Just a small piece of the big prize awaiting the champion on Sunday. (NASCAR photo)
After 35 races and nearly 23,000 kilometres of racing, the 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series season draws to a close with Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (7:00 pm GMT, Premier Sports, MRN). Sports Gazette looks at what the four championship contenders need to do in order to win the title:
Martin Truex, Jr.
SEASON STATS: 7 wins, 18 top-5s, 25 top-10s, 6 DNFs, average finish: 9.7
HOMESTEAD STATS: 0 wins, 3 top-5s, 7 top-10s, 2 DNFs, average finish: 12.3
Martin Truex, Jr. was one of the best drivers during the 2016 season, and made it to the Round of 8 in the playoffs before a blown motor ended his title chances. Since then, this team has been on a redemption mission, and they have been the best in NASCAR over the course of 2017. Truex has seven wins and over 2,100 laps led this year; both of those marks are series bests (the latter represents over a fifth of all laps run in 2017). Had NASCAR run the Cup Series with the pre-2003 points system, which had no playoffs, Truex, Jr. would have been celebrating his first series championship two weeks ago at Texas. Instead, he had to settle for celebrating a place clinched in the Championship 4 on points. This will be his second appearance in the Championship 4, having been a surprise contender two years ago. Going off his 2017 form, Truex should be the championship favourite. But as always, there are wrinkles to this title chase. Truex is the only driver in this year’s Championship 4 without a championship; the other three are all former series champions, and two of them have won the title in this playoff format. The three champions under the current playoff format have clinched the title by winning this race at Homestead; Truex has yet to finish in the top 10 here since he moved to Furniture Row Racing in 2014. Truex also has the most DNFs of the Championship 4 drivers this season (6), and has had a habit of losing races late via bad pit stops or bad restarts. During the rest of the year there is time to recover, but there is no chance of doing that here: one bad final pit stop or restart could cost Truex the championship. Nevertheless, if his team can execute, Truex should be in contention come Sunday evening.
SEASON STATS: 5 wins, 13 top-5s, 21 top-10s, 4 DNFs, average finish: 11.8
HOMESTEAD STATS: 1 win, 2 top-5s, 5 top-10s, 2 DNFs, average finish: 19.8
Since he won his first race of 2017 at Pocono in August, Kyle Busch has been the man most likely to capitalise on Truex’s misfortunes and mistakes. He’s rattled off four more wins since that race (a series best), and is the only driver in the Championship 4 besides Truex to win in two of the three playoff rounds completed. While the Round of 12 was abysmal by his own standards, Busch managed to skate through it and won at Martinsville to seal a place in Homestead. He returns to the Championship 4 for the third year running. Busch’s biggest advantage will be a combination of Toyota horsepower (in a year where they have clearly been the fastest of the three manufacturers) and experience. Busch won this race and the series title two seasons ago after missing the first 10 races with a broken ankle; a repeat on Sunday would make him a two-time series champion. His Homestead statistics have improved with each passing year. Save for a broken rear axle in 2014, Busch has finished in the top 10 in each of the last five years here. Amongst the Championship 4, his only poor Homestead statistic is his average career finish, which is the worst of the bunch. However, this race is a test of a team’s mile-and-a-half programme during a season more than anything else, and in that sense, Busch and the No. 18 have been one of the best. If the overall form of 2017 holds, then it should be he and Truex racing heads-up for the championship in South Florida.
SEASON STATS: 2 wins, 13 top-5s, 22 top-10s, 4 DNFs, average finish: 11.3
HOMESTEAD STATS: 1 win, 8 top-5s, 14 top-10s, 0 DNFs, average finish: 6.9
In the absence of Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick might be the most Johnson-esque of the Championship 4 drivers this season. Johnson had not been his usual dominant self in 2016 leading up to last year’s race, and had no wins at Homestead in 15 starts. In typical Johnson fashion, he rose to the occasion and won the race, bringing home a record-tying seventh series title in the process. Harvick’s 2017 matches Johnson’s 2016 better than anyone else here, in that it hasn’t been his best season to date. He only has two wins, at Sonoma and Texas. But consistency in the playoffs has been key for the No. 4 team: outside of the two DNFs at New Hampshire and Talladega, they have finished in the top 10 in all but one race. Now, Harvick is back at Homestead, where he won the race to win his first series title three years ago. After missing the Championship 4 last year, Harvick is back in it for the third time in his career. His 2014 experience will help, but the real advantage for Harvick will come from his ability to perform at this specific track. He has more top-5s, more top-10s, and an average finish that is nearly six positions higher than the next closest driver, Martin Truex, Jr. (12.3). That makes him, statistically speaking, the best of the Championship 4 drivers here. Furthermore, Harvick hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 at Homestead since 2007. He and the No. 4 team have been playing catch-up for most of 2017, after switching from Chevrolet to Ford in the offseason. But the aim has always been to peak at this time of the year, with a chance of winning the title. Now they are on equal footing with everyone else, and in a one-off race for the championship, Harvick might be the best positioned to rise up and become a two-time series champion.
SEASON STATS: 3 wins, 15 top-5s, 20 top-10s, 5 DNFs, average finish: 12.6
HOMESTEAD STATS: 0 wins, 2 top-5s, 3 top-10s, 1 DNF, average finish, 15.9
Even Keselowski himself admitted that he was a little lucky to get into the Championship 4 after Sunday’s race at Phoenix. He was not as fast as either Denny Hamlin or Chase Elliott in the Round of 8, but after both drivers wrecked each other out of the Championship 4, Keselowski was the consistent one who was able to take advantage and get the final place on points. He now returns to Homestead, where he won the series title in 2012. His 2017 has been defined by three wins: two early in the year at Atlanta and Martinsville, and one in the Round of 12 at Talladega to earn a spot in the Round of 8. In true Team Penske fashion, steady performances outside of those victories have carried Keselowski to Miami: 15 top-5s and 20 top-10s are better numbers than anyone in the Championship 4 not named Truex. As for Homestead in particular, Keselowski is another driver who has improved over time. He started his career with five runs outside the top-10, but since Team Penske switched to Ford in 2013, Keselowski has finished fifth, third and third at Homestead (not withstanding last year, where he was part of the melee that took out Championship 4 drivers Carl Edwards and Joey Logano). The progress is good, but Sunday will represent new territory for the No. 2. When Keselowski won the 2012 title, it was under a different points system, and he had the championship mostly secured by the time the series came to Miami. This will be his first appearance in the Championship 4, whereas the other three drivers have all been in prior editions of it. Keselowski has been good in 2017, but of this elite group of drivers, he has been the weakest. In this scenario, he will have to rise to a new level and find a way to win his first Homestead race in order to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.