Previewing NASCAR’s Championship race

With 35 races completed over the last nine months, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season now comes down to one final race. This Sunday four drivers will have a shot to win the series championship during the season finale Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. This is the first year of NASCAR newest Chase for the Sprint Cup format, which has paired a field of 16 drivers down to the four finalists that will be eligible to win the title. It will simply be decided by which driver finishes highest out of the four.

The new postseason format created plenty of drama and unexpected surprises over the last nine races. Former champions, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, all won four or more races but failed to make the final round of the Chase. Gordon was having one of his best seasons and looked poised to win his elusive fifth championship but finished one point short of advancing to the championship race. Keselowski won six races but a 31st place finish at Martinsville held him back from advancing to the final round. Johnson appeared to be on track to contend for a seventh title early on in the Chase, but the bottom fell out during the Contender round. He failed to finish better than 17th and was eliminated.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. started the season by winning the Daytona 500 and added three more wins during the season. It was the first time in 10 years that he won more than three races. Earnhardt, however, stumbled in the second round of the Chase with three finishes of 20th or worse and suffered the same fate as the rest of his Hendrick teammates.

The four drivers that did advance to the final round each got there in their own way. At the start of the Chase I made my prediction of who would race for the championship and I only got one right (Kevin Harvick). Despite my poor results I will now try to rank who I think has the best chance to win the title Sunday at Homestead.

1. Kevin Harvick: Harvick has the momentum factor in his corner going into Homestead. He found himself behind the eight ball in the points standings following a crash at Martinsville in the first race of the Eliminator round, . Harvick bounced back at Texas with a runner-up finish and then won at Phoenix last week to clinch a berth in the championship.

The #4 car has been fast right from the beginning of the season, but bad luck and poor pit stops prevented Harvick from translating that into good finishes during first half of the year. The second half  has been much better for him. Before the crash at Martinsville, Harvick had not finished worse than 19th since Loudon and Daytona back in July. He currently leads the series in pole position and laps led.

With fast equipment and some good luck Harvick should be able to win the championship on Sunday. He has an average finish of 8.1 at Homestead with top ten finishes in his last six races there.

2. Joey Logano: Logano will go down as the surprise of the season for me. He exploded for five wins this season after starting the year with only three career victories in the Cup Series. Logano, along with teammate Brad Keselowski, has turned Penske Racing into the top Ford team in the series and he has a chance to get Roger Penske his second Cup championship.

The Penske bunch started the year strong as they dominated NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying format. Logano translated that into a couple wins early in the year but also had four finishes of 32nd or worse in the first half of the season. Just like Harvick, Logano has had a stronger second half of the schedule. He has not finished worse than 14th since finishing 40th at Loudon to begin the second half of the year, including winning three of the last 11 races.

Logano came in to the Sprint Cup Series just five years ago at the age of 19. There was a lot of hype surrounding him, especially after Mark Martin labeled him the next biggest thing since sliced bread. On top of that he had to try and fill the shoes left by Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing. Now with some experience under his belt and a new home at Penske, Logano could be make the next big step and win a championship.

3. Denny Hamlin: Hamlin has been one of the drivers that benefited from the new Chase format. He qualified for the postseason by winning at Talladega back in May even though he missed a race earlier in the season. Under the current points format drivers must run every race to be eligible for the Chase or receive a medical waiver by NASCAR, which Hamlin got. Under previous formats Hamlin would not have been in title contention based on the fact he missed a race but he is very much alive for the championship this season.

His stats aren’t as good as Harvick’s or Logano’s but he’s been consistent at the right time. Hamlin has top ten finishes in five of the last six races, which is how he’s managed to advance to the championship round. His most memorable performance of the season was last week at Phoenix. Hamlin led early in the race but a broken valve stem forced him to make an extra pit stop under caution. He was able to fight his way back on to the lead lap and secure enough points to advance.

While Hamlin does have two career wins at Homestead and was in a similar position to win the title in 2009 I just don’t see him getting the job done. I think that Harvick and Logano have much stronger teams and will perform better.

4. Ryan Newman: Newman’s appearance in this championship picture is similar to an 8-8 Wild Card team making a Super Bowl or a Cinderella story in the NCAA Tournament. He is looking to win the title despite not winning a race this season and making the Chase on points. The secret to Newman’s success has been consistency, he only has two finishes of 24th or worse this season and his worst finish during the Chase is 18th.

It would be huge for Newman’s car owner, Richard Childress, to win the championship. Childress has seven titles to his credit but all of those were with the legendary Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Earnhardt’s last championship happened 20 years ago.

Newman’s track record of solid finishes is admirable, but it is not going to win him a championship. It’s going take at least a top five finish to win it all and Newman only has four of those this season. That is the fewest out of the four drivers going for the title.

Dave & Adam’s is going to kick off the final weekend of the NASCAR season on Friday with our first ever live case break of a racing product. DACW Live is going to open an eight-box case of 2015 Press Pass Cup Chase on Friday. We have 23 random driver slots available for this break so be sure to get your before it sells out.

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