After nine, often controversial, races, just one event remains in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of playoffs that crowns its series champion. Emerging from the original 16-driver field that was whittled down by four every three races are Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., who will race for the championship Sunday at Miami-Homestead Speedway.
In a nice bit of symmetry, each of the title finalists represents a particular storyline. Harvick, the defending Sprint Cup champion, is the favorite to repeat; Gordon, who is retiring at the end of the season, is the obvious sentimental favorite; Busch, who returned from devastating injuries sustained in a February crash, is the comeback story; while Truex, who drives for a single-car team based in all places, Denver, Col., is the underdog.
But beyond trite clichés, there is more to know about the title contenders. And with that in mind here is an overview look at the four title contenders.
Car: No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2015 wins: Four
Homestead wins: Zero
Homestead average finish: 23.1
Best points ranking: Fourth (2013)
Potential impact on legacy: Long regarded as one of NASCAR’s top talents, Busch has never translated that prowess to the postseason. More often than not he flames out, not once entering the final race of the year with a shot at the championship. A win Sunday would considerably raise his profile and begin building a case that he may be one of the sport’s all-time greats.
Note of interest: Since Busch’s 2005 rookie season only Jimmie Johnson owns more victories (61) — except only one of Busch’s 33 wins came in a Chase race, of which he wasn’t even playoff eligible.
Case for winning: Neither ability nor speed — JGR won a series-best 13 times spread among its four drivers — are in question. Add those elements with the maturity Busch demonstrated in coming back from great adversity — he missed 11 races with serious leg injuries — and everything is present for him to capture a first championship.
Why he won’t: After winning four out of five races during the summer, Busch hasn’t visited Victory Lane since and made it this far more because of consistency, not necessarily sheer brilliance. That coincides with Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports supplanting JGR as NASCAR’s premier organization.
Car: No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2015 wins: One
Homestead wins: One
Homestead average finish: 10.6
Best points ranking: First (1995, ’97, ’98, 2001)
Potential impact on legacy: With or without a fifth championship Gordon’s is well beyond being secured — he’s in discussion as one of NASCAR’s greatest ever. To win another title in his final race before retirement would be unprecedented and give him the perfect cap to an illustrious career.
Note of interest: Gordon has never won a championship in the Chase format (2004 to present) — all four titles came under the old system where the driver who amassed the most points throughout the duration of the season wore the series crown.
Case for winning: Sometimes storybook endings do happen and Gordon earning a title berth via a magical win at Martinsville, then going out in the absolute best way possible, certainly qualifies.
Why he won’t: Homestead is a mile-and-a-half around and that size track has confounded the No. 24 team this season — Gordon’s best result is fourth on ovals of that length. And in a race where the champion will likely need to take it outright, he might not possess the car capable of doing so.
Car: No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
2015 wins: Three
Homestead wins: One
Homestead average finish: 7.6
Best points ranking: First (2014)
Potential impact on legacy: Thirty men have held the Cup Series trophy, but it’s winning a second that really elevates a driver to a higher plateau. And if Harvick can again successfully navigate the rigors of the knockout elimination Chase format, it would only enhance the accomplishment.
Note of interest: Harvick could join Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Jimmie Johnson as the only modern era drivers (1972 to present) to win a first series championship and follow it with a second the subsequent year.
Case for winning: There are myriad reasons to like Harvick’s chances, including the fact he leads the circuit in top-five finishes, laps led and average finish. But beyond just the numbers, it’s his innate ability to rise up when he absolutely needs to. Three times he’s produced in must-win situations — twice a year ago and this season in the Round 1 elimination race at Dover.
Why he won’t: Considering the abundance of problems — self-inflicted and otherwise — that have mired the No. 4 team, it’s almost as if Harvick is going for degree of difficulty in his title defense. Eventually the odds of an issue becoming too much to overcome will catch up and it’s not inconceivable it transpires Sunday.
Martin Truex Jr.
Car: No. 78 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
2015 wins: One
Homestead wins: Zero
Homestead average finish: 10.0
Best points ranking: 11th (2007, ‘12)
Potential impact on legacy: Truex prevailing Sunday would make him the unlikeliest premier division champion since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. And though a championship would transform Truex Jr.’s career — a journeyman driver with all of three wins in 368 starts — the win has the potential for Furniture Row Racing, a mid-size team with limited resources, to break the stranglehold Hendrick, JGR, SHR and a few others have on the championship.
Note of interest: Furniture Row could become the first single-car team to win the championship since 1994 when Dale Earnhardt won his seventh and final title driving for Richard Childress Racing.
Case for winning: Truex and Furniture Row excel on intermediate speedways, the exact kind of track where Sunday’s finale will be staged. Most recently, the No. 78 car was fast two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, which shares similar characteristics with Homestead — including size and the tire compound utilized — with Truex in contention for the win until a loose wheel relegated him to eighth. If that performance is replicated, the seemingly improbable will become reality.
Why he won’t: That Truex and Furniture Row have made it this far is a remarkable accomplishment, but there is a reason why single-car teams are often punchless against multi-car juggernauts.