Islam Makhachev out of UFC Vegas 14 Main Event

UFC Vegas 14 has lost it’s main event. Tonight it was announced that Islam Makhachev was forced to withdrawal from next week’s main event against Rafael Dos Anjos. The news was first reported by ESPN’s Brett Okamoto.

This fight was originally supposed to take place at UFC 254. However, due to RDA testing positive for COVID-19, the fight was moved to next weekend where it was going to headline. Now, the promotion is forced to scramble.

UFC Vegas 14 was not the strongest card on paper. It’s not an easy card to just slide the co-main event into the main event slot. However, the promotion does have options. ESPN is reporting that the UFC is trying to find a replacement opponent to keep Dos Anjos in the main event.

This is a tough break for fight fans who were excited to see Makhachev fight a guy like Dos Anjos. The former UFC lightweight champion has already been campaigning for his new opponent. He seems interested in fighting Michael Chandler.

What will the UFC do?

As you can see, RDA is very interested in having the UFC book him against Michael Chandler. However, I don’t think the promotion will make that happen. Many wanted to have Chandler face Makhachev after RDA fell out, but the promotion has different plans for Chandler.

That being said, I’m not sure who the UFC will try to pair up with Dos Anjos. They will likely look at fighters who compete at lightweight and welterweight for this main event slot. However, it’s going to be difficult to get a big name with just six days notice.

We will continue to monitor what the UFC is planning on doing with the main event next week. This is a really tough blow for both guys and for fans who were excited to see the matchup. I’m sure the promotion is going to be working very quickly to get a new opponent for RDA.

Chase Elliott comes from behind to win 2020 NASCAR Cup Series title

Forced to start from the rear after pre-race inspection issues, Chase Elliott came front behind to earn his first Cup Series title at 24.

As one NASCAR legend ended on Sunday afternoon, another one may have started to write its first chapters.

Chase Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, took home his first NASCAR Cup Series title at Phoenix Raceway through his victory in the Season Finale 500. Elliott, 24, is the third-youngest driver in NASCAR history to win a Cup title, behind only Bill Rexford (1950) and Jeff Gordon (1995). He also joins his father Bill (1988) as the third father-son duo to earn a series title joining the Pettys (Lee and Richard) and the Jarretts (Ned and Dale)

His victory also comes in the final race of Jimmie Johnson’s full-time NASCAR career. Elliott’s teammate and the winner of a record-tying seven Cup Series championships has driven the No. 48 Chevrolet since 2002, missing only one race since the start of that season.

“This is a moment that, heck, I’ve only dreamt about, and something that, heck, I’m still not sure I completely realize what has exactly happened,” Elliott said of his historic victory. “I don’t feel like I’m a crier in these situations, but dang, I feel like there’s going to come a time where I’m probably going to break down and really lose it.  I feel like I kind of did there after the race, and then you get caught up in everything else that’s going on. I’m really looking forward to just kind of sitting back and looking at everything from a different perspective and just enjoying it.  But I’m also going to enjoy it as I’m living it because this is something that may not ever happen ever again, and I recognize that.”  

“It’s a moment and a time and an accomplishment that I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever take for granted. It’s a really big deal to me.

The two-time defending champion of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award, Elliott was able to reach the finale’s contending quartet through a dominant win last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. He was set to compete against previous Cup winners and Team Penske comrades Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, as well as perennial Joe Gibbs Racing contender Denny Hamlin.

But a major knock came before the tires ever hit the track when the No. 9 failed pre-race inspection twice in the lead-up to the event. The penalty sent Elliott to the rear of the field to start the race, forcing him to literally go from first to last. 

Elliott was able to work his way through the field, reaching the top-ten by the time a competition caution came out at lap 31 of 312. Ten laps later, he passed one of his fellow championship competitors for the first time when drove past Keselowski for fourth. He then bided his time while Logano dominated the early portions of the race, leading all but two of the first 117 laps.

I look at the guys who have achieved this honor as guys who perform in the toughest of situations. I felt like that’s been an area that we haven’t done a great job of over my first five years, really up until last week,” Elliott explained. “We had a tough situation, a perform-or-go-home type night there at Martinsville, and was able to step up and really get the job done. I thought that was the piece of the puzzle that we haven’t had. I really felt like we had everything else that we needed, and I really believed that.”

Lap 151 saw Elliott take the lead for the first time, but the party was briefly put on hold when the final incident-caution came out 13 laps later when James Davison got into the wall. Kurt Busch won the ensuing race off pit road when drivers came for service due to a far quicker two-tire pit stop, but Elliott immediately took advantage of a fresh four and engaged in a tight battle for the lead against Keselowski for the rest of the second stage. The battle ended with the conclusion with Keselowski on top of the 115-lap segment. But Elliott and company once against proved their mettle in a team sport.

The No. 9 team’s strong pit stop gave them the lead back to open the third and final stage, and only surrendered it when he had to make his final pit stop of the day under green flag conditions. Logano briefly got his lead back after stops cycled through, but Elliott made the final pass for the lead at lap 270, leading the final 43 laps to roll to victory. Keselowski beat out Logano for 2nd, while Hamlin came home fourth. Johnson rounded out the top five to conclude his NASCAR slate on a strong note.

“It was nice to be competitive out there and run the top five, finish in the top five, but my bucket is full. NASCAR has been so wonderful for me.  This journey has been more than I could have ever dreamed of or expected or hoped for.”

The last couple of years on track weren’t as I dreamed up, but I’ve experienced the highest of highs and worked with the greatest people, been with one team through this entire journey, and just very thankful for all the people that have helped me get here. All those emotions and all that pride rolled up into just a huge smile today walking out on the grid.”

After the race, several of Elliott’s competitors drove alongside him to send their congratulations. Johnson’s was extra special, leaving a “donut” on the side of Elliott’s No. 9. Neither driver remembered what they said to one another, recalling only Elliott’s joyous screams and a high-five they shared, one inspired by a similar situation in 2003. When Bill Elliott won the penultimate race of the season at Rockingham, he and crowned champion Matt Kenseth likewise shared a high-five while celebrating their respective victories, as Kenseth had clinched his Cup Series title that afternoon.

Once a celebratory Elliott returned to pit road, he shared a group hug with Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick before the celebration commenced. Many found the day as a symbolic passing of the torch from the point of view of HMS and the face of NASCAR. Each Hendrick Motorsports car saw their numbers revamped into the style of the neon yellow No. 48 that has been etched onto Johnson’s car since his Cup Series entry in 2002.

Elliott’s championship moment did appear to somewhat overshadow Johnson’s departure, but “Seven-Time” was perfectly fine with such proceedings.

Chase Elliott won his first championship.  I’m so happy for that guy.  Great friend, great family.  I’ve been friends with his mom and dad for a lot of years.  I can recall going snowboarding with Bill out in Colorado and Chase was maybe eight years old, something like that, on skis, super quiet, wouldn’t say much.”

“To watch him grow up and to be around him and to give him some advice from time to time has really been meaningful for me. Today I think more about him winning a championship more than anything is pretty awesome.”

Race Notes

  • Not only was this the final race for Johnson, but also for Kenseth and Clint Bowyer as well. Bowyer finished 14th in his final tour in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, while Kenseth finished 25th in his last race in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Rookie Chase Briscoe will take over Bowyer’s ride in 2021, while Ross Chastain will succeed Kenseth.

 

  • Sunday marked the first season finale race for Phoenix, which will likewise host the championship event in 2021. The finale was previously held at Homestead (2002-19).

 

  • Elliott’s title is the first one for a Chevrolet since Johnson won his seventh and final trophy in 2016. Ironically, Johnson had likewise come from the rear of the field to pull off the feat.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Islanders: Adam Pelech must be re-signed now

Adam Pelech, New York Islanders

The New York Islanders have to resign key players like Anthony Beauvillier and Adam Pelech next year. Adam Pelech must be resigned right now, and there’s no debate about it. The Islanders with Pelech is like Barry Bonds with steroids.

Already a great team made even better by an outside force that’s underappreciated. The Islanders were 25-10-3 when Adam Pelech was healthy. And the second Pelech tore his Achilles, the Islanders dropped basically every game. They went 10-13-7 and were going to miss the playoffs until COVID. Let’s see what his contract would look like.

Length

If the Islanders can sign Pelech long term, there is no way they won’t. But, the salary cap is tight on the Island, so this might end up being a bridge deal. For the sake of argument, I’m just going to say that he gets signed long term. Now, how many years does this contract entail? 6 years seems perfect for the poke check master. It’s not a short deal, and it isn’t the maximum amount. It gives flexibility for both sides if things go sour. Hopefully, it won’t. Pelech deserves some big money, but how much?

Money

This contract is not going to be cheap at all. Adam Pelech is a top 20 defenseman in the league to people who actually know Hockey. I would even go as far as saying he would be in the Norris trophy contention if the offensive game wasn’t so heavily praised in a defenseman. Adam Pelech should earn $6-6.5 million a year for his efforts. This is a pretty generous deal for the Islanders. Pelech will take a slight pay cut to stay on the Island and win here. It’s the same thing Ryan Pulock did. Pelech will take the pay cut so the Isles can resign Beauvillier and Casey Cizikas, and others. These players aren’t greedy, that’s why they’re here.

Report: New York Knicks could pursue Justin Holiday in free agency

New York Knicks, Justin Holiday

The rumor mill has undoubtedly been active for the New York Knicks this off-season, as they’ve been connected to star players like point guard Chris Paul. While the jury is still out on Paul and if he will join the Knicks, some lesser players add value to the rotation.

One player who has been connected to New York is Justin holiday, who previously played for the Indiana Pacers in 2019-20.

Holiday is a productive player who offers solid value offensively and can rotate efficiently.

Ian Begley of SNY reports that the Knicks could see Holiday as a potential target in free agency:

Some decision-makers see Holiday as a player worth pursuing in free agency, per SNY sources. Holiday, a 6-6 wing, played in New York in 2016-17. He’s also played for Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau in Chicago.

The 31-year-old would give New York a steadying, veteran presence in the locker room; he’s shown that he can impact winning on both ends of the floor.

Holiday will come at a relatively cheap price if the Knicks elect to pursue him in free agency. He earned just under $5 million for the 2019–20 season with the Pacers, but he will likely earn a bit less moving forward. The Knicks might be able to lock him in at $4 million, and he is still a productive scorer.

This past season, he averaged 8.3 points, 1.3 assists, and 3.2 total rebounds. He hit on .428% of his shots from the field and .405 from three-point land.

In addition to the value he brings, Holiday, who is currently 31 years old, played with the Knicks during the 2016-17 campaign. He appeared in all 82 games, making four starts. He was essentially a bench piece that provided solid value and was efficient from the field. He might offer the same value again if Leon Rose sees him as a fit on Tom Thibadoue’s team.

New York Giants: Austin Mack impressive in expanded role vs. Washington

New York Giants, Austin Mack

The New York Giants added another W to the win column today. New York swept Washington, beating the Football Team for the second time this season. The Giants’ stout defense forced five turnovers while the offense kept the ball out of harm’s way and managed a 23-20 victory.

With the offense’s sound performance came the emergence of a new playmaker for Daniel Jones. Undrafted free agent rookie wide receiver Austin Mack was impressive in his first game with expanded playing time.

Austin Mack vs. Washington

Entering this game, Austin Mack had just one target, one reception, and one yard on the season. Mack was productive early and often during the Giants’ win over Washington. He got things started in the first quarter hauling in a deep shot down the sideline for a 51-yard gain, the longest passing play of the Giants’ season so far.

Mack finished the game with 4 receptions for 72 yards on 5 targets. He nearly scored a touchdown as well but was marked down just short of the end zone.

Austin Mack so an expanded role in the offense this week as the Giants made the decision to bench veteran wide receiver, Golden Tate. Tate has been vocally unhappy with his role in the Giants’ offense, but after Austin Mack’s impressive Week 9 performance, it does not seem like Tate’s role will expand anytime soon.

Austin Mack is a name many Giants fans became familiar with over the summer. The rookie was impressive during training camp and made his way onto the Giants’ practice squad. Mack’s impressive route running makes him standout amongst other rookies. After his solid performance today, Mack should see more time on the field this season.

New York Mets Player Evaluations: Pitcher Jacob deGrom

New York Mets, Jacob deGrom

What more can we say about Jacob deGrom? The New York Mets ace put up another Cy Young caliber season in the shortened 2020 season. Unfortunately, unlike the last two years, deGrom is not the front runner for the Cy Young as he will likely finish second in the race.

deGrom cruised through his first nine starts of the season. He had a 1.67 ERA through 54 innings and held opposing hitters to a .173 batting average. deGrom also led the was in strikeouts with 79 through those first nine outings. deGrom battled through a couple of small injuries to continue his dominance of the league.

The last three starts of deGrom’s season did not match the same dominance. deGrom allowed eight runs in 14 innings, which inflated his ERA to 2.38, and he finished the season at that mark. The September 16 start against the Phillies cost him the most. deGrom only made it through two innings and allowed three runs before leaving with an injury.

In a full season, that start would be a forgotten memory, but it became the forefront of his Cy Young candidacy.

Absolute Dominance

Whether or not deGrom wins the award, there is no denying how great he was. One of the amazing components of his season was the increase in fastball velocity. The four-seamer jumped from an average velocity of 96.9 in 2019 to 98.6 in 2020. deGrom reached back to get to 101 a couple of times this season as well. Hitters already struggled with the fastball from deGrom, but in 2020 batters .186 against the pitch deGrom threw 45% of the time.

Of course, the stuff alone makes deGrom an amazing pitcher, but it’s the deception that makes him elite. All of his pitches come from the same arm slot and looks the same. deGrom’s fastball, changeup, and slider at speeds far above average, combining all of those factors make deGrom the best in the game. He also operates at a level of perfection that draws back to the likes of Tom Seaver.

Tough to Beat

Overall, the numbers were tremendous, going 4-2 with a 2.38 ERA in 68 innings, leading the NL with 104 strikeouts and a 13.8 K/9. deGrom also had his lowest H/9 of his career at 6.2 and his third straight season of allowing less than one home run per nine innings. To support his case of a Cy Young, 8 of 12 starts for deGrom came against playoff teams. 6 of 11 Bauer’s starts came against playoff teams, but all were eliminated during the wild card round.

As a starting pitcher heading into his age-33 season, it is amazing to look at him and see him continuing to get better. He is just reaching his peak as an ace, and the Mets need to take advantage of deGrom’s elite years. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw all got their rings, and in 2021 it is time for deGrom to get his.

2020 Grades On 20-80 Scale (2021 Projection)

Fastball: 80 (80), Consistently at 98-100 and is close to unhittable.

Slider: 80 (80), Comes in at 91-93 and has an extremely late break. Usually only thrown to the left-handed side of the plate.

Changeup: 75 (75), At 90-92, it moves just like a sinker.

Curveball: 55 (55), Only threw 30 of them but is a good change of pace in the mid-80s.

Command: 80 (80), Truly a master of his craft.

Endurance: 80 (80), As good at pitch 110 as he is during pitch 10.

Overall: 80 (80), The best pitcher in baseball.

 

 

New York Giants: Good news and bad news in big win over Washington

New York Giants, Daniel Jones

The New York Giants overcame the Washington football team 23-20 in week 9 of the 2020 regular season. This is the second consecutive win against Washington this year, having beaten them both times in 2019 as well. The Giants entered this game as the predicted winners, and they barely managed to scrape out a victory after Washington came out in the second half guns blazing.

Ultimately, the Giants dominated the first half, holding Washington to just three points, but failed to maintain the consistency later on.

Good news and bad news for the New York Giants:

GOOD NEWS:

The good news, the Giants, manage to extract their second win of the season, which hopefully is a turning point for them after losing a heartbreaking contest to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week 8.

Running back Wayne Gallman had a fantastic afternoon, rushing for 68 yards on 14 carries, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Alfred Morris was also looking vintage, rushing for 67 yards and averaging 7.4 yards per attempt.

Rookie Austin Mack, who was an undrafted free agent out of Ohio state, hauled in four receptions for 72 yards, including a long of 50 earlier on in the first half. The offense, as a whole, struggled in the second half but did just enough to get over the hump. They were unable to score in the fourth quarter, nearly allowing Washington to make an improbable comeback.

However, the Giants finally won the turnover battle, recording five recoveries, including two fumbles and three interceptions. The defense had a fantastic game, specifically in the first half.

The notable performances are from linebacker Blake Martinez, with two passes defended and an interception. Veteran corner Logan Ryan close the game with an interception as well, helping the team secure their second win of the year.

Interior defensive lineman Leonard Williams was also effective, recording a sack and one quarterback hit. He has consistently elevated his game and has been one of the Giants’ best defenders through nine weeks.

BAD NEWS:

The bad news, the Giants, nearly collapsed in the second half, allowing Washington to score 17 points and nearly steal a late lead. If not for a pesky defense, Washington would’ve likely driven down the field and, at the very least, tied the game.

On offense, tight end Evan Engram once again dropped multiple passes, leading to two scoring drives for Washington. If his drops continue, the Giants are going to be in a tough spot, as they consistently try to force him the ball but turnovers and inconsistencies plague his game.

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Joey Logano

With his declaration of being the favorite and propensity to win no matter what, Joey Logano doesn’t want friends…he wants a NASCAR title.

We’ve been through a lot in the social distancing era, so it’s downright shocking to go back to the early stages of 2020 and realize that, yes, that indeed happened in 2020.

The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl. The NBA All-Star Game came back from the dead under a new scoring format. XFL 2.0 came and went. Joey Logano won the first race at the new site of NASCAR’s championship finale.

Logano was the man to beat before the world stopped, earning two wins over the first four events of the 2020 Cup Series season, the latter being the Fan Shield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 8. He managed to get the best of an eventful race, evading several late-race cautions and restarts to earn a victory in overtime before the COVID-19-induced pause commenced.

“It does feel like a long time ago when we were out there.” Logano said with a laugh when asked about the victory earlier this week. “So many things have happened since then, I think that’s why.”

Eight months later, the NASCAR season finale is ready to descend upon the desert on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). It’s the first time that the championship finale will be held at the recently-renovated facility after nearly two decades at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Logano captured his first NASCAR Cup Series title in 2018.

Alas for Logano, there’s not as much he can take from his car in that event as he would like. In adjusting to life after the pandemic, the weekend staples of qualifying and practices have been almost entirely erased. The starting lineup has been instead been determined by random draws and statistical formulas. Logano was originally set to start second but moved up to pole position after Chase Elliott failed prerace inspection.

“There’s definitely things you can go back on,” he said. “That’s really all we have, to be honest with you. We don’t have the opportunity to try many new things without practice, right? You don’t want to go too far outside of the box. You know what worked for you in the spring. We had a very fast car, overcame a lot of adversity, still won the race. It just shows that we had a very good car. We can make some tweaks here and there to the setup probably, some things that we feel very confident in will be better, but we’re not going to step way outside the box. It’s just kind of what we got. Even though it feels like a year and a half ago when we were out there, that’s really what we have to go back on, is our notes from that race.”

The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford is no stranger to big moments in his NASCAR career. Heck, this is a driver that was bestowed the nickname “Sliced Bread” in reference to the age-old “best thing since” axiom during his days on the lower tiers of NASCAR. He has responded with the aforementioned Cup title and 26 race victories over the past nine seasons. Anti-Logano conspiracy theorists could perhaps argue that the shift to Phoenix was made to help him out, as he has earned a pair of wins and three consecutive top-ten finishes at the track.

It’s perhaps safe to say that Logano has made his share of detractors. Kyle Busch, whose reign as Cup Series champion will end in the desert today, remarked after a contentious get-together during the opening playoff round’s closer at Bristol that Logano “had zero friends on the racetrack”. Logano replied only by wholeheartedly agreeing days later.

Yet, Logano’s aggressiveness has been a throwback to the days of “rubbin’s racing” that fans have harkened for. Alas for these fans, Logano has been taking their favorites out in the process. For example, he took away a win at Martinsville away from Martin Truex Jr. in 2018, a win that more or less led to the latter’s playoff demise. Logano went on to take home his title.

That aggressiveness is on display through Logano’s attitude when it comes to the first Phoenix finale. While other drivers have been pleased with inclusion in the championship quartet, Logano dismissed such a notion in the most polite way possible.

“I think titles are the most important thing,” he said. “Any sport you look at, the question is, How many championships do you have? Not how many times have you made it to the finals? I take some pride in saying we made it to the Championship 4 this many times. That’s great. It shows a body of work throughout the year. I know it comes down to one race, it’s all or nothing. I get that. But the trophy is what it’s about.”

“I ask this question all the time: Anyone remember who finished second last year? I don’t. I honestly have no clue who finished second last year, or third or fourth, or even who was it in. I know I wasn’t in it, that’s what I know. When I look at it that way, it’s about the championship.”

Winning a championship in a year where drivers are more or less going from their street cars to their racecars would be quite telling for any of the drivers competing, taking home the trophy in a year where on-track adjustments through practice and qualifying have been rendered null and void. It’s an honor that seems to be fueling Logano as he tries to earn that second championship to accompany the first.

“We all have the same opportunities. The rules are the same for everybody. It’s an equal playing field. There’s a trophy at the end of the day. We all had to go to the same amount of races, we all had the same opportunity to score the same amount of points and wins. “The rules didn’t change in the middle of the year…Maybe our schedule changed, the way we go about it. It’s the same for everybody.

“Honestly, yes, a championship is a championship. Doesn’t matter if you won it in 2020 when you had no practice or you won it in 2019 or 2021. Doesn’t matter, it’s a championship.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Francisco Lindor at the top of the wishlist for the New York Yankees

New York Yankees, Mets, Francisco Lindor

This week it was reported that Indians All-Star shortstop, Francisco Lindor, would likely be dealt this offseason. The New York Yankees have reportedly put Lindor at the top of their offseason wishlist per Dan Federico. 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The New York Yankees have a long-term need at shortstop. Of course, fans could say that Gleyber Torres is their shortstop, however, I think last season taught us that Torres isn’t a solution there long-term.

Lindor is one of baseball’s true superstars. Lindor is just getting ready to turn 27 years old. He’s one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, he’s a switch hitter, and he’s got power from both sides. Not too mention he hits for average.

Lindor has one year left before he hits free agency. One would have to imagine that if the Yankees could pull off a trade for the superstar, they would likely immediately work on an extension. Just like the Dodgers did with Mookie Betts last year.

What should the Yankees do?

If the Yankees were to pull off a deal for Lindor, it would likely mean the end of the Yankees tenure for DJ LeMahieu. The Machine has been the backbone of the Yankees for the last couple of years and for the second straight year, he will finish near the top of the MVP race.

LeMahieu can play all around the infield at a gold glove level. However, it’s been his consistency at the plate that has been where he’s really shined. LeMahieu is a free agent, and the Yankees have been having dialogue around an extension.

However, it’s worth noting that LeMahieu is going to be turning 33 years old during the year next year. That might give the Yankees some pause in offering him a big contract. We’ve seen the Yankees baulk at signing guys in their 30s despite their superstar team status (Robinson Cano).

Federico reported that the Yankees won’t overextend to get Lindor despite him being at the top of their wishlist. However, should they reconsider that position? Lindor is truly one of the best players in baseball and he’s going to be for a very long time.

Imagine building the Yankees future around an infield that includes Gleyber Torres at second and Francisco Lindor at shortstop. I understand I’m in the minority, but if I could pick between LeMahieu or Lindor, I’m going with Lindor. I mean just think you’d have Lindor for nearly six years before he reaches LeMahieu’s age.

Realistically, I don’t believe that the Yankees will do what it takes to pull off the Lindor deal. I think the bombers are going to end up brining back LeMahieu and that’s a great thing. I just think they should strongly consider what Lindor could mean for the Yankees over the next ten years.

NASCAR: Championship Preview with ESM’s Eastern Speedboard

Kevin Harvick

As the cup series prepares to say goodbye to a legend and crown a champion this weekend, ESM’s NASCAR experts are here to break it all down and make their championship picks.

Turn 1: Kevin Harvick had been arguably the most dominant driver this season with 9 wins and a regular-season championship. Does him missing the final four say more about a poor stretch of performances in the round of eight or that the playoff format is flawed?

Nathan Solomon: More than anything, it just has to do with two poor performances. Harvick finished second in Kansas and put himself in good position to advance. However, in the round of eight, you can’t finish outside of the top-15 twice and expect to advance to the championship. The new playoff format was designed to give it a similar feel to a baseball or basketball playoff series. In the MLB, if you have a bad series, you won’t advance. A team with 110 wins won’t make it to the World Series if they don’t perform in the series before. That was the case for Harvick in the round of eight, and he, unfortunately, won’t see himself racing for a championship.

Dylan Price: This is a tough question to analyze for me. I fall somewhere in the middle in regards to this dilemma. With 9 wins, Harvick was dominant for the entirety of the regular season, but he was unable to perform up to the level needed in the round of eight in order to make the final four. See, my issue with Harvick being eliminated is that NASCAR is different than other playoffs like the NBA, MLB, or NFL. Yes, the destinations change each week for the playoffs, barring home-field advantage, but with NASCAR, when you go from track to track, it fundamentally changes your racing style.

I would contribute his elimination to his own rut but would say there could be a case made that the drivers like Harvick, who are in this case the #1 seed, should get more of an advantage because playoff points don’t do enough to reward drivers with 9 wins that much more than those with 2 or 3. Still, Harvick, just like high seeded teams that get beat by lower-seeded teams, did not perform up to the level needed to race for a title this weekend, and that is more about his performance over the last 3 weeks than anything else.

Geoff Magliocchetti: If anything, the NASCAR playoffs are a necessary evil, and there may be little malice in the first place. NASCAR needs to find a way to be different, unique, and competitive in the realm of a busy time on the American sports calendar, and the playoffs are the way to do that. To make a long story short, there’s never going to be a system that satisfies each and every fan. No playoffs leaves the threat of a meaningless season finale (as it was in four of the final five playoff-free seasons). Harvick is far from the first dominant driver to be bamboozled by a playoff system. Current contender Brad Keselowski spoke of the 2014 season when his No. 2 won 6 races but failed to earn the championship invite.

Some changes could probably be made…inviting 16 drivers is a tad much…but the case of Harvick (and Austin Hill in the Truck Series, for that matter) is not a make or break factor. The common complaints that the regular-season champion has no immunity to Phoenix only serve as contradictions. Fans who complain that the playoffs are too gimmick-field or manufactured want a way to manufacture a way for the regular-season champ to make it. The beautiful thing about playoff sports is that they’re unpredictable. Even the undefeated Patriots had to work their way to the Super Bowl…one they lost. Changes can be made, but the playoffs should be here to stay.

Turn 2: This Sunday will be the last time that one of the faces of the sport will race in Jimmie Johnson. With the legacy Johnson has left as a 7-time champion, where does he rank amongst the all-time greats of the sport?

Nathan Solomon: Jimmie Johnson may go down as the greatest NASCAR racer of all time. If he isn’t the greatest of all-time, he will certainly be in the top five. Regardless of the playoff/chase format, he’s won seven championships, and some people don’t realize how hard that is. He’s won at virtually every track and beaten some of the best in multiple generations of drivers. I’m excited to see how he runs in Indy Car, and I would love to see him run a few races in NASCAR here and there. I feel he may be the next driver to attempt the Indianapolis 500/Coke 600 doubleheader, and that’d be really cool to watch. Congrats to Jimmie Johnson on a great career.

Dylan Price: I consider myself lucky to have witnessed Jimmie Johnson and his dominance in my lifetime. I was not alive to witness the greatness of guys like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but one thing is for certain about Jimmie Johnson, he had the IT factor. They say there is a certain aura around the great ones, and I think that was always felt with Johnson. Now, where does he rank amongst the greats is a separate question. I firmly believe that Johnson is one of the best drivers to grace the series, but is he THE best. I think Johnson is up there with Earnhardt and Petty on the Mount Rushmore of the greats of the sport. That fourth spot is firmly up for debate, but I think that the aura around Johnson is still there even though he has not performed at the highest level in the past years and will be for a long time. Congratulations 7-time, you had an incredible career, and I am excited to see what you do in your next endeavors!

Geoff Magliocchetti: Johnson will go down as a clutch performer and the driver of the playoff era. It hurts to see his last dance end like this…with all due respect to Ally Bank, they’re looking like the Wizards Jordan equivalent of NASCAR…but one can’t forget the sheer dominance we saw from Johnson’s No. 48 week in and week out during his prime. Time will tell if Johnson can ever solidify his face on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore, but his accomplishments should not be forgotten. Congrats on a great career, Jimmie, and best wishes to you and your family.

Turn 3: Well, with exits comes the entrances of new drivers and lineup shakeups. So, which driver in a new ride will see the biggest improvement/make the biggest impact next season?

Nathan Solomon: I think it’ll be rookie Chase Briscoe making a big impact in 2021. He’s been insanely dominant in the Xfinity Series this year, winning nine times and the championship favorite this weekend. He’ll be going into a great ride where he’ll have everything he needs to win races right away. I feel that Briscoe will make the playoffs in his first season, pick up a few wins, and even make it as far as the round of eight. He’s incredibly skilled and knows how to win on every type of racetrack. Expect a big rookie season out of Chase Briscoe in 2021.

Dylan Price: Unlike other analysts, I am excited for a returnee in a new place. I do believe Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell are going to excel in their new homes, but I am watching for Kyle Larson. People forget, but before Larson was suspended for his egregious comments, he was a budding face of the sport. Larson was in a mid-level situation with Chip Ganassi racing, and I firmly believe with the resources Hendrick Motorsports can provide that Larson will take the #5 machine to a virtual residency in the playoffs and likely to a few trips in victory lane in the coming years.

Geoff Magliocchetti: We’ve seen some big moves this Silly Season, but I’m the most intrigued by Ross Chastain moving to the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet. Chastain has never been granted the best equipment but has gone on to have a lucrative career on NASCAR’s lower levels. He’s a driver that earned his keep through on-track endeavors. Frankly, the move to such a big-name Cup ride is well overdue, with Chastain mostly working in low-budget machines. We’ve seen him stick around at places like Daytona and Talladega and run respectably in his lower-tier equipment. With the resources of CGR, Chastain should truly take off.
Turn 4: Lastly, we are down to the final four drivers to decide the championship this Sunday in Phoenix. With Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliot battling for the title, who comes out on top?
Nathan Solomon: I’m going to go with Joey Logano winning his second title in three seasons. He won Phoenix in the spring before the coronavirus outbreak and is coming off a win in the round of eight. Two of his championship competitors, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski, haven’t won at Phoenix before, although Denny Hamlin has. However, Hamlin is coming off a rough round of eight, and I just don’t see him turning it around. My prediction is that Kevin Harvick will win the race being that he’s been historically dominant at Phoenix, and Joey Logano will take the title, finishing second. 
Dylan Price: I am a big believer in momentum. Momentum can play more of an impact then things like experience at times, and I think that will show on Sunday. See, where Logano, Keselowski, and Hamlin have experience either winning the big race or being in it for all the marbles, Chase Elliot is the newcomer of the bunch. With 4 wins this year, Elliot has been one of the most consistent racers this year, and I firmly believe he will ride the wave of momentum he had from last Sunday to a championship.
Geoff Magliocchetti: Denny Hamlin gets his first title on Sunday.
King Kevin is gone, and in his wake, the successor is none other than Hamlin. This season has had a bit of an “If not now, when?” feel over in the No. 11 stables. Hamlin has never let off-track issues bother him, but he does appear to be a bit tired of the…well, tired…questions over whether this season is a disappointment without the title at the end. Hamlin has won nearly everything there is to win on a NASCAR Cup Series level, except the titular award at the end. That changes on Sunday in the desert.