Ryan: Wild cards, computer games and other championship leftovers

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It was Year 5 for the Championship 4, a fitting milepost for analysis and evaluation of NASCAR’s playoffs.

The timing also is right judging by the reaction to this year’s champion, who undoubtedly has spurred the most debate of the elimination era despite having impeccable credentials.

Joey Logano might be the worthiest of any champion yet under this system – scoring the most points, accumulating the most top 10s and notching the best average finish of this year’s playoffs. So why has his title received blowback (we’ll get to our theory below)?

And there’s another reason that a big-picture playoff reflection seems ripe.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, this has been the longest period of stasis in NASCAR’s quasi-postseason for crowning a champion. Though the addition of stages and playoff points slightly altered the means for advancement, the method for qualifying and the size of the field has been constant since 2014.

That follows a period of significant structural changes at least every three to four years in the first decade of what once was known as “the Chase.”

In 2007, the field was expanded to 12 (and bonus points were added). In 2011, two slots were reserved for wild cards based on the winningest drivers outside the top 10. And in 2014, the system was overhauled with three-race elimination rounds and a 16-driver field.

Some would argue more changes (fewer races? fewer contenders?) still are needed – and perhaps the highly anticipated 2020 schedule makeover will reflect a new sheen.

But in the meantime, here are some lingering thoughts from the 2018 championship finale a week later:

Something wild: Congratulations, NASCAR: You crowned your first wild-card champion.

That’s what feels different about Logano’s title. (The notion that there is pushback simply because Logano’s aggression is polarizing seems reductive … was Kyle Busch’s 2015 title greeted the same way?)

The Team Penske driver was justified in resisting the underdog label that was thrust upon his team in the run-up to his matchup with “The Big Three,” and Logano even had jokes about racing against the dominant regular-season trio of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. (which he conceded was far ahead of his team three months earlier).

The No. 22 Ford should have been given more credence as a contender entering Homestead-Miami Speedway because it essentially played the role of a 10-6 team getting hot during a Super Bowl run (six wild-card teams have won the NFL championship).

In five years of eliminations, Logano is the champion with the most nondescript regular season. As the slowest of the four contenders in the 2016 finale, Jimmie Johnson might have been a bigger underdog who won the finale and title, but he at least had four other victories on the way to his seventh championship.

Logano’s title felt more like an eighth seed knocking out a 13-3 team (or three). That’s much harder to reconcile in NASCAR, though, because the teams having epic seasons aren’t truly eliminated.

When an upset of the 15-1 Green Bay Packers occurs in the divisional round, they’re forgotten in the next two rounds. There is no omnipresent reminder that “Oh, the guy winning the championship wasn’t nearly as good as those other guys during the first 26 races.”

Logano emerged the rightful winner of an epic battle royale among the four best drivers of 2018, but it also was hard to ignore that two Hall of Fame drivers (Busch and Harvick) enjoyed career seasons.

That’s problematic, and it might be impossible for NASCAR to address beyond just educating fans on adjusting to it. By adding stages and playoff points, NASCAR ensured there virtually will never be an undeserving winless champion (which Ryan Newman flirted with becoming in 2014).

But some fundamentals likely can’t be “fixed” through tweaks – aside from “true” eliminations (i.e., removing cars ineligible for the title from the field of play) that would seem a non-starter.

–Four-way focus: Maybe that’s something to consider, though, considering how compelling the annual finale has become with only four cars that really matter.

The conventional wisdom goes it’s unfair to focus only on the championship contenders while ignoring the field. But there increasingly is no reason to focus on the rest, who have admitted to essentially racing the Championship 4 with mittens.

It’s clear the contenders and their teams prefer it that way – multicar teams quite obviously (and rationally) put a higher priority on whichever of their cars reach the finals.

Maybe it’s to the detriment for the other 30-something cars, but recent finales have shown it’s hugely compelling to follow only four cars’ strategies (stall selection! Short pitting! Short run vs. long run!). There’s virtually no compunction about voluntarily dismissing anyone else’s chances of winning.

The microtargeting is partly what makes this championship structure so good, allowing such dissection and analysis of what each of the four contenders is doing in execution and strategy.

Dual disappointments: In that vein, it was stupefying to contemplate how co-favorites Busch and Harvick caught every break and made all the necessary moves but still couldn’t capitalize.

Busch benefited from controversially having the No. 1 pit stall. It helped ensure he kept the lead when he got the yellow he needed late in the race (after crew chief Adam Stevens played the only card he could to keep his driver in the game). But his No. 18 Toyota simply wasn’t fast enough on the restart, plummeting from first to fourth.

It was indicative of the final 10 races for Busch, who won at Richmond and Phoenix but struggled mightily for race-winning speed at the four 1.5-mile ovals.

That was shocking because Joe Gibbs Racing (like any championship contender) brought “next-generation” chassis for the playoffs that somehow weren’t on par with the Fords of Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. At least in the finale, Gibbs’ Toyotas also weren’t the equal of Truex’s (Furniture Row Racing and JGR assuredly weren’t working as closely in the final races of their alliance).

Harvick had the third-fastest car at Miami, but he still had a chance to win on a brilliant strategy call by substitute crew chief Tony Gibson, who short-pitted a lap earlier than the other three. Though crew chief Rodney Childers certainly was missed, strategy is the weakest part of his game, so Harvick might have benefited tactically from having a better shot to win with Gibson on the box. But ultimately, the final caution ensured it didn’t matter – even if the yellow hadn’t flown, Truex still would have beat Harvick under green.

The bottom line is that barring any major mistakes or problems by Logano and Truex, there was no way Busch and Harvick – the co-dominant drivers of 2018 — could win the championship, even if the race went exactly their way in the closing stages.

It was a stunning development given how the regular season unfolded. But maybe less stunning given how the playoffs did.

Computer age: Harvick’s performance was another emphatic confirmation of the so-called “arms race” that has engulfed the Cup Series, for better or worse. His No. 4 Ford seemed well off Friday and Saturday, but a marathon simulation session by Childers and engineer Dax Gerringer impressively restored Harvick to fighting shape for Sunday (and fastest before night fell).

That’s good in a way because it underscores that the investment of effort, money and time pays off.

But do you want races won essentially as much on high-fidelity software as on the racetrack?

That’s one of the dilemmas for modern-day NASCAR.

Money talks: One of the more awkward moments during the race championship weekend came during the news conference involving the contending owners (and their top lieutenants). When asked about the sponsor trends in NASCAR, Penske Corp. vice chairman Walt Czarnecki cited a well-attended sponsor conference the team was holding while racing for the championship.

“So there’s an appetite out there as long as you’re delivering the value,” Czarnecki said.

It was jarring because Czarnecki was sitting beside Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone, who disclosed a few minutes later that a third of his team’s 62 employees still hadn’t found work beyond the team’s impending shutdown. Because of a lack of sponsorship (despite its 2017 championship), the Denver-based team and Truex finished second (to Penske and Logano) in their final race a day later.

The dichotomy between the top two teams in the 2018 standings reveals some inconvenient truths in Cup. Success undoubtedly helps drive sponsor interest, but it’s no guarantee of the necessary cash flow to fund the exorbitant annual budgets that stretch well into the tens of millions.

The ShellPennzoil sponsorship of Team Penske’s championship team is predicated on a strong business-to-business relationship because of Roger Penske’s automotive empire (which guarantees revenue to its backer). It would appear that Hendrick Motorsports’ new deal with Ally to sponsor Jimmie Johnson has similar characteristics.

It’s a business structure that is disconcertingly sui generis to some degree – every car owner in NASCAR generally has amassed some type of fortune, but only a select few happen to have the independent businesses that can attract sponsorship motivated more by revenue than results.

For the owner of a mattress and furniture store chain, facing off against rivals with broader and more lucrative portfolios might be a taller order than beating their race cars.

Let’s have some fun: A postscript on the most memorable thing Jimmie Johnson did this season (aside from the last lap of the Roval). His trip to the Formula One season finale invigorated the seven-time champion, whose giddiness over an impending car swap with Fernando Alonso was palpable via social media.

Yes, some of Johnson’s unbridled happiness naturally stems from being free of the stressors that suck the joy from competing at NASCAR’s highest level. (He also is free from his toughest season in Cup.)

But it also seemed to stem from being around a different environment. Witness the postrace interviews Sunday in Abu Dhabi with F1 drivers who didn’t seem ready for the season to end. Again, their championship system isn’t as inherently pressurized as NASCAR’s (and thus produces a different range of emotions), but they also are traveling thousands of miles annually and don’t seem as worse for the wear.

It recalled a salient question during NASCAR president Steve Phelps’ state of NASCAR news conference from veteran racing journalist Jeff Gluck, who has spent some of the past two years taking his eponymous website’s coverage to other series.

Gluck discovered that drivers and riders outside stock cars seemed to be having more fun and showing more passion, prompting a trenchant observation: Is NASCAR doing enough to ensure its stars are displaying as much of that infectious happiness and passion?

Phelps replied that Gluck’s question was a generalization (which is a fair response), but as a 2020 schedule overhaul is contemplated, let’s hope that Johnson’s exuberance is remembered.