And then there were four.
After a drama-filled last few races, the finals are now set. Four drivers will still have a shot at the championship going into Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend. The final four consists of Martin Truex Jr, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski.
After everyone had calmed down from the drama at Martinsville, everyone packed up and headed south to Texas. I figured that there would be some retaliation by Chase Elliott after getting robbed of his win by Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, but everyone played nice at Texas. It was a relatively calm race overall. Really the only drama surrounding playoff contenders was when Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski made contact on the very first lap of the race. This led to early unscheduled stops for both of them. However, they both fought back to the lead lap, Busch finishing 19th and Keselowski placing 5th. Busch already had his spot locked into the finals due to his win at Martinsville.
As the race was coming to an end, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex were the only two that had a shot at winning. With Harvick closing on Truex in the final stage of the races he finally got by Truex on lap 325 of 334. Once Harvick passed him there was no chance for Truex. Harvick drove off into the sunset to take the win by about 1.5 seconds over Truex. After Texas, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick were locked into the final round due to their wins and Martin Truex had locked himself into the finals off of his ridiculous amount of playoff points. So this left one spot for five drivers going into Phoenix.
Phoenix was setting up to be a great race to decide who would get the last spot in the finals with Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin starting on the front row, both on the “outside looking in” in terms of the playoff points. Once again Phoenix was pretty tame until the final stage. After Jimmie Johnson hit the wall early on his hopes for an 8th championship ended. So with Jimmie eliminated, Blaney, Elliott, Hamlin, and Keselowski were left to battle for the final spot. Keselowski was in the last transfer spot going into Phoenix, but not far behind him was Hamlin with Blaney a handful of points farther back.
Hamlin dominated the second stage of the race, and it looked like he was on his way to win his way in. But he had a little run-in with Chase Elliott at the end of the race. While Elliott was battling with Hamlin in the top five at the end of the race, Hamlin was on the outside of Elliott on the exit of turn four and Elliott ran up the track a little bit while Hamlin scraped the wall. I’m not going to say that it was intentional, but I’m also not going to say it wasn’t. After Hamlin scraped the wall he fell back through the pack and eventually cut a tire down due to the damage. Hamlin ended up finishing 35th and missed the final four, so I was happy to see that Chase Elliott returned the favor a little bit.
Elliott was leading the race at the end as he took the lead from Matt Kenseth on lap 283 of 312. And he pulled away! It finally looked like Chase was going to get his win. But it seemed as if he ran the tires off the car and Matt Kenseth ran him down and passed him on lap 303 of 312. Chase Elliott has had plenty of heartbreaking finishes this season, but this one may have been the most heartbreaking. He did everything that he needed to do to get his first win at what would have been the perfect time. He did all of that, just to finish second, again, for what seems to be the millionth time this year.
This weekend is the “winner takes all” season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. I feel like the favorite going into Homestead must by Martin Truex. Truex’s average finishing position at Homestead is 12.3. Not very good at all. The three years he has been with his current team, Furniture Row Racing, he has finished 36th, 12th, and 17th at Homestead, so this is not one of his best tracks by any means.
Kyle Busch has also struggled throughout his career at Homestead, having an average finishing position of 19.8. Regardless, Busch has finished in the top-10 four of the last five years at Homestead, including a victory in 2015. Look for Busch to have a good finish again this year unless he has any unforeseen issues.
Kevin Harvick has always been fantastic at Homestead with an averaging finish of 6.9. Harvick has raced at Homestead 16 times throughout his career and only finished outside the top-10 two times. He has one win at Homestead, coming in 2014, and he has finished on the podium seven times. Homestead is arguably Harvick’s best track, so this could be a great opportunity for him to win his second NASCAR top-level championship.
Brad Keselowski has had mixed results at Homestead throughout his career. His average finish is 15.8 but he has two podium finishes in his last three races at Homestead, so it is tough to tell what Keselowski will do this weekend.
Given all of these stats and average finishes, I still feel like Martin Truex Jr will finish in front of all the remaining playoff drivers and win his first ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Homestead is a 1.5-mile track and Truex has dominated 1.5-mile tracks this year. It would almost be a crime if Truex doesn’t win the championship, just because of how dominant he and his team have been throughout the year, but you never know. I look forward to watching the race this weekend. I think it is going to be a great race but in the end, I expect to see that 78 car in victory lane one more time and Martin Truex Jr hoisting more than just the Homestead-Miami trophy over his head.