Pretenders, contenders and potential championship winners as the Chase concludes in South Florida
It’s hard to believe the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is about to come to a close, and the first champion to be crowned under the new bracket-style Chase elimination format will happen this Sunday at Homestead Miami Speedway. With the fourth different championship format in 11 years, many were skeptical of how this would play out; after all the 2013 season came a close with NASCAR tossing out drivers who made it (Martin Truex Jr.) and arbitrarily placing drivers into contention (Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman) two days after the final race at Richmond. Regardless of the opinion or final outcome, it has served what it was intended to do: increase fan interest and discussion of the championship Chase in the midst of college football and NFL Fantasy Football mayhem.
What it has not done is generate increased television ratings; each Chase race so far has been down – albeit slightly – over the last two years with the exception of the last two races at Texas and Phoenix. Add into the mix the possibility of this year’s champion potentially not having won a race and you have stock car purists ready to take the streets and burn a Brian France effigy in defiance.
No, The King or The Intimidator didn’t do it this way, but then again Jimmie Johnson won’t win number seven this year either, so perhaps in some minds there is some intrinsic value to it after all.
The Final Four
While there were no punches thrown following the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix last Sunday, there was a body slam on the final lap. As Gordon crossed the finish line, the four-time champion had skated into the finale on the strength of a tie-break between he and Newman – Gordon has four wins this year to Newman’s zero. That was quickly reversed though, as Newman executed a NASCAR Thunder video-game style pass on Kyle Larson, using the No. 42 as mobile soft wall. While Larson was sent laterally into the wall, Newman cruised past. In the ends-justifies-the-means nature of this new Chase format, what Brad Keselowski was criticized for a week earlier was given little more than a shoulder shrug this time around.
Also, let’s give credit where credit is due: Kevin Harvick had to win to stay eligible for a title, and — as I correctly predicted I this column one week ago — did just that. He dominated the race in a mirror effort of his February Phoenix performance, sweeping the season’s events in the desert. It was his first win in the Chase, his fourth of the year, and proof positive that the No. 4 team is the one to beat heading into Miami this Sunday.
While Denny Hamlin didn’t have a very good car Sunday, falling a lap down early which led to some frantic radio transmissions from the driver, Darian Grub and the No. 11 FedEx team of Joe Gibbs Racing righted the ship (enouh) to recover with a sixth-place finish. It was important for Hamlin for a number of reasons; the least of which was to simply get into the final round, but also to exorcise the demons that have plagued him since what was looking to be a championship-clinching race at PIR in 2010 ended in frustration. Not a bad rally for a driver who missed several races last year with a broken back and had to be replaced at the last minute this year in one race with metal debris in his eye.
Representing the Blue Oval brigade out of the Penske shop is Joey Logano. This marks his first real shot at a title since he was moved to the Cup Series to replace Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing six years ago. Many have downplayed Logano’s chances, saying you first have to lose a championship before you win one. I guess no one told that to Logan’s teammate, Keselowski, two years ago when he granted Roger Penske his first Cup Series title. Logano stands to repeat the feat in what has been consistently the fastest Ford on the track for the last year and a half.
Homestead has served as the series finale since 2002, and has played host to a few nail-biters. In 2002, Stewart held off Mark Martin by just 38 points (about eight positions with today’s scoring system), while the inaugural 2004 Chase saw six drivers with a shot at it, with Kurt Busch benefiting from his own wheel flying off and bringing out a caution he desperately needed – while avoiding the end of pit wall in the process. 2011 gave us the closest finish in NASCAR history, with Carl Edwards and Stewart in a dead heat points-wise, with Smoke taking the title by winning the race on a wins tie-breaker.
But do wins really count this time around?
Newman and Keselowski would tell you they do not. The former had just one top-5 finish before the Chase and hasn’t won a race in a year and a half. The latter has the most wins this season but missed the cut due to a rear gearing failure at Martinsville. This year’s title could come down to whoever wins, an ill-timed caution, a green-white-checker restart, or a late race caution where one guy stays out and everyone else behind him pits.
Career at Homestead: 9 starts, 2 wins, 4 top 5s, 5 top 10s, avg. start: 29.2, avg. finish: 11.2
At first glance, this is Hamlin’s title to lose. He’s the only one of the four to have won a race in Homestead, is the defending race winner, and his average finish is really only sullied by a 33rd-place run in his seven-race 2005 rookie campaign. While this is a 1.5-mile track, it is not the typical tri-oval like Charlotte, Atlanta or Texas. It is perhaps more similar to Chicagoland, the first race of the Chase. Hamlin finished sixth there, the top Toyota. Unfortunately for him, he also finished behind Logano (fourth) and Harvick (fifth). Darian Grubb was Stewart’s crew chief in 2011 when the title was on the line and even with a piece of Busch’s bell housing tearing a hole in the nose of Stewart’s car, was able to rally for the win and claim a championship.
Can Grubb and Hamlin repeat that this Sunday? It’s an uphill battle for sure, but given their ability to rally the last few weeks, Hamlin could forever erase that disastrous 2010 race here from his mind.
Career at Homestead: 13 starts, 0 wins, 5 top 5s, 11 top 10s, avg. start: 14.0, avg. finish: 8.1
Think Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers are pumped about having a 1.5-mile track to decide the championship? The team that has shown pure speed at virtually every facility this year has been the No. 4 Chevrolets of Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick has led 2,083 laps in 2014 (or 32 percent of the total laps led in his entire career). Despite the turmoil and distraction this team has found itself combating in 2014 — from the team owner nearly losing a leg the year before, to Stewart’s involvement in the tragic death of Kevin Ward in a sprint car accident this summer — the replacement for Newman at SHR is in position for his first serious championship threat in his 15 year career and first since parting ways with Richard Childress Racing. While Harvick won four races this year, it very well could have been eight – at the least. Continued pit road problems led to the swapping of pit crews with the No. 14 of Stewart prior to the Chase. Ever since, the mishaps have stopped and SHR is on the cusp of its second title in four seasons.
Two of Harvick’s four wins this year came at Phoenix. The other two, Charlotte – a 1.5-mile downforce track in October, and Darlington in April. Darlington is a bit like Homestead, although oblong in shape, it has wide sweeping corners and worn pavement with banking similar to Homestead’s progressive configuration. You’ll have a hard time convincing me – or Harvick – that this race isn’t theirs for the taking. He has the best average finish among this group, and he doesn’t have to worry about laps led or winning the race; the best finish among these four wins the title.
Career at Homestead: 5 starts, 0 wins, 0 top 5s, 1 top 10, avg. start: 18.0, avg. finish: 20.8
If there is one car that showed as much consistent speed as the No. 4, it’s been the No. 22 of Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon. While they may have pioneered the now-familiar flared side skirts, this bunch has been bad fast on 1.5-mile tracks this season. They won Texas in the spring on a G-W-C shootout with Gordon, and won at Kansas to guarantee their way into the Eliminator Round. They were fourth at Chicagoland and Charlotte, and were top-5 material at Texas before a blown tire sent the car spinning late in the going. With Keselowski no longer in the Chase and no Roush Fords to fend off, you can bet that Roger Penske’s and Jack Roush’s deep-seeded disdain for all things Toyota and Chevrolet will see that the collective powers of FoMoCo are brought to bear for JoLo.
Career at Homestead: 12 starts, 0 wins, 1 top 5, 4 top 10s, avg. start: 12.4, avg. finish: 17.0
No neck? No wins? No problem!
When Newman confronted Jimmie Johnson in August at Michigan, Johnson’s retort was, “You had the same [earmuffs] I had, but you made a bad decision to put yourself in this position.”
Define irony, as there are no Hendrick cars to contend with at Homestead, and the only one looking to win a seventh title this weekend is Richard Childress.
The Rocket Man hasn’t exactly been a win machine, having not won more than one race a year the last 10 years. He may have to win this Sunday considering his competition, but that’s not to say his task is impossible. Three of his last five wins have come courtesy of a G-W-C finish, and if he’s near the front and it comes down to a two-lapper to decide the title, don’t be surprised to see the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet go full bulldozer-mode and plow through any obstacle in its path. Just ask Kyle Larson.
2014 Sprint Cup Champion: Joey Logano
It truly is a coin-flip between Harvick and Logano to take it all.
I don’t buy into the hype of having to lose one to win one; it didn’t matter for Keselowski, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte or Stewart. Different times and eras, of course, and Logano fits in nicely amongst that group. His performance this season has embodied what everyone had expected from him when he became a familiar name back in 2008. He has come to thrive within Team Penske, working with a driver of similar age and experience – and one who is no stranger to conflict with other drivers.
Roger Penske will win his second Cup title in three years with two different car makes, and with only two cars in the stable. This is an engineering organization if there ever was one, and after dominating the Verizon IndyCar Series this season and winning a championship with Will Power and narrowly losing the Indianapolis 500 in the second-closest finish in history, the Sprint Cup Series championship will put an exclamation mark on what has been an incredible 2014 for The Captain and his crew.
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