AVONDALE, Ariz. â For almost anyone, Miami is a wonderful destination in mid-November.Â
For NASCAR racing teams, it has been the only place to be the past 17Â years.
That was evident Sunday in the facial expressions of the four drivers who have qualified to compete for the Monster Energy Cup Series Cup Championship next weekend at Miami-Homestead Speedway.
And also in several of the ones who didnât.
Miami, Miami, Miami.
Itâs all you heard Sunday at the Bluegreen Vacations 500 (itâs a timeshare company) in Avondale at NASCARâs penultimate race of the season.
A sellout crowd at ISM Raceway showed up to watch drivers compete not only to win a race, but also to earn enough points to make NASCARâs version of the final four.
It might be the last time we host a semifinal. A year from now, the Valley gets promoted to home of the final race.
Not that our current place in NASCARâs pecking order was bad. Itâs led to thrilling races in the fall, and to race fans checking which team had to do what in a race to earn one of the last four spots.
On Sunday, it came down to this for two drivers:
Denny Hamlin had to win to qualify, and he did.
Joey Logano had to win to qualify, and he didnât.
It was a crushing blow for Logano, who won last yearâs championship and led earlyÂ Sunday. But after a pit stop, something in his car changed.Â If he, or his crew, could have put their finger on it, they would have put a wrench on it.
They couldnât and Logano faded to ninth, seven points short of the final spot.
âIt went from a really good car to a car that couldnât stay on the lead lap,â Logano said. âThat doesnât make any sense. A car shouldnât do that. But it did. We got to where we could run competitively again but we were so far back.â
To his credit, Logano answered every question from reporters in the âbullpenâ along pit row after the race.Â Someone asked Logano how disappointing it was to not defend his title.
âI donât know, you put a number to it,â he said quietly and politely.Â âIt hurts. Itâs not what you fight all year for, to finish fifth.â
Many of those who work for Joe Gibbs Racing were at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Three Gibbs drivers â Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. â are in the final four. No racing team has ever had that many drivers qualify for the championship.
âIâm emotional today; still am,â said Gibbs, the former Redskins coach who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. âThis is going to be a wild week, and I think it will be an unbelievable race.â
In 2020, the unbelievable race will be in Phoenix, which the folks at ISM Raceway are going to remind us of daily over the next year. And that’s OK. It’s a big deal.
In a pre-race meeting with drivers and crews, ISM Raceway President Julie Giese said âthis community is champing at the bit to get to work on your championship. I get calls every day asking âhow can I be a part of it?ââ
On a national scale, however, there apparently arenât that many people begging NASCAR to take their money. Monster Energyâs sponsorship ends after this year, and there is no title sponsor signed on for next year.
At this time, the official name will be âNASCAR Cup Series.â That would be a significant change for NASCAR, which like most sports entities, will name most anything after you for the right price.
Next yearâs championship will be in Arizona largely because ISM spent $178 million over two years to upgrade the track and its amenities.Â There was a feeling Sunday that maybe not everyone involved in NASCAR racing is thrilled with the move, but Gibbs is not among them.
He visited sponsors in six hospitality suites before the race, he said, and all were positive about the upcoming change. In 2020, the Valley will be a destination for NASCAR racing teams, not just a stopping point.
âWhatâs been done here, I think itâs phenomenal,â Gibbs said. âThis is a big deal for our racing series.â