Biggest names missing for NASCAR’s grand finale

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NASCAR on Sunday afternoon finishes its season with its own version of a Final Four.  Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick end the Chase for the Sprint Cup with the Ford EcoBlast 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The absence of the sport’s greatest stars.

No Jimmie Johnson, who won last year’s Sprint Cup.  No Brad Keselowski, who won the year before.  No Jeff Gordon, winner of four Sprint Cup championships.

No Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver and winner of this year’s Daytona 500, which no matter how NASCAR tries to gin up the season finale is still stock-car racing’s showcase event.

Gordon’s elimination seems especially unjust, as he was on the brink of securing a berth in the past two races.  He battled for the lead near the end of the Texas 500 when Keselowski bumped him, cutting a tire and causing him to finish 29th.

The “accident” provoked a post-race melee in which the teams of Keselowski and Gordon threw punches, with Keselowski suffering a facial cut and a puffy lip.

Gordon, in his twilight at 43 but still at a competitive peak, was in position again in last Sunday’s cumbersomely named Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, at Phoenix.   Entering the final lap, he was set to qualify with a second place finish behind Harvick, who ended up winning – racing’s equivalent of a walk-off home run.

But Ryan Newman moved ahead of Gordon on points by bumping Kyle Larson from the race.  So Gordon was cut from the Chase.

Newman has not won a race all year, but by the peculiar new format of the Sprint Cup, which requires a degree from MIT to understand, he gets a shot at the big prize. 

“I don’t like racing that way,” he said of his bumping strategy,” but there’s a lot on the line here.”

Gordon, third behind Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the all-time wins list, with 92 (including four this year), did not sound bitter – well, maybe a little bit.  “It’s acceptable last week, it’s acceptable this week,” he told FOX Sports.  “I mean, don’t think that’s not going to come back to you.  I could have taken out Harvick, too, to make it in, but I didn’t.”

He sees the bump-to-win approach continuing at Homestead (ESPN, 2 p.m. Central), even though there should be plenty of clean passing lanes with only four cars competing for the championship.

After the Phoenix race, Gordon said:  “I’m afraid if it was that ugly the past couple of weeks, it’s going to get real ugly next week.”

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