A year defined by chaotic-looking restarts at intermediate tracks ended with the longest green-flag run to end a race at Homestead-Miami Speedway since 2012.
Kyle Busch’s second championship came in a fashion we haven’t seen since NASCAR instituted a winner-take-all season finale in 2014. Busch led 85 of the final 98 laps of the race as the last 101 laps of the 267-lap affair didn’t have a caution flag.
Before Sunday night, the longest green-flag run to end a race at Homestead in the five previous winner-take-all races was 34 laps. That happened in 2017, when Martin Truex Jr. held off Busch to win his first title.
The length of the race to the finish in the other four races? Three laps (2014), seven laps (2015), two laps (2016) and 15 laps (2018).
Because of all those late cautions — which have come for different reasons like crashes or debris on track — you probably found yourself watching the race and wondering just when a caution flag would fly to set up a late-race restart in the final 30some laps. The possibility was in Busch’s head as he was way ahead of everyone else.
“The caution, yeah, that always crosses your mind,” Busch said. “So like as the run was going, I kept thinking in my mind, I'm like, okay, that's five laps in, that's 10 laps in, how is my car feeling, how is it driving. Because as soon as that caution would have flown, I would have been right on the radio talking to [crew chief Adam Stevens], like, okay, this is what I need because I need to be better on fire‑off here, here, whatever, in determining how many laps were left and what the restart was going to be.”
The possibility never materialized, ironically enough.
NASCAR added downforce and cut horsepower on Cup Series cars ahead of the 2019 season in an attempt to make the cars run closer together on intermediate tracks like Homestead. While the racing didn’t change much visually than it was in 2018 as drivers got spread out over a long green-flag run thanks to the unintended consequence of dirty air from the massive spoilers on the back of the cars, restarts at bigger tracks looked dramatically different.
Drivers were consistently able to run three and sometimes four-wide in the immediate laps after restarts thanks to all that downforce as they gained speed. They looked cool and chaotic as drivers tried to push past each other and gain track position while they could.
A late restart on Sunday would have likely looked extremely cool and chaotic. And, perhaps, resulted in a sequel to the crash that took out Joey Logano and Carl Edwards in 2016. Just think of the highlights that could be played over and over again throughout the offseason.
Instead, Busch won by 4.5 seconds after leading by as much as 10 seconds over Truex after the race’s final green-flag pit stops. While the race may not have been as climactic as it could have been with a caution, it was a fair and straightforward way for it to play out barring a crash or sizeable piece of debris worthy of a caution flag. Busch had the race’s fastest car in the final stage. He and his team earned the right to make the finish relatively dull.
Could NASCAR make short track rules changes in 2020?
In an article announcing NASCAR’s minimal rules changes for the 2020 season on Oct. 1, the article announcing the changes on NASCAR’s own website said “officials indicated the rules tweaks should not impact on-track competition.”
That might have been a premature statement.
The 2019 rules changes that — to some — improved racing at intermediate tracks indisputably hurt the racing at short tracks. That was evident at Martinsville and Phoenix over the final month of the season (and after that NASCAR news release) where Truex Jr. was impossible to pass at the front of the field at the half-mile track and the Phoenix finale of the third round featured a grand total of three on-track green flag lead changes that all came within three laps of a restart.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps said in his opening statement at a news conference Sunday morning that he thought NASCAR needed to work with tire supplier Goodyear and its teams to improve short track racing in 2020. He, however, declined to provide specifics as to what some of those changes could be.
“I am confident, having spoken to people who are far smarter than I am in this space, that there are things we can do,” Phelps said. “And I think our teams are excited about trying to partner with us to figure out what that looks like.”
While Phelps didn’t provide much in the way of details, he did leave open the possibility that NASCAR could cut downforce at short tracks. That could effectively reverse the changes the sanctioning body made ahead of the 2019 season.
“Yes, could we go to something that is a lower downforce package and do we think that will probably be one of the answers that we could look at to be successful on the short tracks? Yes,” Phelps said. “Whether it's cutting off the spoiler, other opportunities for us to take some of the downforce off there, those are things that we'll explore. No specific timing.”
Given NASCAR’s tendency for North Korea-like boasts and propaganda when it comes to the changes it made to the cars in 2019, Phelps’ Sunday comments are certainly noteworthy. And they’ll be much stronger if NASCAR makes significant changes ahead of 2020. Especially considering that Homestead is getting replaced by Phoenix as the site of the final race.
Pour one out for Homestead
This one is short and sweet. Homestead is the perfect spot for NASCAR’s title races given the dominance of intermediate tracks on the schedules of its top three series.
The track has multiple grooves and those grooves were all on display during Saturday’s fantastic Xfinity Series finale won by Tyler Reddick. If you’re looking for a fair championship test, you can’t look any further than Homestead.
Phoenix is ... unique. Which doesn’t exactly make it a fair test considering it has no other comp on the NASCAR schedule. We’ll see next year if it can live up to the standard Homestead has set for so many years.
Goodbye, Paul Menard and David Ragan
Both Paul Menard and David Ragan made what are likely the final Cup Series starts of their career on Sunday. Menard finished 17th while Ragan finished 27th.
The Wood Brothers have already secured Menard’s replacement in the No. 21 car in Matt DiBenedetto. He’s moving over from Leavine Family Racing because of Christopher Bell’s arrival. Ragan’s replacement hasn’t been named yet. Front Row Racing is in the market for two drivers and maybe even three if Michael McDowell doesn’t return to the team in 2020.
Menard and Ragan have been mainstays in the Cup Series since 2007. That year was the first full-time season for both drivers. Over the course of 930 Cup Series starts in that span they combined for three wins and 109 top 10s.
Should a driver make his debut in the final race?
Drew Herring finished 29th in the Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota on Sunday. It was an inauspicious start. That’s perfectly fine when you’re making your first Cup Series start. And good for the Toyota test driver for getting that opportunity after Parker Kligerman — the normal driver for the part-time team — was unavailable. If someone offers you a Cup Series ride, you take it.
But it’s fair to wonder if anyone, whether it’s Herring, Christopher Bell or even the clone of Dale Earnhardt should be making his first series start in the final race of the season in NASCAR’s winner-take-all playoff format. If NASCAR can limit drivers under the age of 18 from running at bigger tracks in the Truck Series, shouldn’t it also make a similar rule regarding series debuts in the final race?
Drivers making their first starts in the final race of the season is nothing new in NASCAR. Jeff Gordon famously made his first start in the legendary 1992 season finale. That’s nowhere close to being comparable to today’s NASCAR. The 1992 finale is so iconic because the championship was decided in the final race of a 29-race season where each race counted equally. The finale that season was effectively worth 1/29th of the season for Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki. The four drivers that race for the championship in each of NASCAR’s top three series now have just one race to make their title dreams happen.
NASCAR’s current playoff format is designed for drama by the simple nature of its small sample size and there are a ton of variables both big and small that can derail a team’s championship chances over the course of an evening. Limiting new drivers is an easy way to minimize any added variables. And NASCAR has seen new drivers have impact late in the playoffs over the last few years, even if Herring is the first driver in NASCAR’s current playoff format to make his Cup Series debut in the final race of the season.
The impact that a new driver can have late in the playoffs was on display last year in the Cup Series playoffs. Tanner Berryhill made his first career Cup start for the now-defunct Obaika Racing team in the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix. He caused two cautions, including one for a spin with less than 18 laps to go. You might have forgotten about it because Busch led the final 36 laps of that race.
In another more remarkable stat, the last caution for a spin or crash in a Truck Series race at Homestead came courtesy of a driver making his first series start. Patrick Starapoli caused three cautions in the 2016 season finale, including one that set up a restart with 20 laps to go.
What’s the good argument against NASCAR preventing similar situations going forward? There’s no ill-effects if NASCAR prevented new drivers or teams from making their first starts in a top-three series in the final four races of the season. As long as the rule was implemented ahead of the season, teams with long-term plans would have ample opportunity to enter the series of their choice at an earlier date.
It’s a rule that has no downside if implemented. And should be implemented before a playoff driver feels the negative impacts of a new driver. There’s a non-zero chance a rule like this would already be in place if Starapoli or Berryhill’s cautions had outsized playoff impact.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports
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