Sunday’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway is shaping to be the true end of an era with emotions running wild as not only a couple of drivers bid farewell, its strongest Championship 4 contenders will settle it out for 267 laps and it could go either way.
The past two editions of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida has seen icons make their final start and jaw-dropping championship drama in the closing laps. Unlike the last two, this year’s finale marks the final chapter of what’s left of the Winston Cup generation (1971-2003) as 2000 rookie class members Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth are set to make their final Cup start.
Kenseth will come into Homestead with strong momentum after scoring a victory at Phoenix Nov. 12, his first in 51 races. Dale Jr. on the other hand, looks to end his wild career with a win at a track he’s never finished better than third (2013). Outside of the championship battle, all eyes will be on those two drivers and come into Homestead as the sentimental favorites to achieve one last positive moment to the sport.
They’re not the only two bidding farewells, Hendrick Motorsports will field a No. 5 car for the last time after entering that number since its inception in 1984 with Geoff Bodine. Next season, the William Byron will run the legendary No. 24 while Chase Elliott will run the No. 9 car, a number made famous by his Hall of Fame father, Bill.
Another possible farewell is Danica Patrick and BK Racing as their future remain in hot water going into 2018 with the former Daytona 500 pole-sitter not settling for any low-tier ride including the Xfinity Series. The two-car operation hasn’t made any announcements about next season as reports speculated their ongoing financial collapse may force them to cease its operations.
Outside of those headlines, the Championship 4 contenders have their own share of stories as former Xfinity Series champions Kyle Busch (2009), Kevin Harvick (2001, 2006), Brad Keselowski (2010) and Martin Truex, Jr. (2004-05) will be fighting for the ultimate prize and become the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, but that’s where the commonality ends.
Truex has never won the Cup title as the other three are looking to become two-time champions, the first since Jimmie Johnson when he won his second of five straight titles Nov. 18, 2007. Three of them have already accepted the challenge of competing for the title at Homestead, something Keselowski has never been a part of the Championship 4 since it was introduced three years ago.
This championship battle will come down to the wire and if last year taught us anything, those four drivers will make daring moves to be NASCAR’s king of the hill. However, unlike the first three editions, this title fight can go either way as I feel neither of the four have a huge advantage over the other competitor. It’ll be a dogfight from the drop of the green flag past 3 p.m. Eastern to the checkered flag three and a half hours later.
Martin Truex Jr. – Season of Dominance and Emotions
Let’s begin with the guy everyone will be trying to outperform, Martin Truex, Jr. Since joining Furniture Row Racing in 2014, Truex has had a dramatic tenure that hasn’t been seen since Davey Allison.
Truex’ longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex has battled ovarian cancer since 2014. He’s also endured the pain of losing his road-crew fabricator Jim Watson during the playoffs and his crew chief Cole Pearn losing his longtime friend Jacob Damen in August. Car owner Barney Visser recently had successful surgery after suffering a heart attack last week. It has been stressful for all parties, but they’ve become a stronger unit.
Entering this season, the No. 78 team were known as being a dominate team that couldn’t seal the deal when it matters most. It’s almost become a distant memory after having a banner year with seven wins (the first to accomplish this feat since Kenseth in 2013), 18 top-5s and 25 top-10s, all career-highs. He’s been the man to beat and if I had to pick one driver to win it all, it would be Truex.
Homestead has been an underrated track for Truex, coming in as the second-highest stats among the four contenders with 3 top-5s and an average finish of 12.3. However, those impressive numbers took place before joining Furniture Row. His last top-5 took place in his final season at Michael Waltrip Racing Nov. 17, 2013.
In his previous Championship 4 appearance Nov. 22, 2015, Truex was never a factor as eventual champion Busch, Harvick and Jeff Gordon were the dominant competitors while he wound up in 12th.
Truex is mentally stronger than he was two years ago and prove the sport he was the best all-around driver this season and earned this championship. It’s the feelgood story non-NASCAR fans would enjoy and someone to root for in a battle against heels (bad guys). Unless you’re anti-Toyota, then good luck on who you’re rooting for Sunday. Worse if you’re a Chevy fan as it consists of two Toyotas and two Fords this season.
Kevin Harvick – Miami’s Beast Incarnate
Truex’s Kryptonite is Harvick. A 6.9 average finish, 8 top-5s and 14 top-10s in 16 starts could bring Ford its first championship since Kurt Busch Nov. 21, 2004. He has an act for the 1.5-mile speedway that hasn’t been matched by anyone and it’s hard to believe he has one win to his name.
Harvick needs to win again to end Ford’s drought, but it hasn’t been the season like he’s had since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 where he tends to finish in the top three on a regular basis. I must say, he hasn’t had a terrible season in his first year in the “Blue Oval” camp. A championship can really boost the team’s morale in what’s been otherwise a disappointing season.
In this playoff run, he’s been the unsung driver and win at Texas got him to the big dance. More importantly, proving everyone he can still be deadly on the track and snatch a win from the dominant driver. Those reasons are why I wouldn’t count Harvick out because of his incredible numbers at Homestead alone. They don’t call him “The Closer” if he wasn’t clutch when it matters most.
Kyle Busch – Quest for Respect
Not far behind is Kyle Busch, who in this playoff run has reduced his costly errors and circumstances that plagued his first half numbers. Outside of Truex and Kyle Larson, Busch has been the other weekly contender for wins. It was a matter of time for Busch to start executing wins and when he did, his win count went from zero entering August to now five entering Homestead.
Despite winning in 2015 for his first championship, Busch’s numbers are sub-par with a 19.8 average finish. Excluding his 39th place finish in 2014, Busch has improved his numbers with three top-10 finishes and is determined to win his second title in three years.
His aggressive driving and often labeled bad attitude may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he’ll bring excitement. What I’ve admire about Busch is not being afraid to make daring moves and run hard with the top-tier guys. Above all, he loathes losing.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves for those reasons, but a second championship may help because many detractors say his 2015 title doesn’t mean jack because he missed the first 11 races due to a leg injury a day prior to the Daytona 500.
May a season-high ninth pole get Busch a step closer to another title? It will be a great start to his weekend and it’s certain he’ll put the pedal deep into the floor to get the highest grid position possible.
Brad Keselowski – Luck as a Reward
In the fans eye, the weakest link is Keselowski. I say he isn’t because of his consistency. In addition to his three wins at three different types of tracks and 15 top-5s this season, his recent Homestead numbers has been solid. Strong qualifying performances and recent runs of sixth and two thirds in a span of four years puts him in the hunt for a second championship.
Keselowski said it best at Phoenix, luck got him into the championship race after finishing 16th. Luck is what he’ll need, but the No. 2 team must come of the gate strong and have a sense of urgency to stay toe-to-toe with the three title contenders.
Keselowski has matured since his last title five years ago and regained respect from fans and peers for his admiration for the sport and tolerable driving style. If he were to win championship for Roger Penske, 2017 will go down as Team Penske’s finest seasons. IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden won his first title for “The Captain,” followed by his three other teammates who finished in the top-5 points standings.
Let’s not forget, his Camping World Truck Series driver and the biggest villain not named Denny Hamlin, Austin Cindric looks to stun everyone and win the championship in Keselowski’s final race as car owner. Also, Keselowski (along with Harvick) could become the first driver since Tony Stewart to win a Cup title for two different manufacturers. Keselowski currently drives a Ford after winning a title in Dodge’s last season in Cup.
If everything goes perfect, Keselowski, Penske and Ford will look like a million bucks after Ford Championship Weekend.
All four have a lot to gain and lose in this championship battle. It’s the strongest core of drivers that’s made it to Homestead as there’s no true longshot like Ryan Newman (2014), Truex (2015) and Carl Edwards (2016) were.
While certain headlines will overshadow the title fight, it doesn’t mean this battle won’t be stellar because it has the making of being a classic finale. Those four are among the best NASCAR has to offer and each has a great shot of hoisting the trophy after 267 grueling laps. It’ll come down to the last lap and if they must use a bumper to win, they will use it without hesitation.