Sunday they run the last race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season in Florida. It will decide the championship, and you may be confused if you know nothing about NASCAR and happen upon the race while flipping channels. In baseball, the championship has two teams on the field. It’s easy to understand. The one with the most runs at the end wins. Same with basketball, football and hockey (points, points, goals).
In NASCAR, it is different because with NASCAR, nothing is simple. To understand what’s going on, it helps if you are a NAPA-certified mechanic. (New 2015 competition rule: “Reduction of horsepower to 725 via tapered spacer.”)
At the end of Sunday’s race, if you have the sound turned down, you might think that the car that finished first has won the championship. That could be so, but it might not be so. Only four cars are eligible Sunday to win the championship. NASCAR has conducted an elimination process through several races to winnow the championship field down to four drivers: Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman. Whoever finishes the race ahead of the other three wins the championship. Even if, say, Logano finishes 16th in the race, Hamlin finishes 18th, Logano is 25th, and Harvick is in the garage with a blown engine. The other 39 drivers on the track will be busy doing things. Since some drivers race for the same owners, drivers not eligible for the championship will be trying to help teammates who are. There are tactics, some NASCAR-approved and some grey market. Some drivers may be looking to settle scores with other drivers, because NASCAR abounds with grudge narratives. It is a telenovela with lug nuts.
You may wonder why NASCAR doesn’t just have four cars on the track Sunday. Ah. You will observe while watching the Ford EcoBoost 400 (actually 400.5 miles) that the cars are adorned with the names of sponsors who pay a lot for the sheet metal exposure on national TV. So 39 drivers will be tooling around the Homestead-Miami oval as part of a 267-lap infomercial, helping teammates where they can and taking care of some other agenda items, and four will be seriously tradin’ paint (the ‘g’ is silent) because they’re chasing a title. At the end, we may have two celebrations - the driver who wins the race and the driver who wins the championship. Confusing, maybe, but uniquely NASCAR.