Watching the Cup finale was like watching most Nationwide races. Few of the participants actually matter. You have your winner, you have those who actually are competing for the prize, and then you have the odd spectacular, special moment. Sunday’s race marked the end of ESPN’s run, which meant no more Allen, no more Dale, no more Andy, no more Rusty, no more Brad, and no more Nicole. A special moment, indeed.
It could have been a special season for Jeff Gordon. He was best overall this year, just as he was the dominate wheel man for more than half the laps at Homestead. But it is no longer 2001, and at the end of the day he was 10th on the track and sixth in the official standings. In the old days only Joey Logano would have had a chance to catch Gordon in the final race. As pure a way of determining a champion it might have been, those days are gone forever.
Logano’s day wound up being the pits. With 74 to go, he was riding fifth when they took time under caution to do a few repairs that dropped him to tenth. With 47 to go, he had worked his way back to fourth when he returned to the pits under caution, but a hung lug nut left him 11th on departure. No problem, if not for the pits. Another caution, another stop, another miscue as a dropped jack dropped Logano from sixth to 20th with 20 to go. Game, set, and match, as he finished 16th.
Things seemed to be about to go Denny Hamlin’s way. They had the pit strategy, if only they could go green. They did not. The cautions allowed those with fresher tires to move past, and his title hopes went up in smoke over the final laps. Hamlin wound up seventh.
That left two at the front. Ryan Newman had been the weak sister amongst the contenders for much of the race, but pit strategy gained them track position. The car was the best it was all night but only one problem remained.
His name was Kevin Harvick. On the final restart, Harvick once again separated himself from the field, leaving Newman staring at a back bumper. The best finisher amongst the four would win the title, and you cannot do much better than winning the race to erase all doubt.
Once we had a points system that rewarded consistency at the expense of wins over the course of a season. Then we got a 10 race playoff where only the top 10, or 12, or 13 were eligible for the crown after the initial 26 events. Now, we have a system where a win gets you into the Top 16 vying for the title in those final 10 races, where every three events they eliminate four contenders until you wind up with the best among the final four on the final day winning the title while racing 39 non-contenders.
The records show that Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt won seven titles each using the original system, Jimmie Johnson won six through the Chase, and Kevin Harvick is the 2014 Cup champion through the elimination series. Each champion just as valid as the man who preceded him.