NASCAR America: Joey Logano is a champion on and off the track

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Before he won the 2018 Cup championship, Joey Logano received perhaps his most meaningful honor of the season when he became the Comcast Community Champion of the Year for his charitable foundation. It underscored the type of champion that he hoped to become.

“At 28 years old, (Logano) has an enormous amount of perspective,” Nate Ryan said on Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America. “The night before he won his first Cup championship, he went to a supermarket near the track in Homestead and helped out 100 needy families with gift cards through his foundation.

“He took the time out to do that on the eve of the most important race of his career.”

That trip to the supermarket was still on his mind after winning the Cup – not having been erased by an accomplishment that would overshadow almost every positive and negative occasion from the past year.

“I think what Joey Logano brings that is so difficult as an athlete is he has two personalities,” Jeff Burton said. “He has a personality when you put your helmet on: you have to be selfish, you have to be arrogant, you have to egotistical. You have to be all the things your Mom told you not to be. When you take that helmet off, you have to be this.

“When you see him and his wife Brittany and you see them at those events, you can look in their eyes. They’re not doing it because there’s a camera there; they are doing it because they want to do it.”

For more, watch the video above.

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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.

Bump & Run panel selects superlatives of 2018 season

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Who is your driver of the year?

Nate Ryan: Kevin Harvick. It was his year in every way but the championship.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. While he won the same number of races (eight) as Kevin Harvick and had one less top five and top 10 than Harvick, the difference is that Busch won the Coca-Cola 600 of the sport’s four majors (Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400) and Harvick won none this year.

Daniel McFadin: Brett Moffitt. It’s hard not to choose the driver who piloted an underfunded team – that had never won in the Truck Series before 2018 – through sponsor struggles and bested the elite teams in the series to claim the title. All 13 of his top-10 finishes were top fives. Also, he did it with a rad mustache.

Dan Beaver: Joey Logano was one of the few drivers able to stand up to the Big 3 on and off the track. Throughout the season, the other contenders seemed comfortable in their role as challengers to the dominators, but by declaring himself the favorite for the championship and backing it up, Logano set himself apart.

What is your race of the year?

Nate Ryan: Chicagoland. Probably the best finish of the season but also the most start-to-finish compelling action. (Honorable mentions: Daytona 500, Watkins Glen, Roval, Homestead-Miami Speedway.)

Dustin Long: The Roval. The final laps of that race were amazing and the last lap was mesmerizing with the contact between Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. allowing Ryan Blaney to win and then Kyle Larson’s dramatic effort by bouncing off the wall twice to beat Jeffrey Earnhardt’s stalled car to the finish line to gain the spot he needed to advance to the next round of the playoffs.

Daniel McFadin: The Cup race on the Charlotte Roval. It lived up to all the hype in a way a NASCAR race hasn’t (excluding the first Truck race at Eldora) since probably the 2011 finale with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. The last lap had everything — the contact and spins by Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney stealing the win, Aric Almirola passing enough cars to advance to the next round on a tiebreaker and finally Kyle Larson somehow willing his demolished No. 42 Chevrolet across the finish line and into the Round of 12 after hitting the wall twice coming to the checkered flag.

Dan Beaver: Chicagoland. The level of physical aggression in the closing laps on the 1.5-mile track may well signal a change in how races on intermediate speedways will be contested in 2019.

What is your moment of the year?

Nate Ryan: The last lap of the Roval and its aftermath, which took several minutes for a full processing of everything that had just occurred and why.

Dustin Long: A number of fans booed Kyle Busch during his winner’s interview after his dramatic last-lap duel with Kyle Larson at Chicagoland Speedway. As the booing persisted, Busch told fans: “I don’t know what you all are whining about, but if you don’t like that kind of racing, don’t even watch.” As fans want drivers to show more personality, they got it there with Busch telling off the haters.

Daniel McFadin: Ross Chastain earning his first career Xfinity win at Las Vegas. The series got a much-needed shot in the arm two weeks before when he led 90 laps at Darlington in his debut with Chip Ganassi Racing but came up short after his run-in with Kevin Harvick. Chastain sealing the deal in Vegas provided a win for a sport that’s seen it become harder and harder for drivers to advance through the ranks on pure talent without thorough sponsor backing.

Dan Beaver: The ringing of the siren in Dawsonville, Georgia on August 5 following Chase Elliott’s Watkins Glen win. While it’s been rung before for Chase Elliott, this was the first time of many that it rang for a Cup victory. It took quite a while in 2018 for the young guns to make some noise, but they closed the season strong.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Miami

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Here is who NBC’s writers think will win today’s race at Miami (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch wins the race and the championship.

Nate Ryan

Denny Hamlin continues his streak of seasons with at least one victory; Kevin Harvick wins the title.

Daniel McFadin

Erik Jones wins the race, but Martin Truex Jr. claims the title.

Dan Beaver

Joey Logano was my dark horse pick prior to practice, but the speed he showed on Saturday has made him a favorite.

Bump & Run: Should Kyle Busch have let Aric Almirola by at Phoenix?

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Should Kyle Busch have allowed Aric Almriola to pass him for the lead late in Sunday’s race so that Almirola could have possibly won and bumped Kevin Harvick from the Championship 4 field?

Nate Ryan: This would be a much tougher question if there had been only a few laps remaining, but with 12 laps left, Almirola almost certainly wouldn’t have held on for the victory (as Adam Stevens, Busch’s crew chief, noted afterward). It still raises an intriguing ethical conundrum about the playoff structure, and it was telling that Busch said on the NBCSN postrace show that the thought had crossed his mind. That might have been surprisingly for a star who is as driven to win as anyone currently in NASCAR, but letting Almirola go might have been the smarter play with the restart had it occurred with two laps to go.

Dustin Long: I wouldn’t do it in any circumstance. Not because of ethics or anything like that, but who is to say you aren’t helping the driver that beats you the next week? Sure, Kyle Busch likely would be a favorite over Aric Almirola but Almirola would have the full backing of Stewart-Haas Racing for that race and that team has been strong. Trying to do something like that often backfires in ways one can’t see at the time. Just race.

Daniel McFadin: No. That’s not in Kyle Busch’s DNA and it would just lead to a week of people complaining about Busch not racing at 100 percent and who wants that?

Dan Beaver: Absolutely not. NASCAR has big enough issues with mid-week penalties and the perception outside the sport that cheating is endemic without adding manufactured finishes.

Which is more surprising: William Byron has led more laps this season than Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson is winless this season or Matt Kenseth scored his first top 10 of the season Sunday in his 14th start for Roush Fenway Racing.

Nate Ryan: Johnson’s disappointing season still surprises, and it’ll still seem just as unfathomable that the season finale will end Sunday with either Johnson or Denny Hamlin – and very likely both – winless during a full season for the first time in their Cup careers.

Dustin Long: All of them are shocking but will have to admit I didn’t see Kyle Larson going winless, especially with how close he came early in the year to winning. 

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson not having a win. It’s almost unfathomable that he’s finished in the top two six times this season and led 737 laps and not been to Victory Lane. 

Dan Beaver: Kyle Larson’s winless streak. He seemed so dominant on 2-mile tracks in 2017 and was improving across the board. He ran well in a number of races this year and should have been able to capitalize on a mistake by the Big 3 at some point during the year.

Toyota is the only manufacturer with drivers in each of the three championship races this week: Noah Gragson and Brett Moffitt in Trucks, Christopher Bell in Xfinity and Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in Cup. What odds do you give Toyota of sweeping all three driver titles?

Nate Ryan: With 42 percent of the aggregate championship field, let’s call it slightly less than 50-50. Though TRD has the fewest number of entries in Xfinity, I think that might be the manufacturer’s best shot at the championship.

Dustin Long: I agree with Nate in that Christopher Bell is the favorite in the Xfinity Series. I think it could be tough for the Toyotas to beat the Fords in the Cup race. Still, I give Toyota about a 40 percent chance of winning all three driver titles this weekend.

Daniel McFadin: I’ll put it at 50 percent. If Brett Moffitt doesn’t win in Trucks, it’ll probably be Johnny Sauter. Even though there’s two Toyotas in that series, I think they’re at a bigger disadvantage there.

Dan Beaver: Fairly high: 80%. Gragson and Bell have been dominant at times in their respective series. Busch is going to have a spirited battle with Kevin Harvick that will ultimately come down to track position on the final stop.