Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HOMESTEAD, FL – After 35 races, including nine high-action, high-drama Playoff events the field of four is set with three former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions – Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – competing against a highly motivated six-race winner Denny Hamlin who is looking for his first title in 14 fulltime seasons.
There is no shortage of storylines in the build-up to Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Reigning series champion Joey Logano just missed earning a championship berth last week at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway meaning that there will not be a back-to-back series champ. The last time that happened was when Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight title in 2010. In fact, should the 2014 champ Harvick, 2015 champ Busch or 2017 champ Truex win Sunday it would be only the second multi-time champion besides Johnson currently competing in the series.
A win for Hamlin would mark the eighth different champion in the last nine years. And he shows up at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami track as the only one among the four with multiple wins – 2009 and 2013. His best ever finish in the championship came in 2010 when he finished runner-up to Johnson.
All four of these drivers bring incredible credentials to the title table.
Truex, Busch and Hamlin are Joe Gibbs Racing teammates marking the first time in Playoff competition three drivers from one team advanced to the championship race. Harvick, who drives the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, will be contending for the big trophy for the fifth time in the six-year history of the Playoff format.
Truex, driver of the No. 19 JGR Toyota, won a series best seven races this season including three in the Playoffs which was also most among the Playoff field. He won at Homestead to claim his 2017 championship for the small Furniture Row Racing team and finished runner-up there last year. This will be his debut for Joe Gibbs in the big race. He has earned 14 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes on the season and scored two (Charlotte and Las Vegas) of his seven wins on 1.5-mile tracks similar to Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Truex’s JGR teammate Kyle Busch won the regular season championship and was the first in the series to accumulate at least four victories. And he started the year with a record-tying streak of 11 consecutive top-10 finishes. The driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota ultimately earned his title shot, however, based on points. He hasn’t won a race since June 2 at Pocono, Pa. Although he’s led the second most laps (343) among the four title contenders at Homestead, his only win came in his 2015 championship year. His 17.4 average finish at the track is lowest among his four fellow championship competitors.
Of all the drivers – championship eligible or not – Harvick must feel most optimistic. Not only has he led the most laps (373) among the title foursome he boasts the best average finish (5.643) in the field. He earned his championship shot with his third consecutive Playoff victory at Texas two weeks ago. He has four wins on the season and has finished in the top-10 at Homestead for the last 11 consecutive years. He’s finished top-five at Homestead in the last five years.
Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota, shows up at Miami the most recent winner taking the trophy at Phoenix last week. He has six victories on the year, including the season-opening Daytona 500, which was a very quick confirmation that he and his first-year crew chief Chris Gabehart were a successful combination. Hamlin won at Texas and Kansas 1.5-milers similar to Homestead and already has more Homestead trophies at home than any of the other championship contenders.
Since the current Championship 4 Playoff format began in 2014, a championship-eligible driver has won every year at Homestead.
XFINITY IS SET TO NAME A CHAMPION
Familiar names and the season’s most frequent Victory Lane visitors have earned the marquee billing for Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p. m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Regular season champion and eight-race winner Christopher Bell is attempting to win his first Xfinity Series championship before moving into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ranks next year. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has turned in a season for the ages. Now he wants to cap it with a championship Saturday afternoon.
For much of the year, the Xfinity Series buzz has centered on the outstanding output of its three championship leading drivers, Bell, Cole Custer and reigning series champion Tyler Reddick. The three have won 20 of the 32 races to date led by Bell’s eight wins, Custer’s seven and Reddick’s five. The fourth member of this Championship 4 is veteran Justin Allgaier, who earned his championship shot with his first victory of the season, last Saturday at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway.
Should Bell win on Saturday he would become only the fourth driver in history to win both NASCAR’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series and Xfinity Series championships. He’s certainly shown the way topping the series in victories for the second consecutive year. The 24-year old Oklahoman must find a way to turn his Homestead fortune around. He finished 11th last year, last of the four championship eligible drivers. His help on the pit box, crew chief Jason Ratliff, is certainly a leader to help culminate the year with a trophy. He led Kyle Busch to the 2009 Xfinity Series title. Should Bell win, it would be Joe Gibbs Racing’s record sixth owner’s championship.
Cole Custer, driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, shows up at Homestead feeling there is some business to finish. Custer won his first Xfinity Series race at the South Florida track in 2017 leading a dominating 182 of the 200 laps. And he came so close last year in his first title shot, ultimately finishing runner-up to Reddick after winning the pole position and leading a race best 95 laps.
The regular season champion and 2018 champ Reddick certainly has established himself a statistical favorite for the championship hardware. The driver of the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet led the series in top-fives (23) and top-10s (26). Should he answer his win last year, Reddick would become only the seventh drivers in Xfinity Series history to win back-to-back titles. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the last to do so in 2011-12. He would also be the first to do so with two different teams. Last year he won the championship for JR Motorsports. Although Reddick has not won a race in this year’s Playoffs, he was runner-up at Kansas and his 6.5 average finish on the season is best in the series.
The seasoned and well-liked veteran Allgaier returns to the championship mix after missing out on the Championship 4 last year. The previous two years he finished third in the title run. A championship for Allgaier would give his JR Motorsports team its third consecutive title – matching William Byron (2017) and Reddick (2018). The driver of the No. 7 JRM Chevrolet has a pair of top-10 finishes in the last three Homestead races with a career-best showing of sixth in 2016,
GANDER TRUCKS READY FOR CHAMPIONSHIP
Brett Moffitt has the opportunity become only the second driver in history to win back-to-back NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championships. The first, Matt Crafton, is among the foursome looking for a title as well in Friday night’s Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Canadian Stewart Friesen and crowd-favorite Ross Chastain join Moffitt and Crafton in the race for the championship – the four drivers representing four different race teams. The Friday night truck finale is a highly anticipated and a very dependable source of excitement to kick off NASCAR’s Ford Championship Weekend.
In the case of these four title seekers, it’s opportunity to make history – both personally and for the popular racing series.
Just winning the race Friday would be a historical feat for Moffitt as no driver has ever won back-to-back truck races at the Homestead-Miami Speedway 1.50-miler. He would join Crafton as the only other driver to win consecutive titles and even that would be unique as Moffitt currently drives the No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet and last year drove a Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota. It would mark the first time a driver has won two titles for different teams and makes.
Certainly his perfect – one race-one win – previous output at Homestead gives the 27-year old Iowa native Moffitt reason to be optimistic. He also leads the series in victories (four) this year and is tied with Friesen for most top-five finishes (12). Among the four championship-eligible drivers he’s the only one with multiple wins (two) in the Playoffs. His GMS team won the 2016 title with Johnny Sauter as driver and is the only team to put a driver in the Playoffs all four years of the format. And Moffitt’s crew chief Jerry Baxter has earned two previous wins in the Homestead finale with Cale Gale (2012) and Bubba Wallace (2014).
Although Crafton, 43, has a pair of shiny championship trophies at home, he hasn’t won a race since the Eldora, Ohio dirt track in July, 2017 – the longest winless streak of his highly-decorated career. He and his ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter join Moffitt as the only fulltime truck series drivers with a previous Homestead win. Not only does Crafton have that 2015 victory – from pole position – at the track, the California native has an impressive overall resume there. His 18 starts is most among the title contenders and he has earned top-10 finishes in the last five consecutive Homestead races. Nine of his career 14 series wins and 10 of his 16 career pole positions have come on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead.
For Ross Chastain, who is making his first NASCAR championship appearance in the series, this is essentially a “home” race. The 26-year old is from Alva, Florida – a couple hours west of Homestead toward Florida’s Gulf Coast. The driver of the No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet has an amazing story of qualifying for this opportunity. He originally declared his championship intentions in the Xfinity Series but after a race victory and a well-timed confidence boost, he switched his title eligibility to the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
It was certainly a career-boosting move as Chastain won three races and scored a series best 18 Top-10s since and will be competing for his first championship trophy this weekend. He has a best showing of eighth place (in 2013) in five previous Homestead starts driving every make of truck in that random span of entries. This will be his crew chief Phil Gould’s first truck race at the track, but he guided cars in six Xfinity Series races there previously.
For the series most recent race winner, last weekend’s Phoenix winner Stewart Friesen, this championship opportunity comes in the midst of a career year for the 36-year old Canadian. He earned his first career series victory on the Eldora dirt track this summer than answered with the all-important Playoff win last week. His 12 top-five finishes in the No. 52 Halmar-Friesen Chevrolet ties him with reigning champion Moffitt for most on the year.
In three Homestead-Miami Speedway starts, Friesen’s best finish is fourth – last year. He’s yet to lead a lap at the track but his 7.0 average finish – and Phoenix victory – this postseason bids well for his title potential. As does the fact his crew chief Tripp Bruce has a pair of Homestead wins, leading Kasey Kahne (2004) and Johnny Benson Jr. (2007) to victory previously.