Four men. One title. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series enters its final race weekend at Homestead-Miami with the Championship 4 taking center stage, four drivers who are each aiming for their own slice of history.
In Joey Logano’s case, he’s hoping that the old adage “you have to lose a championship before you can win one” rings true. Logano was one of the original Championship 4 drivers back in 2014, emerging as the main foe of Kevin Harvick before a late pit stop derailed his chances. Then, the following year it was Matt Kenseth derailing Logano, period after contact in Kansas while battling for the lead that spun out the veteran and cost him a chance at a championship.
Carl Edwards also is seeking his first title and knows the pain of coming up just short. In 2008, he fell victim to the near-perfection of Jimmie Johnson’s five-title dynasty; in 2011, he was second to Tony Stewart’s surprising run through the Chase, losing perhaps the most competitive title battle in history on a tiebreaker. For Edwards, now 37 years old in an increasingly young man’s sport, there will only be so many more chances to earn a championship.
Kyle Busch, meanwhile is aiming for a different type of history: back-to-back series titles. Busch, whose surge in 2015 was paired with a change in maturity and focus, comes to Homestead-Miami on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster. He felt his moves Sunday in Phoenix were what sent teammate Matt Kenseth spinning, a moment that spun against the “team first” mantra that’s served Joe Gibbs Racing well all year. Up until then, Busch had been one of the outspoken critics of the strategy but seeing the pain of someone else losing out on a title has changed his tune.
Finally, there’s Jimmie Johnson himself, closer than ever to what would be a record-tying seventh Cup trophy that launches him into the pantheon of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. For Johnson, it’s been a far harder road to get to this point than anyone might have thought; he spent the past two years in purgatory under the new format, struggling to advance through the rounds while crew chief Chad Knaus came under fire for occasional poor strategy calls. This summer, they endured one of their worst slumps together; Hendrick Motorsports overall looked like the operation would be a first-round Chase exit. But, like they always do, this pair has figured it out and now stands on the precipice of winning all three Chase formats.
Is there a mind-blowing storyline within these four to the level of Jeff Gordon winning Homestead upon his retirement last season? Unfortunately, no, and I expect the ratings to reflect that. But that’s because any of these four men would be a deserving champion; no underdogs or Cinderella stories are listed here. It’s a list that seems fitting after a year that’s seen more parity in Cup Series competition than at any time since the Chase format came to be in 2004.
2016 Ford EcoBoost 400
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway (Homestead, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Toyota
As we head to Homestead-Miami, barring a catastrophe, Toyota is poised to knock off Chevrolet and claim their first-ever manufacturer’s championship on the Cup Series level. (Kyle Busch won Toyota’s first driver’s title in 2015). The changing of the guard will end a 13-year run for Chevrolet, who has dominated the sport and the majority of starting fields during most of the Chase era. But the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing proved too tough for the competition this year, with their chassis posting the most wins (16) of any organization on the circuit. Chevy is poised to finish second in manufacturer points with Ford a distant third; in fact, Ford has just one of the 12 drivers vying for a title this weekend in NASCAR’s top three series (Logano).
Who’s at the Back: Chris Buescher
It was a minor miracle to see this rookie make the Chase following his rain-induced victory at Pocono. Sadly, that mojo never transferred into the postseason itself. With one race remaining, Buescher has yet to score a top-15 finish during the playoff with a best result of just 16th at Charlotte. He’s rumored for a promotion during the offseason, either to Roush Fenway Racing or Richard Petty Motorsports but that’s going to need to come with a step up in performance.
Tommy Baldwin Racing has officially sold its charter to the No. 95 of Leavine Family Racing next season. In an emotional Facebook post, Baldwin announced he’s changing direction after eight years running one of the sport’s underdog programs.
“I have been blessed to have a career in motorsports because of how NASCAR has grown over the years,” he said. “Teams don't always agree with their stance on rule changes or penalties or just the way things are done. But I can tell you that they have gone out of their way to help our team. They've brought us opportunities and have always made themselves available to meet with prospective sponsors if we needed them to. It's been a privilege for me to say that I'm a NASCAR team owner.”
There’s no word on what might happen to Regan Smith in 2017 or the No. 7 team itself. Baldwin did have sponsorship set for a number of races next year and it’s unknown what happens with those agreements.
Sprint and Tony Stewart will both wrap up their tenure with NASCAR in different capacities this weekend. Sprint will end their 13-year tenure as title sponsor, coinciding with the advent of the Chase era in 2004. Over that time, through Sprint Vision, the 10-race playoff and other fan initiatives, they’ve left their mark following the iconic backing of Winston that launched NASCAR into the national sporting conversation.
As for Stewart, he wraps up a career as a driver that’s spanned three decades and (after Sunday) 618 Sprint Cup starts. Forty-nine victories, three championships, and 15 poles make him an almost-certain first-ballot Hall of Famer. His diversity, represented in wins at every NASCAR track on the circuit except Kentucky and Darlington, goes well beyond stock car racing. A former IRL series champion, Stewart has been successful in virtually any type of car he straps into and will spend much of the next few years moonlighting at dirt tracks all over the country. Still co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, he’ll be visible on some race weekends but be allowed to disconnect from a driving culture he claims has gotten “frustrating” in recent years as engineers have taken on a bigger role in the sport.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes by Kevin Harvick this season, more than any other driver. Harvick has a total of 54 top-10 finishes in his last 71 Cup Series starts, an impressive 76 percent clip.
Laps led this season by Martin Truex Jr., a number that leads the Cup Series. Over the past 12 years of Cup competition entering this season Truex had led a little more than 2,400 laps.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Jimmie Johnson. Joey Logano. Carl Edwards. Kyle Busch. They are all fighting for a title and they’ll fight for you on your roster. Pick whomever you think has the edge as the winner of the Cup has won this race in the last two years under the current format. Personally, I think Johnson has the edge for seven even though he hasn’t won at Homestead throughout his career. Stats get thrown out the window here in the pressure of this winner-take-all title format. And no Championship 4 driver has run lower than 16th, so no matter whom you select you should be pretty safe.
Kasey Kahne continues to have a fantastic Chase as he positions himself to be the “Best of the Rest” driver, running 17th in the final standings. Eight top-15 finishes in nine Chase races would have made Kahne a formidable foe to even reach the Championship 4; it’s a shocking turnaround for a guy whose earlier this season had to quell rumors he’d be released from his Hendrick Motorsports contract early. Add in the fact that in his last eight Homestead races, there’s been no finish lower than 21st and 1.5-mile ovals are Kahne’s bread and butter. He should be your pick here.
Kyle Larson has had an awful Chase but Homestead offers an opportunity to finish strong. Three starts here have produced three top-15 finishes including a strong fifth last season. His XFINITY Series record here is even stronger, earning three top-5 finishes and a win in three starts. Needless to say, he’s a safe bet.
It’s slim pickings at the back of the field, as this track doesn’t favor backmarker teams. Danica Patrick leads a weak group with finishes of 20th, 18th, and 24th in her career at this track. That’s not great but will protect your lead in fantasy if you’re entering the weekend playing prevent defense.
What Vegas Thinks
Jimmie Johnson holds the edge in Vegas, but just barely. He’s got 21/20 odds over Kyle Larson at 23/20. Joey Logano sits third at 27/20 according to vegasinsider.com.
What I Think
Jimmie Johnson took three years to get here under this format and the No. 48 team won’t waste the opportunity. Johnson has been running the best of the four drivers here and he’ll take home the championship trophy and start a conversation as to when he’ll break Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty’s record of seven Cup Series titles.
— 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 photo courtesy of Getty Images)