By Rich Phillips
Finally it’s here. After 35 races, 22 race tracks, and countless run-ins NASCAR is down to the Championship Four. Only four drivers out of the field of 43 that take the green flag Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway have a chance to win the Sprint Cup. It’s year number two of the Chase format, with the highest finisher among the four contenders claiming the title. And it’s four unique drivers taking a shot at the grand prize.
The Reigning Champ
It took 14 years for Kevin Harvick to finally do it last year. He had been close a number of times in his career, finishing the season fourth or better in the standings five times. But finally at the age of 38 he put it all together in 2014.
Harvick didn’t lead the Sprint Cup Series in wins last year. He didn’t lead in top ten’s or average finish either. But he was money at the right time, helping earn him one of his many nicknames, “The Closer”.
He picked up three of his five wins in the Chase, including in the final two races with everything on the line. Had Harvick not won at Phoenix in 2014 he wouldn’t have raced for the title. Had he not won the final race at Homestead he wouldn’t have won the Cup either because Ryan Newman was right behind him.
Harvick doesn’t lead the Series in wins this year either, but he does lead in consistency. He’s tied for the lead with 27 top ten’s has the best average finish. The #4 car is usually about the fastest off the truck every week, and that makes Harvick the top pick of many to claim the Sprint Cup on Sunday.
The Storybook Ending
Very seldom do we see an athlete have a chance to go out the way he wants to, on top. John Elway quickly comes to mind for many, winning the Super Bowl in his last NFL game with the Denver Broncos. Jeff Gordon has a chance to go out the same way.
Gordon’s final rodeo hasn’t exactly gone the way he’s wanted. It’s frankly been a struggle for the four-time Sprint Cup Champion, not earning his first win of the season until race number 33 at Martinsville, and even that coming largely as the result of some odd circumstances (i.e. Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecking Joey Logano).
But it’s safe to say Gordon hasn’t been this motivated in a long time. He’s never won a championship in the Chase era, the last of his four titles coming a whopping 14 years ago. He wants his legacy to end on the highest of high notes. And he wants his young children to finally have a memory of dad being on top. Gordon knows how to get it done at Homestead, winning the pole last year and winning the race in 2012. All of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates are surely providing any assistance necessary.
Rowdy’s Real Shot
As good as he’s been the last 11 seasons, Sunday actually represents the first time in his career that Kyle Busch has a legitimate shot to win a Sprint Cup Championship. While he’s won 33 races in that span, including eight in 2008, Busch has never been able to answer the bell when it’s all on the line.
Only one time has Busch won a Chase race, but he wasn’t a member of the Chase field in his rookie year of 2005. Only three times has he finished better than tenth in the final standings. His best was fourth in 2013, but he went to Homestead with no chance to win it all.
This year might be different for Busch. A frightening crash on the season’s opening weekend, followed by the birth of his first child, seems to have softened Rowdy. He showed that dominating ability in the summer with four wins in a five race span. And his ability to qualify for the Chase, making it to top 30 in points despite missing 11 races, is noteworthy itself.
Busch could win his first Championship on Sunday as he’s warming up at the right time. He’s been top five in each of the last three races.
Many view Martin Truex Jr. as the interloper in the Championship four. The soft-spoken driver from New Jersey had only qualified for the Chase twice before this season and wasn’t really a factor in the playoffs. Add to that he’s coming off his career worst season and driving for a single-car team, and no one really believes it can be done.
But the 78 team at Furniture Row Racing believes it can, and they have the credentials to show it this year. Truex went to victory lane at Pocono this summer in what may have been the most popular win in the garage this season. Truex not only had a bad year on the track in 2014, but off the track too with his longtime girlfriend fighting ovarian cancer. While Sherry Pollex is winning that battle, Truex began winning his battles too.
The win at Pocono wasn’t this team’s only good day. It completed a string of four consecutive races in which Truex led the most laps. He’s posted career highs in both top five’s and top ten’s this year. He’s a two-time XFINITY Series champion who’s finally showing his worth at the Cup level.
The Bottom Line
Only one driver has been able to repeat as Sprint Cup Champion since 1998, and that’s Jimmie Johnson. The 48 team won five consecutive titles from 2006-10. Look for that to change on Sunday in south Florida as Kevin Harvick earns another one of those nicknames, “Happy Harvick”, running off with another race win and a second straight Sprint Cup.
Rich Phillips is the Voice of Texas Motor Speedway and host of the weekly radio show Texas Motor Speedway’s Total Access. Click here to find a station near you.
The possibility is there for the storybook ending. In his final full season as a Sprint Cup driver Jeff Gordon will be racing for the championship in his final race. The four-time champion sealed his spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead with his win Sunday at Martinsville. The win comes amid controversy, and that controversy may have directly helped out Gordon. But the bottom line is he’ll have a chance at one more Sprint Cup.
Finally a Win
For whatever reason it’s been a bit of a struggle for the 24 team this year. Prior to the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 Sunday at Martinsville they had not visited victory lane in 2015. Gordon’s four wins in 2014 were his most in seven years, but since the Chase race at Dover last October he hadn’t taken the checkered flag.
His performance of late has been better. Gordon had the fourth best average finishing position among the Chasers in the first six playoff races. He had run well and led laps in four of those six races.
Martinsville appeared to be much of the same. Gordon was running well, but not as good as Chase favorite Joey Logano. The 22 car was out front for a whopping 207 laps and should have led more had he not been intentionally wrecked (more on that in a moment). But when disaster struck for Logano, Gordon was in position to take advantage, and he seized the opportunity.
It’s hard to recall a more emotional scene for Jeff Gordon than Sunday’s victory lane at Martinsville. The veteran was celebrating wildly with his team, and then stopped down for big hugs from both of his kids and his wife. The end is in sight for Gordon. He has only three races remaining in his career. That last one at Homestead will be his record 797th in a row, and quite possibly his biggest ever. It’s been 14 years since he won that fourth Sprint Cup Championship, and many would love to see him ride off into the sunset with number five.
This Sunday it’s Jeff Gordon’s final race at Texas Motor Speedway when he runs in the AAA Texas 500. Gordon has had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the track over the years. In the early days it was the site of some of his worst days, but in more recent years the results have been much better.
Gordon’s only trip to victory lane at Texas came in April of 2009 when he dominated in No Limits, Texas. He was the runner-up in April of 2014 and last November very well should have won. A late caution erased a huge lead, and on the ensuing re-start he made contact with Brad Keselowski ruining his day and touching off a memorable skirmish on pit road.
It’s #JGFinalRodeo this Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. If you don’t already have them, you can still buy your tickets here.
Everyone knew payback was coming, and many expected it to happen at Martinsville. Matt Kenseth was still fuming from two weeks ago when he was spun out by Joey Logano with five laps to go at Kansas. It gave Logano his second win of the Contender round and kept Kenseth from winning his way into the Eliminator 8. Some thought it to be questionable, but Kenseth was blocking while the two were racing for the win late.
Sunday at Martinsville there was nothing questionable about Kenseth’s actions, although he’d like you to believe otherwise. The #20 car was involved in a wreck with Brad Keselowski that ruined both of their days. Already out of the Chase and not in the mix to win this race, Kenseth decided it was time to exact his revenge. He delivers in a huge way. Logano was the leader and the dominant car. As he was passing Kenseth to put him 10 laps down, Matt seizes his opportunity. He plows into the back of the #22 car and rams it hard into the turn one wall.
Two Different Takes
As you can see in the video, the drivers had different takes on the incident. There’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that the wreck was intentional, but Kenseth doesn’t own up to it. He probably felt he couldn’t because of possible punishment from NASCAR. And that’s likely to come anyway. There is a good chance you won’t see Kenseth running the #20 car this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
There’s also a really good chance we could see more fireworks in the AAA Texas 500 this Sunday starting at 1pm. Tempers are flaring and a legend is racing for a championship. You don’t want to be left out of the mix for NASCAR’s playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway. Tickets are going fast so buy now!
Denny Hamlin was none too pleased after being eliminated from NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup at Talladega. On Twitter, Hamlin accusing Kevin Harvick of intentionally causing the last wreck of the race to save his spot in the Chase. Total Access Host Rich Phillips spoke to Hamlin this week and asked if he's cooled off, or is still hot under the collar about it.
Come see Denny Hamlin at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, November 8th, in the AAA Texas 500, race number eight in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Find your ticket here.
Rich Phillips is the Voice of Texas Motor Speedway and the host of the weekly radio show Texas Motor Speedway's Total Access. Click here to find a station near you.