HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Four drivers. One race. One champion.
This Sunday, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion will be crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway after the Ford EcoBoost 400 concludes. After a long, winding, grueling season spanning almost 45 weeks, one driver and team will be rewarded for their efforts in the form of the inaugural Monster Cup and a championship.
WHAT: Ford EcoBoost 400. 400.5 miles, 267 laps (stages of 80, 80 and 167 laps, respectively)
WHEN: Sunday, November 19. Green flag scheduled to fly at approximately 3:15 p.m. on NBC
WHERE: Homestead-Miami Speedway, 1.5-mile asphalt oval located in Homestead, Florida
FAVORITES: Martin Truex Jr. (2/1), Kyle Busch (7/2) and Kevin Harvick (4/1)
Jimmie Johnson, widely regarded as the fourth-best championship contender out of the four vying for the title, somehow wound up leaving Miami with his record-tying seventh championship. In total, the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports led three laps on the afternoon. The win was Johnson’s first at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his career.
Denny Hamlin will lead the field to the green flag on Sunday afternoon. He posted a lap of 173.980 mph (31.038 seconds) to earn his second pole of the season, the second of his career at Homestead-Miami Speedway and 26th of his career.
Martin Truex Jr. qualified 0.004 seconds slower than Hamlin and will roll off second. Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top five qualifiers. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Daniel Suarez completed the top 10. Some other notable starters include Ryan Blaney in 11th, Chase Elliott in 18th, Joey Logano in 19th, Jimmie Johnson in 22nd, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 24th and Danica Patrick in 25th.
This race means the end for three well-known drivers. Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement earlier in the season, Kenseth announced this would be his final season of full-time competition last weekend and this weekend, Patrick announced in a tearful speech that this will also be her last full-time season. Those three drivers, especially Junior, will be given proper sendoffs on Sunday. Be sure to watch the No.’s 10, 20 and 88 and say thanks. Because like them or not, all three have changed this sport for the better.
TALE OF THE TAPE
The rules are simple: whichever playoff contender finishes the best wins the championship. It just so happens that for the past three years, the winner of the championship also won the race. It’s more than likely going to come down to that from Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday.
The race will still be in three stages. The stages have no real meaning, as this is the last race of the season and only the four playoff contenders are eligible for the title. But don’t get it twisted, because it’s simple. Finish the best, win the title. Don’t? Go home empty-handed.
TITLE OR BUST FOR MTJ
This season has been all about the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team out of Denver. The driver? Mayetta, N.J. native Martin Truex Jr.
Truex Jr. is the only driver out of the championship four who has not won a championship already, but that isn’t hindering his confidence heading into the winner-take-all season finale.
MTJ leads the series in wins (seven), laps led (2,175), top fives (18), top 10s (25) and pretty much every other statistical category. For all those reasons, not to mention the fact that six of his seven wins have come on 1.5-mile tracks, he’s the overwhelming favorite to win it all.
But the championship race, especially under this new format since 2014, has a funky way of working in mysterious ways. Was Jimmie Johnson supposed to win last year? No. But he did. This sport, especially in big moments, usually delivers in drama. MTJ just hopes he’s the one hoisting the hardware when it’s all said and done. Because anything else would be a failure.
ROWDY IS READY
Remember in the first half of the season when the weekly narrative was “When will Kyle Busch win a race?” Well, the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team answered that question—and then some.
Four wins, eight poles, 13 top fives, 21 top 10s and 1,980 laps led later, here they are, challenging for the championship in Miami once again, looking for their second in three years.
To win one championship cements your place in the NASCAR history books. But to win multiple puts you in that upper echelon of elite drivers. Busch is already an elite driver, and will be in the Hall of Fame when his driving career is over. The 32-year-old Las Vegas native has had one of the best second halves of the season in recent memory. And he’s hoping to close it out with his second career win at Homestead-Miami Speedway and his second career Cup title.
Consistency is rewarded in sports more than not. But peaking at the right time can trump consistency. And the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team, led by Kevin Harvick, is peaking at the right time—right now—after having one of the most consistent seasons in the Cup series.
The Bakersfield, Calif. native has scored two wins, 13 top fives, 22 top 10s and 850 laps led this season. But after a relatively average (by Harvick’s standards) first two rounds, round three of these playoffs have been his best. A win at Texas, top five at Phoenix and Martinsville and a spot in the championship four. Plus, he has some really fast race cars overall at the moment, one championship (2014) under his belt and no real pressure heading into Miami.
Harvick has been becoming a more and more popular pick throughout the NASCAR world this week. He’s stealthy, he’s quick, he’s ready to pounce and, if you can call him one, he’s an underdog. Harvick vs. the world. He’s done it before, and he’s ready to duplicate it.
BRAD ROLLING THE DICE
In racing, being lucky and fast will take you a long way. In Brad Keselowski’s case, it’s taken him to the championship four, the first one that he and the No. 2 team have been in since the new championship, elimination-style format was introduced in 2014.
The Rochester Hills, Mich. native has amassed 15 top fives, 20 top 10s, 777 laps led and three wins this season, and will look to defy the odds as the “slowest” out of the championship four and wind up a two-time champion when it’s all said and done from Miami.
As stated on this week’s episode of Victory Lane, I’m going with my head, not my heart, and the stats. Martin Truex Jr. will win the race and win the title. Since this elimination style, winner-take-all format was put in place, the winner of the championship also won the race.
It’s going to come down to Truex Jr. and Harvick, in my opinion. They were the fastest two drivers in the last round, and have been the most consistent throughout the playoffs. Harvick passed Truex Jr. on a 1.5-mile track (Texas) for the lead en route to the win. That, my friends, is unheard of this season. Nobody passes the No. 78—on an intermediate track, nonetheless.