The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs wind down Sunday, Nov. 18, at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the Ford EcoBoost 400. But after nine races, surprise winners and even a cheating scandal, the usual suspects are the ones competing for the series title.
NASCAR’s version of the NCAA Tournament, a 16-driver playoff field whittled to four, has the equivalent of four No. 1 seeds still alive entering the finale. The sport’s Big Three of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. will join Team Penske’s Joey Logano in battling for the 2018 championship. The rules here are simple: whoever finishes highest wins.
It’s the same four ownership groups (Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Furniture Row Racing and Team Penske) that were represented in this race last year. But while it seems like there’s little change at the top (the Big Three also fought for the title in 2017) getting to this race hasn’t been easy.
Truex hasn’t won at all during the playoffs, the victim of poor luck and circumstances leaving him shaky throughout. Kyle Busch has had an inconsistent playoff, posting a DNF and three runs outside the top 15 to go with two wins. Harvick arrives here without his crew chief and car chief after an illegal spoiler discovered two weeks ago following a win at Texas Motor Speedway. And Logano, the closest to a Cinderella for this championship, needed a victory at Martinsville Speedway to advance.
But each of these drivers has proven their muscle, atop the sport in a year NASCAR has been dominated by a select few. This quartet sits inside the top four in most major categories you can think of, from top-five finishes to races ending on the lead lap. That makes it hard to pick a favorite entering this weekend’s main event.
“Some other years, it’s been kind of anti-climactic,” Kyle Busch said after Sunday’s win at Phoenix. “But I would predict this is the best four, the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time.”
That should bring comfort to fans long critical of the postseason format. The best of the best are who survived this playoff; in any format, they’d be your title contenders.
But that also comes with a caveat for a sport that’s spent 2018 needing a boost. The same old drivers also mean the same old support. These names, well known across the board, already have a well-established fan following unlikely to grow much further.
Here’s a look at their Twitter followings since December 15, 2017, compared to entering this weekend.
Truex: 419K to 444K (6 percent increase)
Harvick: 953K to 981K (3 percent increase)
Logano: 469K to 479K (2 percent increase)
Kyle Busch: 895K to 897K (0.2 percent increase)
That growth isn’t the same as a NASCAR rising star like Chase Elliott (726K to 808K, 11 percent increase). Elliott, with three years of Cup experience, is relatively new on the scene and has more room to grow. And as a sign of NASCAR’s sagging popularity, these four drivers combined barely surpass the 2.4 million Twitter following of now-retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2.8 million total).
Of course, it’s hard to grow your fan base when the sport is suffering through TV ratings and attendance declines of double digits seemingly every week. But this quartet, sitting with a combined 55 years of Cup Series experience, already feels well-known enough to a national audience. If fans were going to latch on? They would have done so already. A title for Truex last year was already a compelling story; to do so a second straight year with his team, Furniture Row Racing, about to shut down would be incredible. Harvick would have a similar shock value, winning two weeks after losing his best mechanics in a cheating scandal some think was a bit overblown.
So tune in this weekend to see NASCAR’s best duel it out for a chance at a title. Just don’t expect a big surprise that’ll move the needle at the end of a trying season for the sport.
Ford EcoBoost 400
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Big Three
Kyle Busch won Phoenix but his compatriots Harvick and Truex weren’t far behind. They combined to lead 198 of 312 laps, each of them running at or near the front all day. Truex faded to 14th at the finish, more to protect his title bid than anything but this trio showed the speed they’ll need to run top three at Homestead.
Who’s at the Back: Clint Bowyer
What a disastrous Round of 8 for Bowyer. A successful season that included two wins, at Martinsville and Michigan, fell to pieces on the heels of a 21st-26th-35th place disaster. He wrecked out at Phoenix but the damage was already done from first-lap contact at Texas Motor Speedway a week earlier. It was part of a disappointing round for SHR as a whole; all four of their drivers qualified but only Harvick was able to advance into the Championship 4.
NASCAR is mourning the loss of Hall of Famer David Pearson. Pearson died Monday at age 83 and with him, a piece of the sport’s rich history was lost. His 105 wins rank second on the sport’s all-time list to the King, Richard Petty; their rivalry during much of the 1960s and 1970s catapulted the sport to national prominence. Nicknamed the “Silver Fox,” Pearson was known for lurking back into the pack until a race’s closing stages; his 10 victories at Darlington, perhaps the sport’s toughest track are a NASCAR record.
A number of NASCAR drivers are running their final race with current teams.Jamie McMurray could be running his final Cup race ever, driving the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. AJ Allmendinger is out of the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet and has no ride for 2019. Matt Kenseth is running what is in all likelihood his final Cup race ever, finishing out a part-time Cup schedule in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford. And over in the XFINITY Series, Elliott Sadler will retire from NASCAR after several seasons driving in the sport’s second-tier division.
Denny Hamlin will have a new crew chief in 2019. It was confirmed this week Mike Wheeler will be moving on to other opportunities after the most disappointing season of Hamlin’s career. (The rumor is Leavine Family Racing). Hamlin is likely to go winless this season for the first time at the Cup level and got knocked out in the first round of this year’s playoff.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Of 36 races won by this year’s Championship 4. Only Brad Keselowski (three wins) had more than any of these four finalists.
Points position for Jimmie Johnson with one race remaining in the year. That would be the worst performance of the seven-time champion’s Cup career.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
The sport’s Big Three should be front and center on your roster. There’s no reason to believe this trio won’t be 1-2-3 on Sunday, especially since the Cup champion has won the Homestead race every year since 2014.
If, for some reason, you can’t start that trio I’d go with Kyle Larson. He dominated parts of the last two races here and ran third in 2017. After a difficult year, Homestead’s the last chance for Larson to get a victory before the season is out.
Jamie McMurray, running perhaps his final Homestead race, has four consecutive top-15 finishes here driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. His teammate, Larson, has this place figured out which means the No. 1 team will benefit from their setup. Add in the drama of one of McMurray’s final races ever and a top-10 finish appears likely.
Richard Childress Racing may be out of the playoffs but offers two solid Homestead options. Both Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon ran top 11 last year and they have five top-15 Homestead finishes in their last six starts. It’s worth a flier.
Matt Kenseth, in this space a week ago ran seventh, a season-high for him in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Now, we head to Homestead, where he ran eighth a year ago for Joe Gibbs Racing in what was supposed to be his final Cup event. Can lightning strike twice? RFR was 15th with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in this race a year ago.
AJ Allmendinger has struggled for much of 2018, likely to be his final Cup season. But his Homestead track record is reputable and includes two straight top-15 finishes. Don’t count him out.
What Vegas Thinks*
Kevin Harvick: 5/2
Kyle Busch: 3/1
Kyle Larson: 13/4
Martin Truex Jr.: 4/1
Joey Logano: 9/1
LONGSHOT PICK: Jimmie Johnson 66/1
*Odds courtesy of oddschecker.com
What I Think
Harvick has the motivation. Kyle Busch has the speed. But the circumstances of Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing are unlike any we’ve seen in modern times. I say these two ride into the sunset together with an unlikely second straight championship for a team about to shut down for good.
— 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 NASCAR.com)