USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Gluck breaks down the NASCAR season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. USA TODAY Sports
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. âÂ Kevin Harvick has been there and done that, surviving the first âwinner-take-allâ format last season to claim the Sprint Cup championship.
Based on that experience and a 2015 season that can be judged as spectacular âÂ Harvick has finished in the top two in 15 of this yearâs 35 racesÂ âÂ the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is seen in many circles as the favorite to win the title Sunday when he, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch line up at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Ford Ecoboost 400.
The championship competitors have compelling storylines:
— Gordon has a shot at a fifth title in his final race, the sort of farewell that few athletes have a chance to enjoy.
— Truex Jr. races for a team âÂ Furniture Row Racing âÂ based in Denver, a virtual universe from NASCARâs CharlotteÂ heartland. And his season has played out against an emotional backdrop as long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, has had a very public battle with ovarian cancer.
— Busch missed almost a third of the season while recovering from a broken leg and foot suffered at Daytona International Speedway in February.
— Harvick can become the 11th driver to win back-to-back Cup championships. Jimmie Johnson did it last, in 2009-10.
Gordon endorsed Harvick as the leader of the final four.
âHeâs the favorite,â Gordon said. âWeâre the âsentimentals.â â
Harvick said at Thursdayâs finale media day he is certain his team will be prepared for Sundayâs challenges but added that unexpected factors can rock the boat.
âYouâre confident in what you have, but you canât be confident in the results just for the fact that you just never know what can reach out and grab you,â he said. âWeâre going to control the things that we can control, and hopefully it goes well.â
Truex Jr. said that heâs thrilled to be in the championship competition not only for a shot at the title but also because of the gravitas of the moment âÂ Gordonâs final race.
âJeff Gordonâs story, obviously âÂ this is a huge weekend,â Truex said. âAnd itâs exciting just to be a part of that, to be a part of his last race and his last chance. Everybodyâs going to remember this race no matter whoâs champion because he was in it. So to be part of that is cool and special.â
Truex Jr., a driver who rose through Northeastern short-track racing to reach the No. 1 stock car series and now sits within 267 laps of the championship, might lose the âsentimentalâ lead role to Gordon, but if he races to the title he would be celebrated as one of the biggest upset champions in the sportâs history.
âThe way I see it, these three (sitting)Â next to me are supposed to win the championship, and Iâm probably not, so thatâs a pretty cool story in itself,â Truex Jr. said.
Any reasonable analysis would put Truex Jr. solidly in the underdog role (he led only one lap last season, for example), but, as he points out, his team has answered the bell.
âThereâs been a lot of ups and downs throughout my career,â he said. âIâve never really been in a position like this before. For a lot of reasons, and Iâve said it since the Chase started, we are the underdog. One-car team from Denver, rookie crew chief (Cole Pearn), Iâve never raced for a championship in this series âÂ so for a lot of reasons, we are the underdog.
âBut I think, again, what weâve done this season has proven that we belong here. Weâve done it week in and week out. You know, we can get the job done on any given day, and this Sunday is no different than that.â
The four contenders for the NASCAR championship pick who they’d want to win if they can’t. USA TODAY Sports
And the favorite? Itâs Harvick, Truex Jr. said.
âI think you have to make him the favorite based on the fact that heâs defending champion (and)Â heâs led over 2,000 laps again this year,â he said. âThose guys have had the speed to be the car to beat.â
Busch, pursuing his first Sprint Cup title, said he views racing Gordon for the title as an honor. He called Gordon his childhood hero.
âIâve beaten him a few times in my championship dreams for sure, yeah,â Busch said. âIâve already had probably six or seven by now when I was 13 years old thinking of it, but right now Iâm at zero, so weâve got to make the first one happen.â