Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HOMESTEAD, FL – NASCAR’s Championship Weekend set-up included clutch performances in all three national series this past weekend at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway.
Canadian Stewart Friesen won the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at the Phoenix one-miler – his second career series victory and first ever opportunity to race for a series championship.
NASCAR Xfinity Series veteran Justin Allgaier turned in his best effort of the season when it counted most – rallying to a victory on Saturday at Phoenix and earning his third title opportunity in the past four years.
Easily the weekend’s high drama moment came Sunday when Denny Hamlin earned his sixth win of the year – rallying from fifth place in the Playoff standings to earn the last Championship 4 automatic bid displacing reigning series champion Joey Logano as a title contender.
Martin Truex Jr., who won at Martinsville Speedway, Kevin Harvick, who won at Texas Motor Speedway, join Hamlin and regular season champion Kyle Busch to settle the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship this Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Intense competition filled the 2019 Playoffs and there’s every reason to believe there will be strong storylines at Miami as well.
Hamlin is the only member of the four Cup championship eligible drivers seeking his first title hardware. And he’ll be competing against two fellow Joe Gibbs Racing teammates – 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr. and 2015 champ Kyle Busch – for the big prize.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick won the 2014 series championship – pulling off a Phoenix “walk-off” win similar to Hamlin’s this week. Harvick was ranked eighth in the standings heading into that Penultimate Playoff race and won it to earn his shot at the title. And he answered the effort with an emotional trophy hoist a week later at Homestead-Miami, Fla.
“I knew at the end of the race last week we were going to have a fighting chance,” Hamlin said. “I had all the parts and pieces I needed to go to Phoenix and win the race. But it’s all the unknowns that you don’t know about.
“I just made sure I did my job. [Crew chief] Chris [Gabehart] worked really hard and did his job. Great to have a result like that.”
Should anyone other than Hamlin win the title at Miami, the sport would be crowning only the second multi-time champion currently active in the series – joining seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.
Certainly all the Playoff eligible drivers drove at Phoenix like they were teeing up for this week’s title race in South Florida. Busch finished runner-up to Hamlin. Truex was fourth and Harvick was fifth.
This year’s title battle will mark only the second time since the Playoff eliminations started in the 2014 season that a team has had multiple drivers among the Championship 4. In 2016, both Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch advanced to the Championship 4 – a race and championship ultimately won by Hendrick Motorsport’s Jimmie Johnson.
This weekend three JGR Toyotas fill the championship grid.
“We’ve raced against the 18 [Busch] there a few times, and kind of quasi-teammates, but never under the same roof, so to speak,” Truex said, referring to the Furniture Row Racing Toyota team he was part of for the 2017 championship.
“I’m not sure [what to think]. It’s going to be interesting for sure. I feel like we’re here for a reason and that’s because we all work together so well and hopefully we’ll do that the same this week and throughout the weekend next weekend. And then Sunday, let the best team win.”
When it comes to competing on the Homestead-Miami 1.5-miler, Harvick holds the mark for laps led (373) over Busch (343), Hamlin (254) and Truex (209).
As for average finishes, Harvick’s 6.6 is easily best among this group of final four drivers and he boasts the most top-fives (10) and top-10s (16) as well.
Hamlin has a 10.6 average finish at Homestead and is the only driver among the group that has never suffered a DNF there. Truex averages a 10.8 finish and has a pair of runner-up finishes. Busch is averaging a 17.4 average finish at Homestead, but has scored six of his career seven top-10s in the last seven races.
Harvick (2014), Truex (2017) and Busch (2015) all won the race en route to their title.
Hamlin is the only multi-time winner among the foursome – earning trophies in 2009 and 2013 pre-dating the current Playoff elimination format.
“There’s still work to be done,” Hamlin told the television audience Sunday. “[The win] doesn’t guarantee a championship. Gives us a chance. Live to fight another day.
“That’s all you can ask for.”