Unpublished championship stories

During a sports journalism class I took at the University of Tennessee, my professor — Phil Kaplan, south region assistant sports editor for USA TODAY Network — invited writers to speak to us, tell us about their experience on the job. One of those speakers was Mike Wilson, Tennessee athletics beat writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel. He told us that sometimes, the best game stories you write are about the outcomes that don’t happen.

Even with a calm race like Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, I had columns that didn’t go to press.

Prior to the championship race for the NASCAR Cup Series, I wrote a championship column for each Championship 4 driver. Because Chase Elliott won, that’s the column I published.

But I’d hate for my work to go to waste. So I’m publishing the unused columns here. They’re in order of where the other three drivers finished, Sunday.

The White Zone: 2nd title puts Keselowski in NASCAR immortality

AVONDALE, Ariz. – November 8: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 8, 2020, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The roller coaster that is 2020 is complete, and the train has rolled into the station. Brad Keselowski conquered his competition and etched his name into NASCAR immortality.

With his victory, Sunday, at Phoenix Raceway, Keselowski joins 16 other drivers who’ve won multiple championships in the NASCAR Cup Series. And that’s out of 33 drivers who’ve won a championship. Furthermore, 14 of those drivers are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. One (Jimmie Johnson) is a sure fire first-ballot inductee and the other (Kyle Busch) is still active.

To drive the point home, consider this: With 35 career victories in the Cup Series, only 23 drivers in NASCAR history have more wins.

Of course, this was inevitable.

This is the same Keselowski who raced 500 miles and won at Pocono Raceway, only a week after he broke his ankle in a test wreck at Road Atlanta. And that was in the midst of a lightning fast ascent into a championship contender.

Along with Busch, Keselowski is one of the best wheel men in NASCAR. But don’t take my word for it. Take it from Denny Hamlin.

“For sure, I think that Brad is one of the best racers out there at this point,” he said. “Not only from the speed that he has, but the ethics in which he races. He’s a great guy to race with.”

Also, Keselowski’s a character. And not just because of his inebriated post-race interview on SportsCenter when he won the title in 2012. He’s snarky (though not at Tony Stewart’s level), brash, unapologetic and aggressive (on the track). Moreover, he’s a blue collar driver in a sports league built on blue collar drivers.

In other words, Keselowski is a modern day Dale Earnhardt.

Which is why I’ve never understood why he’s a polarizing driver to the fans. Sure, Earnhardt was polarizing when he raced, but he’s been deified since.

But that’s an argument for another day.

For now, just appreciate what you’re witnessing on-track. Keselowski is already a legend, and he’s not even finished.

That’s my view, for what it’s worth.

The White Zone: Joey Logano cements elite status with 2nd championship

AVONDALE, Ariz. – November 8: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 8, 2020, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

While not the most dominant driver in 2020, Joey Logano performed when it mattered the most.

No longer is Logano the “draft bust” that fizzled out in a top-tier ride, because Joe Gibbs Racing brought him to Cup too early. He rebounded, and then some. No longer is he the guy who won once every few years. He won multiple races in six of the last seven seasons.

With his second Cup Series championship, he etched his legacy among NASCAR’s most elite drivers.

Don’t believe me? Well, look at his stats.

And this is before his win, Sunday, at Phoenix Raceway.

Logano’s victory moves him to 30th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list. All but eight of the 29 drivers ahead of him are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and Carl Edwards is the only non-active driver outside the Hall.

Moreover, Logano joins 16 other drivers as the only multi-time champions in the history of the Cup Series. Of those, only Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson aren’t in the NASCAR Hall of Fame (both are sure-fire first-ballot inductees).

Does he deserve a spot on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore? No, at least not yet. Does he deserve a seat at the table of all-time greatest drivers? Yes. Is he a first-ballot inductee to the Hall of Fame? At this point, I’d entertain that debate.

Boo Logano all you want. I hear them from the press box. I know he’ll never win most popular driver, even if Chase Elliott wasn’t racing.

Some of you will never see him as anything more than a blue-blood from New England, who got here on daddy’s money. But as Paul Menard proved in his 16-year career, money only gets you so far. Logano, however, had the talent to back it up.

The longer Logano races, the stronger his legacy gets. Who knows what his win count will be in another 10 years.

That’s my view, for what it’s worth.

The White Zone: Hamlin finally wins his 1st championship

AVONDALE, Ariz. – November 8: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, and Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/MOEN Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 8, 2020, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Denny Hamlin turns 40 in 10 days. This is important, because, as NASCAR analytics guru, David Smith, found, a driver’s performance drops off after their Age-39 season. Furthermore, given how much of a crapshoot winning a title in NASCAR now is, his chances were going to drop with each season.

From his third-place finish in his rookie season to the collapse of 2010, Hamlin’s had multiple chances to win a championship, so far.

Sunday at Phoenix Raceway was finally his time.

Gone are the ghosts of his 2010 collapse, where he blew a massive points lead to Jimmie Johnson in the final two races. Moreover, he didn’t come up short, like he did in 2014 and 2019.

This time, he finished it.

No longer is he in danger of losing his ride to Joe Gibbs Racing’s rising prospects.

This time, he finished it.

No longer will he hear that his teammates, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., have titles, while he doesn’t.

This time, he finished it.

No longer will he hear comparisons to Mark Martin, given his win total and a goose egg in the title column.

This time, he finished it.

Finally, no longer is he just a journeyman driver who’s won lots of races.

This time, he finished it.

What’s more, Hamlin’s cemented his spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

His victory, Sunday, moved him to 18th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list. Of the 17 drivers ahead of him, only three aren’t in the hall, yet. Moreover, two of them are active, and one (Johnson) is a certain first-ballot inductee.

Furthermore, he joins 33 other drivers who’ve won a Cup Series championship.

Add in his three Daytona 500 victories in a four-year span, and two back-to-back, his career is complete.

He could retire, tomorrow, and his legend is secure. Though I doubt he’s finished, yet.

For now, however, nobody’s taking this from him.

This time, he finished it.

That’s my view, for what it’s worth.

TOP IMAGE: Chris Graythen/Getty Images


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