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.

What you need to know about NASCAR’s Confederate flag ban

NASCAR has banned the display of the Confederate flag at its events. Here’s what you need to know about the developments.

NASCAR announced on Wednesday that they will ban display of the Confederate flag at its sanctioned events. The ban comes hours before the premier Cup Series drops the green flag at Martinsville Speedway for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 (7 p.m. ET, FS1).

“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” a statement from NASCAR reads. “Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”

Terms of how such a ban will be enforced have yet to be disclosed.

The Flag

Different versions of the flag of the Confederate States of America have been displayed by fans at NASCAR events, which primarily take place in the southeast United States. The CSA seceded from the United States of America in 1861 to protest of President Abraham Lincoln’s election, one that threatened to end the institution of slavery. Their secession led to the American Civil War, which ran from 1861 through 1865. CSA General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General and future American President Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, leading to the abolition of slavery and freeing scores of black slaves imprisoned on southern plantations.

The most renowned variant of the flag is likely most similar to the Confederate’s naval jack flowing in the latter stages of the war. Another extremely similar, rectangular variant was used as the battle flag for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Despite the loss, attempts have been made to readapt the flag as a symbol of Southern pride and states’ rights. Critics have countered that the flag has been used as a glorification of racism and white supremacy, as well as a sign of intimidation toward African-Americans.

NASCAR and the Flag

In 2015, NASCAR began to discourage display of the flag after a white supremacist-inspired shooting left killed nine African-Americans at a Charleston, SC church. The perpetrator had previously posed with Confederate paraphernalia and engaged in white supremacist rhetoric. NASCAR publicly supported the decision of then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to remove the Confederate flag from the State House. South Carolina is home to Darlington Raceway near Myrtle Beach, one of NASCAR’s original and most renowned tracks.

Then-Chairman and CEO Brian France later expressed a desire to ban the flag outright. At the time, NASCAR asked fans not to display the flag at events and offered an exchange program to trade in Confederate flags for American flags at the July 2015 race at Daytona International Speedway.

NASCAR has been a predominantly-white league since its inception in 1949. Only seven black drivers have partaken in events at the Cup Series level, including current full-time driver Bubba Wallace, who drives the No. 43 Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports. It has unfortunately not been a stranger to racial controversy. During a virtual race on the iRacing platform, Cup Series star Kyle Larson casually used a racial slur in an event live-streamed on Twitch. Larson was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR and fired from his ride in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

In 2004, NASCAR began the Drive for Diversity program, which set up a platform to attract minority individuals to the sport, in a variety of roles, including those as drivers, crew chiefs, sponsors, and more. Former NBA All-Star and top overall pick Brad Daugherty played a role in the program’s development. The former University of North Carolina and Cleveland Cavaliers star is currently a co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing, which fields the respective No. 37 and No. 47 Chevrolets of Ryan Preece and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MAY 31: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on May 31, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Driver Response

The debate regarding Confederate symbols has reopened in the wake of nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality against African-Americans. Removal of statues bearing the likeness of Confederate representatives has become more prevalent and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has also called for such statues to be removed from the U.S. Capitol Building.

During the initial tone down in 2015, NASCAR’s most prominent faces supported NASCAR’s decision. Four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon told CBS This Morning that “there’s no place for it” and Dale Earnhardt Jr. agreed.

“It really does nothing for anybody to be there flying,” Earnhardt Jr. said to Dustin Long of NBC Sports. “It belongs in the history books, that’s about it.’’

Yahoo!’s Jay Busbee recalled a story from his 2016 book Earnhardt Nation: The Full-Throttle Saga of NASCAR’s First Family in which seven-time Cup champion and NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. removed a Confederate flag bumper sticker from his truck after his housekeeper, an African-American woman, told him of the flag’s connotations.

Prior to last Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR President Steve Phelps called for a change in a radio message to drivers. “Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”

Since then, more drivers have been proactive in the fight against systemic racism and injustice. Wallace appeared on CNN earlier this week calling for an end to the Confederate flag’s display. Prior to the Atlanta event, Wallace was seen wearing an American flag facemask and a shirt bearing the words “I can’t breathe”, referencing the words spoken by Eric Garner and George Floyd, who died at the hands of officers in New York City and Minneapolis. On Wednesday night, Wallace’s No. 43 Chevrolet will bear the “#BlackLivesMatter” insignia. The image of a black and white hand together will be displayed on the hood.

Brad Keselowski stopped short of calling for an outright ban (telling USA Today’s Michelle R. Martinelli “it wasn’t (his) right”), but united with Penske Racing teammate Ryan Blaney to call for respect to another flag: the stars and stripes of America.

“I only salute one flag and that’s America’s,” said Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 2 Ford. “I recognize that (the Confederate) flag might mean something different to different people, but it doesn’t mean United States of America to me.”

“It’s tough, but I don’t really enjoy it because sometimes I feel like the people that wave them mean the negative when they wave them, and that’s not cool,” Wednesday’s polesitter Blaney added to Martinelli. “ I’d love to not see them at the race track, honestly, because it doesn’t make everyone comfortable, so that’s kind of where I stand on that. Bring your 50 stars flag; I think that would be way better.”

In an exclusive interview with ESM, Corey LaJoie, driver of the No. 32 Ford for Go Fas Racing, put in the simplest, most relatable terms possible hours before the ban.

“We need to now allow that banner to be at the racetrack,” LaJoie told ESM. “I don’t really care what it means, how you can justify what it means. I think, if anything, you can justify it being sensitive to the people it offends.”

“If my brother is definitely allergic to peanuts, but I love peanuts, I’m not going to eat peanuts in front of him, just because it has the possibility to hurt him physically. If there’s something that I consciously do that would offend somebody emotionally, I wouldn’t choose to do that, even if I enjoyed eating peanuts.”

“We are one community trying to entertain people. That’s what we show up 36 weekends out of the year to do, to entertain. We don’t want to exclude anybody. We want to have everybody feel welcome coming to a NASCAR race.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags