After nine months and 35 races, it all comes down to one weekend to decide the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, an Kevin Harvick will duke it out over 267 laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, Nov. 17 in the Ford EcoBoost 400.
The formula for winning the NASCAR championship is simple: the highest finisher among those four takes home the trophy. It almost certainly means they'll have to win the race, like every titlist since the format was reconstructed in 2014… but they don't have to do it. In theory, the 2019 Cup champion could be 30th on Sunday as long as they finish ahead of the other three who are eligible.
In this 16-driver, tournament-style format it's the 1 seeds that have made it all the way to this final round. The four drivers eligible for the series title have won the most races this year and would 2-3-4-5 in the standings without a playoff. (Joey Logano, the reigning series champion, would have a slim lead but was eliminated last weekend at Phoenix Raceway).
Three of the four drivers eligible have already won a Cup title; the fourth has the most active victories without one. Each wheelman has already made an impact on the sport but a 2019 series title could elevate their legacy.
Let's look at what's at stake for the Championship 4.
If Denny Hamlin wins...
- Earns his first career title in 14 years running Cup. Sheds his label as the Mark Martin of his era (the infamous NASCAR Hall of Famer who was second in the title chase five times without winning)
- Wins the championship one year after going winless for the first time since 2005. This time last November, Hamlin was near tears in the press room, parting ways with crew chief Mike Wheeler and forced to relinquish his pole-winning pit stall to teammate Kyle Busch. Now, he's fighting Busch on Sunday for his first title.
- Hands Chris Gabehart his first championship in his first year as a Cup crew chief.
- Becomes the first driver to win the title and the Daytona 500 in the same year since Jimmie Johnson in 2013.
If Kevin Harvick wins...
- Becomes the first driver with two titles under this current playoff format.
- Earns his second championship in six years after going 0-for-13 with Richard Childress Racing.
- With a win, earns his 50th career victory in Cup, moving to a tie for 12th on the all-time list. He joins Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers with multiple Cup titles.
- Overcomes a slow start in which he didn't win until the 20th race of the year (New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July).
If Kyle Busch wins...
- Earns his second championship in five years and his first running all 36 races. (Busch won in 2015 despite ankle and foot injuries that kept him out for almost three months)
- Becomes just the second regular season points champion (Martin Truex Jr., 2017) to earn the title under this format.
- Overcomes a 21-race winless streak that haunted an inconsistent playoff run after starting the year 4-for-14 in the Cup Series.
- Adds clout to an argument he's the best driver of the decade in a year he's won 13 times across NASCAR's top three series, passing Richard Petty with 207 victories overall spread across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.
If Martin Truex Jr. wins...
- Earns his second championship in three years, the most dominant stretch since Jimmie Johnson's five titles from 2006-10. Truex was second in 2018.
- Captures the title in his first year with a new team, Joe Gibbs Racing, after his former team (Furniture Row Racing) closed up shop the end of last year.
- Guarantees he'll be NASCAR's win leader (seven thus far) for the second time in three seasons.
- Finishes one of the most remarkable career turnarounds in the sport. Truex was left for dead five years ago, earning just one top-5 finish with FRR to cap off a disappointing first nine years running Cup. His totals since: 24 wins, 69 top-five finishes, a dozen poles, the 2017 series title and a Southern 500.
Ford EcoBoost 400
Time: Sunday, Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. ET
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway (Homestead, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
Denny Hamlin's dominant win at Phoenix locked him in the title race and gave Joe Gibbs Racing a NASCAR first: three of the four slots in the Championship 4. JGR drivers have now combined for 18 victories this season in 35 races, helping Toyota clinch their third manufacturer's title in four years.
Who's at the Back: Chase Elliott
On the flip side at Phoenix was Elliott, the sole Round of 8 contender who failed to finish when a flat tire knocked him into the wall halfway through the race. It capped off one of the worst NASCAR semifinal rounds we've seen under the current format: 36th, 32nd, and 39th with two of those finishes caused by wrecks.
A flurry of NASCAR Cup Series Silly Season news dominated the start of Championship Weekend proceedings. Stewart-Haas Racing announced Thursday they would not renew the contract of driver Daniel Suarez for 2020; Suarez was emotional in describing how the deal fell apart at the last minute. Instead, it'll be NASCAR Xfinity Series title contender Cole Custer getting the nod for 2020, running the No. 41 Ford full-time. A little further down the NASCAR garage, veteran Michael McDowell said he expects to be back with Front Row Motorsports in 2020 just days after Matt Tifft announced he was leaving the team. (A seizure had sidelined Tifft since Martinsville). Finally, JJ Yeley announced he was returning to Cup full-time, driving one of three cars fielded by Rick Ware Racing next year. Read the full rundown of Championship Week news here.
That news filtered down to the NASCAR Xfinity Series as well. Cup Series rookie Daniel Hemric was signed to drive for JR Motorsports in a limited Xfinity Series schedule (21 races) next season. Jeb Burton (11 races) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Homestead in March) round out the driver lineup for the No. 8 car.
NASCAR and NBC Sports announced a new paid streaming service called NBC Sports Gold in a bid to showcase some of the racing in lesser series. For $5 a month, the service replaces fanschoice.tv and will cover everything from ARCA to the Whelen Modified Tour to IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship events.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Playoff races this season won by nine Cup Series drivers championship eligible.
The best points position of any Hendrick Motorsports driver (William Byron). That would be the worst performance for HMS in the final standings since 2000.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Say it all together... the Championship 4. The series champ has won this race all five years under the current format, which began in 2014. Every driver in this quartet has also won at this racetrack since 2013. The only problem is you can only fit so many of them (maybe two?) on a daily fantasy roster. But stuff as many of them as possible on there.
Kyle Larson remains the driver with the best chance to win Homestead outside the Championship 4. In six career starts here, including his first in Cup back in 2013 Larson has never finished outside the top 15. He's led 322 laps the past three years and captured three of the past six stages.
Aric Almirola has established a little momentum toward the end of the season, earning a second-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago. He's run well at Homestead with Stewart-Haas Racing, earning a ninth-place finish in 2018 and could ride championship teammate Harvick's coattails to the front.
Don't sleep on the retiring driversthis weekend at Homestead. Paul Menard and David Ragan may not have the same clout as some of the more famous names we've seen leave the sport in recent years, but putting it all on the line one last time should count for something. Remember, it was just last season Matt Kensethran sixth in the final Cup race of his career (Roush Fenway Racing). Ragan was 20th and Menard 25th in this race last November.
What Vegas Thinks
The Championship 4 are each about equal entering this weekend's race. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have a slight edge (11/4) with Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick sitting at 3/1.
Kyle Larson is the best of the rest at 8/1 odds. I'd recommend against a longshot in a race where non-playoff drivers seem afraid to take a chance for fear of disrupting the championship race.
What I Think
It's the quiet one who makes a big impact this weekend. Martin Truex Jr. takes control of the race and cruises to victory for his second Cup championship in three years.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)