Opinion: NASCAR's finale is perfectly poised
By Kelly Crandall | RACER.com NASCAR correspondent
Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and Chase Elliott tried their damnedest, and while ISM Raceway provided drama worthy of an elimination race, we ended up with exactly who we thought.
The Big 3 are headed to the title race this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Joey Logano is going to tag along, too.
No need to complain. These four drivers have been the best of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series all year. Combined, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Joey Logano have won 22 of the 35 races run.
For fellow visual learners, here are the season-best numbers put in perspective:
Best average finish: Busch 8.4; Harvick 9.0; Logano 10.9; Truex 11.0.
Top 10 finishes: Harvick 28; Busch 27; Logano 25; Truex 20.
Top five finishes: Harvick 22; Busch 21; Truex 19; Logano 12.
Most laps led: Harvick 1,932; Busch 1,438; Truex 996; Logano 854.
Through the ups, downs and unpredictability the playoffs provide, the best drivers were still spat out as the contenders. And regardless of which of the four captures the trophy Sunday night, he will deserve it.
All four have also been in this position before. Busch, Harvick, and Truex won three of the last four championships, and a first title for Logano would keep the other three from joining the elite club of multiple title-winners.
“I don’t know how you could pick a favorite,” last weekend’s winner Busch said. “Harvick has won there, we’ve won there, the 78 (Truex) has won there. Harvick has beat us all. I beat Harvick the year I won. Truex beat both of us last year. I think it’s just a matter of being able to go out there and race your race, and do what you can with what you’ve got, and have an opportunity to be able to be leading the race essentially on that last lap. That’s what it boils down to.
“Anything can happen in between, and we’ve seen it the last few years how crazy things can get with the Logano and Carl [Edwards, 2016] restart, with last year me having to run down Truex and not quite having enough to be able to pass him. Some other years it’s been maybe anti‑climactic, but I would predict this is the best four, the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time.”
Truex goes into the weekend armed with an extra sprinkle of confidence, having won last year. Image by Kinrade/LAT
Ironically, the same organizations and three of the four drivers represented last year at Homestead are back. Just swap in Logano for Keselowski at Team Penske. So, no matter how it’s sliced, the Championship 4 are not only a reliable, experienced group, but the group we should have wanted to see racing for the title since they have clearly been heads above the competition all year.
But it was entertaining watching Kurt Busch put on the drive of his life last Sunday, going from the back to the front after being penalized, only to suffer heartbreak after becoming involved in the accident with Denny Hamlin. Elliott also led laps and looked like he had a fast enough car to steal a win. Almirola certainly gave it a shot right down to the wire.
Ten cautions and two red flags? Most likely wasn’t on the betting sheet going into the weekend.
As we shift toward the finale now, let the best man win. No points, no laps led, go out and beat your competition. It absolutely is anyone’s title to win. Here’s how the four stack up:
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota
Crew chief: Adam Stevens (fourth full season; 2015 champion)
Previous Championship 4 experience: 2015, ’16, ‘17
Best Homestead result: First (2015)
How he got here: Won the Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway
What to know: Busch has momentum on his side from winning last weekend, and that comes at the right time after an up and down postseason. Competing in title races are now second nature to him, and he has finished no worse than sixth in his last three Homestead starts. Logic says that Busch will have speed this weekend, but will it be enough to go head-to-head with Harvick specifically? It’s also unlikely Busch has forgotten what happened a year ago when he says he was better than Truex but was cost the championship by Logano.
Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford
Crew chief: Rodney Childers (10th full season; 2014 champion)
Previous Championship 4 experience: 2014, ’15, ‘17
Best Homestead result: First (2014)
How he got here: Finished fifth at ISM Raceway
Harvick has the car speed, but could pit road be the weak link? Image by Thacker/LAT
What to know: Harvick probably has the fastest car in the series, and certainly at the 1.5-mile tracks. He is not fazed by competition or the pressure of title races, and will likely be the one looking to play mind games or take jabs when possible. The x-factor for Harvick and the No. 4 team could be pit road: whether it’s the driver speeding or crew mistakes, he has seemingly lost as many races as he has won because of pit road. And while interim crew chief Tony Gibson is no slouch on the pit box, can he keep the team focused and make all the right calls when it matters most?
Martin Truex Jr.
Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Toyota
Crew chief: Cole Pearn (fourth full season; 2017 champion)
Previous Championship 4 experience: 2015, ’17
Best Homestead result: First (2017)
How he got here: Two top-10 finishes in the Round of 8 and playoff points
What to know: Truex will be driving inspired as FRR runs its final race. Both Truex and Pearn have said the team has been focused on business as usual through the playoffs, but that will be put to the ultimate test this weekend as the attention on its closure ramps up. Truex also goes into the weekend with the confidence that comes with being the defending race winner and champion, and this team seems to rise in big moments. But Truex hasn’t looked as sharp since his last victory back at Kentucky in July, and in the playoffs, he has not been much a factor other than finding himself up front late at Charlotte and Martinsville. And his 1.5-mile performance in the playoffs is concerning – he did not lead a lap at either Kansas or Texas, and Truex admitted after both races the team needed to be better.
Team Penske No. 22 Ford
Crew chief: Todd Gordon (seventh full season)
Previous Championship 4 experience: 2014, ‘16
Best Homestead result: Fourth (2015 and ’16)
How he got here: Logano earned his with a victory at Martinsville Speedway
Logano won’t be expecting any favors from some of his rivals. Image by Jarrett/LAT
What to know: Logano has performed well at the 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs with 200 laps led between Las Vegas, Kansas and Texas. He also won the Kansas pole. Taking last weekend’s crash out of the equation, the No. 22 team has been hot, with no finish worse than 10th since Charlotte, and Logano has top-six finishes in the last three Homestead races. There are two big questions with Logano, and that’s whether he has the head-to-head speed to challenge the other three, and if Truex and Almirola will keep their word about how they will race him this weekend.
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