It’s down to four drivers for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, and one of them will realize his childhood dream for the first time when the checkered flag drops Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
This is what NASCAR wanted when it went to a knockout format for the Chase and, so far, it’s produced the desired drama.
Nobody will soon forget Jeff Gordon going after Brad Keselowski after the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Or Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth trying to pummel Keselowski a couple weeks earlier at Charlotte.
Or Kyle Busch boldly claiming he’d “won” after a third-place run at Kansas and then seeing his championship aspirations vanish two weeks later.
There has been plenty of excitement during the Chase, and now it culminates with four drivers vying for their first title — Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
It’s not the sexiest or most headline-grabbing group, but the plan is for them to extend the excitement for one more race. But it’s hard to see it going that way.
It got off to a rather dull start during the championship round media day earlier this week with the four drivers taking a cautious approach in how they’re going to try to win the championship.
The only saving grace was Harvick trying to get in Logano’s head, but let’s just say nobody said anything along the lines of Tony Stewart’s infamous phrase three years ago: “I’d wreck my mom to win a championship.”
Instead, the drivers delivered PR stuff that doesn’t exactly make you want to rush and flip the station from football to racing.
“There’s a lot on the line, and we’ll be racing each other really hard, I’m sure, but we want to be able to win the championship the right way,” Logano said.
Said Hamlin: “I’ve raced everyone with respect. I feel like respect is something that’s hard to come by in our sport, but it’s not going to take someone wrecking someone to win this championship. You can do it without doing that.”
Clearly, the drivers have been taught to say the “right things.”
Let’s just hope it doesn’t carry over too much to the track.
Ranking the drivers
1. Harvick. He has been the most dominant driver of the four remaining all season and has the best average finish of any driver at Homestead.
2. Hamlin. He’s the only one of the four to win at Homestead, although a win isn’t necessarily needed to take home the crown.
3. Logano. He’s in the middle of a career year and in position to become the third-youngest champion in the sport’s history.
4. Newman. He’s the underdog story who has somehow made it this far. But it seems as though the fairytale season with no wins is going to fizzle out.
In their own words
Harvick: “For us, you come in with that confidence and knowing that your cars have been fast. You know your guys have had their backs put against the wall and done a great job under pressure, so you just want to just keep doing the things that you’ve been doing and knowing that if you do those things right, your car is going to run fast enough to win the race, which is what you need to do.”
Hamlin: “Our sport has changed over the last few years since I’ve been in it, but we got here the old-fashioned way, and to work your way all the way to the top would definitely be something special, and to do it with the group that gave me my start would mean a lot.”
Logano: “If you look at some of the drivers that Team Penske has had win championships, not just in NASCAR but in all the other series that they’ve raced in before, to have your name on that list as a Team Penske champion would mean a lot. There’s definitely some legends that they have there.”
Newman: “We’ve had a lot of fun getting to this point, and we need just to keep doing what we’re doing on the 31 side. It’s really a storybook, I guess in some form or fashion. But hopefully we can get through Sunday and write our own book.”
0 Wins by Ryan Newman, who is trying to become the first winless champion in the sport’s history.
1 Chase driver who has a career victory at Homestead — Denny Hamlin (2013).
5 Wins for Joey Logano this season, most of any remaining Chaser.
Playing spoiler: Jeff Gordon appeared ready to clinch a championship berth at Texas before being knocked out by a borderline reckless move by Keselowski, and now will have to wait another year to go for his fifth championship. But he’d love nothing more than to player spoiler at the season-ending race.
Oh, the irony: Jimmie Johnson is the best driver in this decade and would love to earn his first victory at Homestead-Miami. It would be an interesting twist, as he’s celebrated series championships with non-wins at Homestead, as the winning driver partied in Victory Lane. Said Johnson: “I don’t know how anticlimactic it really is. But if I am fortunate enough to win … the team and the individuals involved will have such pride that you won’t really notice the outside.”
End of a partnership: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had one of the best seasons in his career even though he fell short of winning a championship. But it’s a bittersweet ending as Sunday marks the final race with crew chief Steve Letarte, who will become a color analyst on NBC next season. Said Earnhardt: “There’s a lot of emotion there, a lot of strong relationships and also just for him personally he might be crew-chiefing his last race.”
Mr. Dark Horse?: If there is one driver who could conceivably come out of nowhere and win this race, it might be Greg Biffle. He has three wins and five top-10 runs in 12 career starts at Homestead. Tony Stewart is the only other driver who has three wins at the track.