There were six major storylines overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s drive for a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship and the trouble by nearest challenger Matt Kenseth this past weekend at Phoenix.
Johnson’s bid to close within one title of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt on the all-time NASCAR list is certainly the biggest news from Phoenix. However, there are other stories which are worthy of headlines.
No. 1 —Matt Crafton is only ONE race away from his first major NASCAR championship. Crafton, driver of the No. 88 Toyota, just has to start the Camping World Truck Series finale at Homestead and he will clinch the series title.
The 37-year-old California driver hasn’t been flashy, instead using the Kenseth model of consistency to pull away from Ty Dillon. Crafton has just one win, but 19 top-10 finishes in 21 races this season. Dillon has two wins, coming at the high-speed tracks of Kentucky and Atlanta, but he has just a dozen top-10 finishes in those races.
No. 2 — There are TWO times in recent memory when fuel mileage in a Chase race spoiled a great day for Carl Edwards.
The first time was the 2011 Chase opener at Chicagoland when Tony Stewart won the race as several cars ran out of fuel at the end. While Edwards was a solid fourth that day, the momentum of that victory set Stewart’s struggling team on course to have the greatest Chase run ever. Stewart won five of the 10 Chase races and won a tiebreaker over Edwards for the series title.
Edwards was on pace to win Sunday’s race, far enough ahead of second-place Kevin Harvick where a last-lap pass shouldn’t have been in question. However, Edwards’ No. 99 Ford ran out of fuel coming to the white flag and he ultimately ended up with a 21st place finish.
No. 3 —Austin Dillon, in the black No. 3 Chevrolet, is in the driver’s seat for the Nationwide Series championship heading into Homestead.
Dillon, the 2011 Truck Series champion, holds an eight-point lead over three-time Indy Car champion Sam Hornish Jr. heading into the final race. The number three keeps popping up as Dillon used a third-place finish at Phoenix for his points advantage.
If he can hold on to the title, he will become the first driver since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1999 to win a Nationwide title in a No. 3 Chevrolet. He can become the third driver for his grandfather’s team, Richard Childress Racing, to win a Nationwide Series title, joining Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. He is already the third driver in a black No. 3 to win a major NASCAR championship for RCR, joining seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. and former Truck Series champion Mike Skinner.
No. 4 —Harvick has FOUR wins this season, following his fuel-stretching run at Phoenix. It’s an amazing statistic considering Harvick is entering his final race at Richard Childress Racing before heading to Stewart-Haas Racing next season.
Combine that with the controversy in recent weeks of Harvick’s criticism of Austin and Ty Dillon, when he called them “spoiled rich kids.” It led Childress to come to his grandsons’ defense. You wouldn’t have guessed there was any kind of dysfunction on Sunday after seeing the pictures of Harvick and Childress celebrating with the rest of the No. 29 Chevrolet crew in victory lane.
This season is already Harvick’s second-best as far as win total, and he’s also in position to have the best points finish of his career.
No. 5 —Dale Earnhardt Jr. has FIVE second-place finishes this season, and is in the top-five of points heading into the series finale.
If he can maintain or better his points standing, it will be Earnhardt’s first top-five finish since 2006. Earnhardt has 21 top-10 finishes this season, tying his career-bests from the 2003 and ‘04 seasons. This will mark his 14th full season in the Cup Series, highlighted by 19 wins and 13 pole positions. Since engine trouble resulted in a 35th-place finish at the Chase opener in Chicagoland, Earnhardt has averaged a fifth-place finish in the eight races since. Other than Chicagoland, he has finished on the lead lap at every race since Bristol in August.
No. 6 —SIX points separate Kenseth from Harvick for the runner-up spot in the Sprint Cup standings.
Understandably, most of the attention will be on Johnson, who needs a finish of 22nd or better to clinch the series championship regardless of what Kenseth does.
However, it could be a real battle for second place judging by the drivers’ history at Homestead. Harvick has 10 top-10 finishes in a dozen starts at the 1.5-mile Florida track compared to five top-10s in 13 races for Kenseth. While Kenseth does have one win at Homestead, his average finish of 17.6 is nearly 10 positions behind the average finish for Harvick.
Bristol Motor Speedway General Manager Jerry Caldwell released a statement of well wishes to Trevor Bayne following Wednesday’s announcement the driver of the No. 6 Nationwide Series Ford has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
“The BMS family sends its thoughts and prayers to Trevor, his family, and the entire Roush Fenway team as they move forward,” Caldwell said. “We admire Trevor for his courage both on and off the track and are confident the same unfailing determination and positive attitude that bring him success as a racer will carry him through this latest challenge. We wish him continued success and look forward to his 2014 return to Bristol.”
Bayne, currently sixth in the Nationwide Series point standings, showed his courage when asked if there were concerns about his career. The 22-year-old from Knoxville is well known for his faith and positive attitude.
“For me, I don’t have concerns about that. I feel like I can continue on with my job without any differences” he said. “My competitive nature is still exactly the same as it has always been since I started racing when I was five years old. I want to go win races and go win championships and contend at the highest level. To me, there’s nothing that has changed for me in my physical world, so I’m able to go on.”
Volunteer Speedway recently tallied up its points for the 2013 season and Tim Byrd of Jonesborough won his first ever track championship in the Pro Late Model division.
Byrd ended 38 points ahead of 2009 track champion Jerry Broyles, also of Jonesborough. John Tweed of Greeneville was third, with Johnson City drivers Tim Maupin and Dale Ball rounding out the top five.
With his title, Byrd joined his father Charles as champions at the Bulls Gap dirt track. Byrd joined Ball, a five-time Volunteer champion, and the son of legendary dirt track racer Walter Ball, as father-son combinations to win Late Model championships at Volunteer.
Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org