Monday, November 20, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Truex and The Format

"Death, taxes and Rob Huff winning at Macau" proved to be a true statement this weekend. There were two other memorable races at Macau but both came with a costly bill in crash damage. There were three new NASCAR champions crowned this weekend and two first-time winners. Porsche said goodbye to LMP1. A Senna, a Lauda and a Fittipaldi all won championships this weekend. And apparently the TCR International Series ended its season this weekend, a week earlier than announced and at a different track but in the same country as the original finale. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Truex and The Format
I missed Martin Truex, Jr.'s first career NASCAR Grand National Series at Bristol. Though it was 2004, I didn't find out he won the race until the next morning in the Sunday paper only five minutes before we had to be in the car for church. That doesn't seem possible in 2017 and thirteen years ago I had Internet but it was dial up and it would take 15-30 minutes on a good day. There was always the bottom ticker on ESPN, there was even SPEED with Speed News or The Speed Report or whatever the network called its wrap up show but for some reason it slipped through the cracks and I found out about the victory in ink.

Growing up in New Jersey, there weren't many big name race car drivers to follow and Truex, Jr., was the first (and so far only) local driver I got to follow on a major, national stage. I always felt New Jersey was too small for motorsports. I got into motorsports about ten years too late in Flemington, New Jersey. The semi-famous Flemington Speedway had been shut down for a handful of years by that time but even the sight of a broken down, overgrown grandstand would capture my attention anytime I was in the backseat and my parents were driving on Route 31. I never recall going to the track for a race. I never knew the Truck series went there until it was too late. Every time we drove by I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be there on a Saturday night.

While I stared into an abandoned facility and tried to connect with the past, in the present New Jersey had a rising star. Truex, Jr., would win the then-Busch Series and in somewhat convincing fashion. The following year he successfully defended his title and with a move to Cup set for 2006 the hope was he could be one of NASCAR's best. Unfortunately, that didn't happen right away.

He got to Dale Earnhardt, Inc. at the wrong time. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Teresa Earnhardt feuded and the team fell apart. Earnhardt, Jr., was soon out the door and on his way to Hendrick Motorsports. Truex, Jr., was stuck and had to make the best of a terrible situation. He picked up his first career victory on a Monday at Dover but it appeared that was going to be it. He got out when he first could and went to Michael Waltrip Racing, which was closer to the sharp end of the grid but still far away.

It took a while for it to click but over six years after he won at Dover, his second career victory came at Sonoma and he seemed set to make the Chase and possibly make a title run. Then came the infamous Richmond race where Clint Bowyer spun on purpose, which led to the whole team being punished. Both Bowyer and Truex, Jr., were docked points but while Bowyer got to fight for a title, Truex, Jr., had been knocked out. To add insult to injury, NAPA Auto Parts pulled its sponsorship of the team prior to the 2014 season and despite doing nothing wrong, Truex, Jr., was out of a ride.

Furniture Row Racing was a life preserver. The team was getting better when Truex, Jr., arrived there but he was back to square one. The team had finished tenth in the championship the year prior with Kurt Busch but that next step wasn't going to come easy. His first race with the team ended with a 43rd-place finish in the Daytona 500. He wouldn't get a top ten finish until the ninth race at Richmond. He wouldn't get a top five until the 30th race at Kansas. Truex, Jr., finished 24th in the championship, his worst position since becoming a full-time driver.

The last three years have been some kind of ascendance for Truex, Jr., and Furniture Row Racing. The team was consistent from out of the gate in 2015. He got a victory at Pocono and made the Chase and he was a surprise finalist for the championship at Homestead that year but he was the fourth best of the final four. Despite the team's championship run, it switched from Chevrolet to Toyota and while a decade earlier Truex, Jr., got to DEI at the wrong time, Furniture Row Racing's manufacture switch proved to be right on the money. He finished second in the Daytona 500 in a photo finish with Denny Hamlin and he continued his consistent ways. He dominated the Coca-Cola 600 and won the Southern 500 then won at Chicagoland and Dover. Unfortunately, his title hopes ended after an early engine failure at Talladega.

In 2017, no one deserved the Cup title more than Martin Truex, Jr. The man was head and shoulders above the competition and it is a shame the format nearly prevented this historic season from being rightly awarded. The man won eight races, most for a champion since Jimmie Johnson won ten races in 2007 and he had 19 top five finishes, the most for a champion since Johnson's 20 top five finishes in 2007. He had 26 top ten finishes, the most for a champion since Dale Jarrett's 29 in 1999. He ended the season with nine top five finishes in the final ten races. He should have clinched the championship at Texas and we should have a two-week coronation ceremony where he tried to win races with beer sweats.

In NASCAR's attempt to be other sports, it has allowed for great seasons to be devalued based on the results of one race. I understand the urgency to have the championship go to the wire but to decide the champion by separating it from the results of the first 35 races should not be the way to do it. NASCAR abuses the reset button. The Chase format makes sure everyone remains about equal the deeper we get into autumn, from the driver who has won a half-dozen races to the driver who hasn't won all season to the driver who won once and had four top ten finishes the rest of the season. It has given drivers second and third chances at a championship when they should have been eliminated weeks prior.

Truex, Jr.'s championship would have been as well received had he locked it up at Texas. The man and the entire Furniture Row Racing team became darlings of NASCAR by dominating races and fans respected what the team from Colorado had achieved. The results at Homestead were more a sigh of relief that the best driver got the championship and some fluke engine failure or spinning back marker didn't take it away from Truex, Jr.

I am puzzled where Truex, Jr., stands in NASCAR history. Maybe I am thinking about this too much because of the departure of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Four years ago, it was hard to see Truex, Jr., ever becoming a Cup series champion. When he joined Furniture Row Racing his best championship result was 11th. He had two victories in 297 Cup starts. He seemed more likely to fall in a group with the likes of Johnny Benson and Steve Park than be heralded in a group with the likes of the Labonte brothers and Matt Kenseth. How things can change in three years.

Truex, Jr., will likely not end his career with records that rival most of his contemporary champions but very few will come close to matching the level of joy Truex, Jr.'s title brought to everyone who follows.

Champions From the Weekend
You know about Martin Truex, Jr., but did you know...

Bruno Senna and Julien Canal clinched the FIA Endurance Trophy for LMP2 drivers as they and #31 Vaillante Rebellion Racing Oreca co-driver Nicolas Prost took the class victory in the 6 Hours of Bahrain.

The #71 AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and Alessanrdo Pier Guidi clinched the GT World Endurance Drivers' championship with a second-place finish at Bahrain.

The #98 Aston Martin of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda clinched the FIA Endurance Trophy for GTE-Am with a class victory at Bahrain.

William Byron won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship with a third-place finish at Homestead.

Christopher Bell won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship with a second-place finish at Homestead.

Pietro Fittipaldi clinched the World Series Formula V8 3.5 championship with a pair of second-place finishes at Bahrain.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Martin Truex, Jr., and a handful of class victories from Bahrain but did you know...

The #8 Toyota of Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Anthony Davidson won the 6 Hours of Bahrain overall. The #71 AF Corse Ferrari of Davide Rigon and Sam Bird won in GTE-Pro.

Dan Ticktum won the Macau Grand Prix after Sérgio Sette Câmara and Ferdinand Habsburg both hit the barrier in the final corner on the last lap of the race.

Edoardo Mortara won the FIA GT World Cup in the #48 Mercedes-AMG for the Mercedes-AMG Team Driver Academy.

Mehdi Bennani and Rob Huff split the WTCC races at Macau. It was Rob Huff's ninth victory at Macau and he has won driving for five different manufactures (Chevrolet, SEAT, Lada, Honda and Citroën).

Cole Custer won the NASCAR Grand National Series race at Homestead. Chase Briscoe won the Truck race.

Pepe Oriola and Stefano Comini split the TCR International Series races from Dubai.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Formula One finale at Abu Dhabi.
Formula Two and the GP3 Series also conclude their respective 2017 seasons at Abu Dhabi.