NASCAR’s championship four a dream class – USA TODAY
AVONDALE, Ariz. âÂ One of the strangest seasons in NASCAR history got another bizarre twist in setting the field for its championship race Sunday night at Phoenix International Raceway.
The four drivers themselves, though, will give NASCAR a great chance to have a classic finale.
Defending champion Kevin Harvick, underdog Martin Truex Jr. and comeback kid Kyle Busch will join four-time champion Jeff Gordon âÂ in his final career Cup race âÂ to determine the 2015 Sprint Cup Series title next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It happened thanks to a rain-shortened race at Phoenix, which trimmed the final 93 laps off an event that was already delayed nearly sevenÂ hours.
That meant there was no drama in this one,Â but there will be at Homestead. All four drivers will enter the race with even points, and whoever finishes first among them is the champion.
So which driver has the advantage?
âThe past champion, probably,â Gordon said of Harvick.
âHeâs got four championships, so I think heâs got the advantage,â Harvick replied.
âIâve got none,â Kyle Busch said. âIâm playing with house money, so Iâve got the advantage.â
âIâm playing with house money, too,â Gordon said.
In reality, the favorite is certainly Harvick. He doesnât have as many wins (three) as four-time winner Busch, but his season has been even more consistent than his 2014 title year.
Harvick already hasÂ led more laps than last season and has seven more top-10 finishesÂ and eight more top-fives. Heâs often been known as the fastest car every week.
But Harvick has endured a rocky Chase, starting with an incident with Jimmie Johnson at Chicagoland Speedway, running out of gas at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, being accused of manipulating the finish while his engine blew up at Talladega Superspeedway and finishing the Texas Motor Speedway race with a broken shifter.
âI don’t want to be greedy and be disappointed with how it went today when you look at the big picture,â he said. âI think it’s definitely been a Chase that’s been a little bit up and down for us, but the guys have battled through, and we’ve survived a lot of situations to be in contention for next week.â
PHOTOS: Highlights from the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup
Aside from Harvick, there are two incredible storylines âÂ Gordon and Busch âÂ that would be worthy of Disney movies.
Few thought Gordon would be ending his career with a shot at the championship, but heâll have a legitimate shot to finally become âFive Timeâ before he hangs up his helmet after Sunday’s race. His presence alone will bring monster attention to the championship, and heâs certainly the sentimental favorite among NASCAR fans and even most of the garage.
âWe feel very, very fortunate and excited,â Gordon said. âWhen I set out into this season and made the (retirement) announcement, I just hoped that this could possibly happen — and it is. And now it’s not enough for us just to go down there and be a part of it.
âWe want to go there and push hard and get every single thing we can out of ourselves and our team and see if we can’t give these guys a run for their money.â
Busch,Â a Gordon fan growing up,Â would probably be among those rooting for the No. 24 car if he wasnât in the championship himself. But there he is, having improbably made it further into the playoff than ever in his career despite missing the first 11 races with a broken leg and foot âÂ injuries he suffered in theÂ Xfinity Series openerÂ the day before the Daytona 500.
The lone Toyota driver in the title field âÂ heâs competing against three Chevrolets âÂ had to race his way into the top 30 to be eligible for the Chase and also win a race (he ended up winning four).
âGoing to Homestead for the first time with the opportunity to win a championship is really awesome,â Busch said. âOnce I was able to return, it felt pretty good to get back in the car and have my team guys motivated and ready to have me back, and we’ve really excelled since then.â
Finally, thereâs Truex. Though his Furniture Row Racing team is part of the Richard Childress Racing alliance âÂ which put Ryan Newman into the title race last year âÂ itâs still a single-car operation out of Colorado, far from the rest of the NASCAR world.
Truex went from 24th in the points standings last year âÂ his first year with the team âÂ to now guaranteeing he will finish no lower than fourth. His previous career high in points? Eleventh.
âI feel like we’ve overcome a lot of obstacles,â Truex Jr. said. âWe have kind of overcome a lot of odds, and just proud to be part of this group and looking forward to having the opportunity to do something that we’ve all dreamed about our whole lives next weekend.â
Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck