This season, NASCAR will run 36 points races at 23 different tracks from the Florida Keys to New Hampshire and west to Northern California. And every single race ends with the same math: One driver wins, 39 drivers lose.
Doesn’t matter if you’re at Talladega or Bristol or Watkins Glen, the math never changes: One winner, 39 losers.
And when the checkered flag flies at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 20 days, there will be one driver who wins the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and 39 who don’t.
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In fact, the Cup regular season and the first two rounds of the Chase for the Sprint Cup have pared the field of contenders down to eight. One of them is Jimmie Johnson, who won Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, locking him into the title race.
That leaves seven drivers fighting for the final three spots in the championship race.
Four of those seven drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.
But because Johnson won at Martinsville that means at least one of the JGR drivers will not contend for the title.
JGR had three drivers finish in the top five on Sunday, collectively leading 227 laps, while quasi-teammate Martin Truex Jr. led 147 more.
But there was disagreement in the ranks about what went down on the track. Kyle Busch thought his teammates were too polite with each other and gave the race away to Johnson. Denny Hamlin disagreed with that assessment, and Matt Kenseth said in a television interview that he had a fast car but couldn’t get past Hamlin.
All season long, teamwork has been the foundation of the Toyota effort and it has produced huge results: The five guys who drive for JGR and Furniture Row have combined to win 15 of 33 races so far this year, including the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400. At Daytona, the five Toyotas ran in lockstep on the bottom of the track, settling the winner on the final lap as they swept the top three positions and four of the top five.
At Talladega a week ago, three of the Toyotas hung out together at the rear of the field to avoid a big wreck.
And at Martinsville, the Toyota drivers were unfailingly polite with each other, frequently making deals on restarts to let the driver on the outside dive down to the preferred inside groove.
That’s all well and good.
But remember the math lesson at the start of this column? You know, one guy wins and 39 lose? Truex is already out of the Chase and at least one of the JGR cars will be eliminated this round. They can’t all advance.
And at some point very soon, the JGR guys are going to have to quit worrying about being great teammates and start getting selfish if they want to win a championship.
At its core, racing is a selfish business. It has to be.
Every great racer I’ve ever met from Ayrton Senna to Dale Earnhardt to Jimmie Johnson and John Force, has a selfish streak: They all want the best engine, the best car, the best pit crew and the best crew chief. And most of all, they have a burning desire to win. That’s what drives them.
So with three races to go on the season, one of the most fascinating storylines will be how the JGR guys race each other at Texas and Phoenix and how many of them make it to Homestead.
My guess is that the four are going to increasingly worry about themselves and worry less about playing well with others.
Winning a championship is what matters to each of them, and that’s as it should be.
At Homestead, the trophy with go to the Sprint Cup champion, not the guy who is voted best teammate. Stay tuned, this is about to get interesting.