AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In this topsy-turvy second season of NASCAR’s new championship format, it was only fitting that the race to set the final four ended in an empty, unsatisfying way.
A rain delay of nearly seven hours Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway turned the final elimination race of the playoffs into a water-logged nightmare. There was no frantic jockeying for the final three slots in the title-deciding finale, no opportunity for Joey Logano or Kurt Busch or Carl Edwards to flex any muscle in a push for the checkered flag.
Yet another burst of rain forced NASCAR to call the event 93 laps from the finish and everyone — the drivers, the fans, NASCAR itself — was denied the opportunity to see how it might have played out.
It was, with no disrespect to chairman Brian France, quintessential NASCAR.
It was France who made “quintessential” the buzz word of this Chase when he deemed Logano did exactly what he should have done when he spun Matt Kenseth as the two raced for a critical playoff victory last month. But the way this Chase has gone, Phoenix was the most perfect embodiment of NASCAR these days.
It rained all day. In Arizona. Grandstands that sold out weeks ago went half-full, and the devoted spectators wearing ponchos and garbage bags and trying so hard to stay entertained on a gray day got no reward for their dedication.
NASCAR didn’t have a ton of flexibility. It was late, fans had been tested, teams needed to get back to North Carolina to prepare for a quick turnaround this week to Miami. The rain that fell on the speedway was going to last a good while, and drying the track would take several hours.
So NASCAR finally called it a day. Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the win because he happened to be out front during a lengthy caution right before the rain. The three drivers who earned spots alongside Jeff Gordon in the championship race were reigning Sprint Cup champ Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
One can’t help but wonder, though, what might have happened if NASCAR brought everyone back Monday morning to finish the race.
Would Logano, one of the best in the business on restarts, been able to get past Earnhardt and Harvick to win the race? Would Edwards have closed the small gap in points to bump Truex from the final four? Would Kurt Busch have recovered from a race-starting penalty to earn the win?
Any and all of that was possible, but we’ll never know.
In this season of changing rules packages, an on-track product that was mostly uninspiring, rain-ruined races from Daytona to Richmond to Charlotte to Phoenix, and a strange Chase that has earned NASCAR heavy criticism for inconsistency, we really shouldn’t have expected anything more.
This was the year that Kurt Busch got a waiver to race for the title even though he was suspended for the first three races of the year for allegedly committing an act of domestic violence. And his younger brother, Kyle, got a waiver because NASCAR felt terrible about the crash at Daytona that sidelined him 11 races with a broken leg and broken foot.
The Chase itself opened with Harvick thumping one-time friend Jimmie Johnson — the guy who helped him win the title last year — in the chest over contact on the track. Then Harvick ran out of gas while leading the next week at New Hampshire to create a must-win situation in the first elimination race.
When Harvick did win Dover, and damaged his car during the celebration, his competitors cried foul and said he did it on purpose to prevent NASCAR from conducting a thorough post-race inspection.
Then came a rainout at Charlotte and a bizarre Sunday race in which contender after contender had some sort of issue. That put Matt Kenseth on the ropes, and he tried to race his way off of them the next week at Kansas. But Logano spun him and Kenseth fumed as his championship chances slipped away.
The next race, at Talladega, was highly controversial. First NASCAR changed the rule about how it would finish the race if a late caution came out, and it was of course chaotic when the first attempt at the final restart was waived off because of a crash.
Earnhardt was trying to stave off elimination with a win, but when Harvick refused to cede position as his engine failed, he triggered a race-ending accident that bounced NASCAR’s most popular driver from the playoffs. Drivers again claimed Harvick wasn’t on the up-and-up, but NASCAR found no proof that Harvick deliberately caused a crash to protect his position.
Harvick has said he did what he had to do.
Then came Martinsville, where everything was turned upside down. Logano should have won that day to earn his spot in the finale. But Kenseth wouldn’t have it and deliberately crashed him, an act that led to a two-race suspension.
The penalty was unprecedented but NASCAR said Kenseth was out of bounds for manipulating the championship race. Kenseth maintained that like Harvick, he did what he had to do, and that France himself encouraged the retaliation by rubber-stamping Logano’s move at Kansas as “quintessential NASCAR.”
As fans cried foul over inconsistency — a refrain that continued Sunday at Phoenix when Kurt Busch was flagged for jumping the start of the race — many drivers wondered how rules and code and respect had become so blurred.
France says nothing is blurred, that everything is simple to understand. But when a pivotal race that decides the championship field isn’t run to completion, it’s hard to see clearly through the clouds.