left rear tire go down and spun.

With less than 80 laps left, Harvick led Busch by only one point. That would change when Busch wrecked after contact from Denny Hamlin as they raced for the lead with 44 laps to go.

That incident nearly ended Truex’s day. Truex has not been as strong recently as he was in the middle of the year. He was 10th on that restart and nearly hit Alex Bowman’s spinning car amid the smoke and chaos.

“There was cars, smoke everywhere,” Truex said after finishing 14th. “I just basically stopped going into Turn 3 and was lucky to find a hole to get through. Just a little bit of good fortune, a little bit of the right place, right time, and the rest of the day we just battled and got what we could out of the car and did what we had to.”

Busch was steady all day. He wasn’t spectacular but put himself in a position to win and did just that.

Now, the focus turns to Miami where the four best race for a title.

And Cinderella is nowhere to be found.