HOMESTEAD, Fla. — NASCAR’s final four, er, sorry, Championship 4, have been jetted from city to city, talk show to talk show and media conference to media conference. Now, finally, it is time for Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano to get on with the business of one of those four actually winning that championship.
Exactly what that title will mean depends on which one of the four Cup hopefuls you’re speaking of — a spectrum of outcomes that ranges from redemption to validation to history, both the rewriting of the record book and the next step toward possibly rewriting it again years down the road.
“We’ve all known each other for a long time now,” Carl Edwards explained Thursday during the foursome’s final formal media obligation before getting to Homestead-Miami Speedway for Sunday’s 400-mile season finale. “Our stories are similar because we’re all racers, but really they are completely different. We’re from different places. We’ve had really different NASCAR careers. So, we all want to win the championship, but for each of us it might mean something a little different.”
For Edwards, it’s the redemption. In 2011 at this track in this event, he missed out on a Sprint Cup title in a manner befitting the victim of a Hitchcock film. He finished a nine-month season by leading the most laps and finishing second in a race twisted by rain, tying Tony Stewart in the point standings but losing the title via a tiebreaker of wins. The onetime wunderkind, now 37, is arguably the best current driver not to win a championship, with 28 Cup wins and a pair of runner-up championship finishes.
But, if NASCAR brass is being honest, an Edwards title, while surely overwhelmingly well-received in the garage, won’t provide the kind electricity the sanctioning body seeks heading into a crucial offseason.
Sorry, Cuz, but that’s the truth.
If Edwards was once viewed as a wunderkind, then Logano’s earmarking was more along the lines of savior. The “Sliced Bread” title bolted to him as a preteen short tracker served its purpose of providing the spotlight that moved him up the racing ladder in a hurry. He was in a Cup ride at 18 — the first driver born in the 1990s to hold a steering wheel in NASCAR’s top division. But when the wins didn’t come quickly enough, that spotlight turned into a heat lamp and he nearly withered. At 22, he was labeled by many as washed up.
A Cup title would finally fulfill the Sliced Bread promise, the at-long-last christening of the now 26-year-old king of the suddenly large Cup contingent of 20-somethings. And though he politely deflects talk of validation bordering on revenge, the mention of it does spark a smile.
“I don’t really think about that,” he said. “But I do know who has stuck with me through thick or thin and I know they will be sticking with me Sunday night whether we win the championship or not.”
NASCAR no doubt will stick by Logano, too. But again, apologies to the kid, because he isn’t the driver the suits are likely rooting for.
No, to generate headlines here in the depths of the football season, the fine folks in Daytona and Charlotte no doubt have their eyes on the No. 48 Chevrolet. That’s the ride of Jimmie Johnson, the only member of the Championship 4 racing for immortality. A Cup would be his seventh, equaling one of NASCAR’s two most coveted career records. The only other racers with that many titles are the two greatest in the history of the sport, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Yes, there are those who still try to discount Johnson’s championship success to a Chase postseason format that The King and The Intimidator never used. Yes, there are those who continue to paint Johnson as vanilla, a starched-shirt corporate clone.
Those people are wrong.
They are being handed a chance to see motorsports history achieved by one of the greatest racers ever born. But even if they don’t appreciate it now, one day they will. Sometimes that’s how history works.
“I think when he won five [Cups] in a row, he was winning a lot of races and a lot of championships and maybe people got tired of it,” his boss, team owner Rick Hendrick, said Friday. “I still say that Jimmie is going to get more credit when he’s done than he’ll get when he’s driving.”
That brings us to Kyle Busch. He is a former teammate to Johnson and Logano and a current teammate to Edwards. Like Logano, he was perhaps thrown into a Cup car too soon and, though more successful quicker than his friends, Busch also struggled with the spotlight. Like Edwards, the story of Busch’s career was written with lots of individual race wins (38) but dogged by the inability to win a Sprint Cup championship.
That changed one year ago. In the four-man, run-for-your-life, beat-the-other-three, win-and-in Chase finale format, he did all of the above. It was a night that included redemption, validation and history. If he does the same on Sunday night, it will further amplify what he did one year ago.
A second Cup for Busch, still only 31 years old, would also perhaps signify the start of something much larger. It might very well be the first step toward one day, years from now, running alongside Johnson, Petty and Earnhardt, perhaps even passing them. And that’s why, though we — and NASCAR — might not realize it now, a Kyle Busch championship might be the most intriguing Sunday night outcome of them all.
“I think about last year at Homestead racing Jeff Gordon for the championship and all the history that came with his retirement and then Jimmie this year going for seven,” Busch said Thursday. “Our goal when we all started as racers wasn’t to make history. But if you’re fortunate enough to have a chance, or even have a chance to see it, that’s pretty cool.”
We’ll all have that chance Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Now we just have to wait and see who’s going to write it. And what it ultimately means as the sport rolls over the horizon ahead.