Maybe this will come off as a conspiracy theory, and maybe it’s ridiculous to even suggest, but it’s NASCAR’s silly season, so indulge me.
Are we absolutely, completely, totally 100 percent sure that this season’s champion will emerge from the Big 3?
Silly, perhaps, but hear me out.
Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — the Big 3, as they’ve affectionately been dubbed by copycat broadcasters and headline writers — have won 17 of this season’s 24 races. They’ve also finished second another 11 times cumulatively ... or in other words, they’ve had a chance to win practically every race this year.
If that isn’t dominant, I don’t know what is.
As a result, the three of them are atop the points standings with just two races left, Darlington and Indianapolis, before the playoffs begin. Naturally, all three are being touted as near locks to make the Championship 4 at Homestead in November, and subsequently to win the Cup Series title once they get there.
All of which makes complete sense. There’s no arguing or debating or disputing that those three have been the three best drivers and teams this year. They’ve been, at different times: savvy; faster than everyone else; ruthless; smooth; nearly perfect; and, of course, a little bit lucky.
But the one thing they’re not, and never can be? Invincible.
If we had touted a “Big 3” last season, even though they weren’t as overwhelming, it would have been Truex, Busch, and Kyle Larson. We thought the same things about those three — that barring catastrophe, they’d cruise through to Homestead.
And then catastrophe actually happened. Larson, who won four races in the regular season and looked solid in the first round of the playoffs, had back-to-back “meh” finishes at Charlotte and Talladega. Nothing too terrible (he was 10th at Charlotte, 13th at Talladega), and any decent performance at Kansas would have propelled him into the third round of the playoffs.
Except then his engine blew up. He finished 39th. And poof, he was eliminated.
Obviously that’s the exception rather than the rule, but Larson’s situation has to be somewhat cautionary. It would be silly to predict a meltdown like that for Harvick, Truex or Busch, but it’s also close-minded to pretend that’s not an option.
Consider the first two rounds of the playoffs this year, which have gotten arguably more difficult than a season ago. Talladega is an obvious wild card, but now the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway, too? Bad luck at those two tracks could doom anyone, no matter how large their lead is.
Now, this isn’t to say that someone like Chase Elliott or Kurt Busch or Clint Bowyer is suddenly going to start ripping off wins — in fact, that would be more surprising to me than one of the Big 3 falling short. But in the off chance that something moderately catastrophic does happen, there’s a handful of drivers — the aforementioned three included — who are good enough to make them pay.
So yes, it’s a slim, miniscule, teensy tiny, itty-bitty chance that one of the Big 3 doesn’t survive until the championship race...
But there’s a chance nonetheless.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Kurt Busch: He said after his win Saturday night that he’s been the most consistent driver this year without a win. Now he has one, and he’ll be among the playoff favorites.
Kyle Larson: He’s been a bit inconsistent the past few weeks, but always runs well at Bristol (including a runner-up finish this week). Now, can he string together a few more races like it?
Martin Truex Jr.: It wasn’t his fault that he wrecked and came in 30th at Bristol, but Truex needs another win or two — and fast — if he wants to keep pace with Harvick and Kyle Busch.
Paul Menard: Any lingering playoff hopes he had practically disappeared when he bowed out of Bristol early with suspension issues.