In the case of the football game, even heartbroken Bills fans can get behind the notion that the Chiefs’ 42-36 victory in overtime was a wildly entertaining game. The only time there was more than a one-score lead was a 10-second stretch in the third quarter, and there were individual heroics across the board.
For whatever reason, it often does not work that way in NASCAR. With rare exceptions, fans have a knack for rating the quality of a race by how their favorite driver fared. It’s why I was reluctant to peek at a popular barometer of NASCAR race quality before settling on the three best Cup Series races of the 2022 season. Unexpectedly, I was in sync with a lot of race fans with my top selection.
Joey Logano’s victory in the Championship 4 did not excite NASCAR fans
Jeff Gluck, a longtime racing writer who covers NASCAR for The Athletic, conducts an unscientific online poll each week of the Cup Series season asking whether it was a good race. He tweeted the results on Tuesday for the season-finale won by Joey Logano, and I wasn’t surprised by how disappointed the voters were.
Only 28% of the people participating in the survey considered Sunday’s Phoenix race to be a good one, the worst showing for a championship in the seven-year history of Gluck’s polling. The previous low-water mark was 30% for the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami in 2019, won by Kyle Busch.
I think neutral observers would agree that the two races three years apart were both ho-hum or worse. I also think that the large swaths of fans who dislike Logano or Busch drove the favorability number down. Had the relatively bland but enormously popular Chase Elliott won either of those races, I suspect at least 40% of those chiming in would have given a thumb’s-up response.
With that as the perspective, I offer up my three best races of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season:
3. Coca-Cola 600, won by Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin led seven early laps and eight late laps. When the longest race in NASCAR history – 619.5 miles courtesy of two overtimes – was over, it was Hamlin rolling onto Victory Lane after holding off Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch by 0.014 seconds. It gave Hamlin a career trifecta of wins at the Daytona 500, Southern 500, and Coca-Cola 600.
What made this one so much fun, even though it went on for more than five hours, was Kyle Larson’s adventure en route to ninth place. Larson wrecked in practice and had to start from the back of the field. He endured three penalties on pit road, spinning out on Turn 4, and a small fire to lead on the next-to-last regulation lap.
Midway through it all, crew chief Cliff Daniels gave his driver an unforgettable pep talk.
“We went from the back to the front more times than I can count,” he told Larson. “We hit the wall. We spun out. We’ve literally caught on fire. We were also the most penalized team on pit road in this half.
“All that being said, in the second half already we’re gonna be starting way better than we started the first half. We gotta go execute right now. So, I don’t really know what the hell you’re worried about. But I’m fine, the team’s fine. Everybody down here’s nodding their head, they’re giving a thumb’s-up. So, let’s go.”
It got Larson’s head back into the game.
“Yup,” the driver responded. “I’m fine. I’m ready.”
2. Watkins Glen, won by Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson completed a weekend sweep on the fastest road course in NASCAR by taking the lead with five laps to go after forcing Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott wide and then holding off roads expert AJ Allmendinger.
Elliott was diplomatic in interviews afterward, but it was clear the maneuver did not sit well with him after his No. 9 Chevy held the lead for 29 of 90 laps. It was the second controversial brush between the pair this season.
“That was really my only opportunity. I’m not proud of it,’’ Larson said.
Larson’s decisive move was somewhat reminiscent of a year earlier at the upstate New York track, when Larson locked his brakes alongside Christopher Bell and nudged the No. 20 Toyota out of the way in the final stage.
1. Darlington NASCAR playoff race, won by Erik Jones
Putting the Southern 500 at the start of the playoffs was an inspired move by NASCAR. Darlington is as demanding as they come, and playoff drivers are fearful of taking themselves out of contention right out of the gate. It’s a great combination for creating drama.
What we got on Sept. 4 was exactly the kind of unpredictability that would be pervasive throughout the playoffs, beginning with Erik Jones winning for the first time since 2019. That put the No. 43 on Victory Lane for the first time since 2014, also the last year in which a non-playoff driver won the playoff opener.
Non-playoff drivers captured seven of the first 15 places. Three playoff drivers (Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and Kevin Harvick) were DNFs, and Chase Briscoe finished 27th. Elliott’s wreck on Lap 113 not only ended his day but took him out of the points lead, a teaser to how difficult his entire playoff run would be.
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