First Look: NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4

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Martin Truex Jr. (78) and Kyle Busch (18) will be two of the four drivers battling for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR photo)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — After 35 races and 13,640 cumulative miles of racing, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season will officially draw to a close with Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

What began as a season in which anyone could have been the favorite turned into a dominant — and breakout — season for Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing, in which they scored seven victories and mastered NASCAR’s new playoff points rules to cruise into the Championship 4.

Joined by former series champions Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, the last men standing will wage war at the 1.5-mile South Florida oval Sunday afternoon and the highest finisher of the four will leave with the coveted Monster Energy championship cup.

Here’s a look at how each member of the quartet got there and what they need to do to win the big prize on Sunday:

Martin Truex Jr.

SEASON STATS: 7 wins, 18 top-fives, 25 top-10s, 6 DNFs and an average finish of 9.7

HOMESTEAD STATS: 0 wins, 3 top-fives, 7 top-10s, 2 DNFs and an average finish of 12.3

Truex was one of the best drivers during the 2016 season, and made it to the Round of 8 in the playoffs before a blown motor ended his title chances. Since then, this team has been on a redemption mission, and they have been the best in NASCAR over the course of 2017.

With seven wins and over 2,100 laps led this year, Truex has led the Cup Series in nearly every statistical category. Both of the aforementioned marks are series bests, and the latter represents over a fifth of all laps run in 2017. Had NASCAR run the Cup Series without the playoffs, Truex would have been celebrating his first series championship two weeks ago at Texas.

Instead, he had to settle for celebrating a place clinched in the Championship 4 on points.

This will be Truex’s second appearance in the Championship 4, having been a surprise contender two years ago, but there are no surprises about his place there this time around. Based off his year-long form, Truex is arguably the championship favorite, with six wins on mile-and-a-half race tracks this season, including four in a row at one point.

But as always, there are wrinkles to this title chase.

Truex is the only driver in this year’s Championship 4 without a prior title; the other three are all former series champions, and two of them have won the title in this playoff format.

The three champions to-date under the current playoff format (Harvick in 2014, Busch in 2015 and Jimmie Johnson last year) have clinched the title by winning this race at Homestead; Truex has yet to finish in the top 10 in Miami since he moved to Furniture Row Racing in 2014. Truex also has the most DNFs of the Championship 4 drivers this season (6), and has had a habit of losing races late via bad pit stops or bad restarts.

During the rest of the year there is time to recover, but there is no chance of doing that here: one bad final pit stop or restart could cost Truex the championship. But if his team can execute, Truex should be in contention come go-time on Sunday evening.

Kyle Busch

SEASON STATS: 5 wins, 13 top-fives, 21 top-10s, 4 DNFs and an average finish of 11.8

HOMESTEAD STATS: 1 win, 2 top-fives, 5 top-10s, 2 DNFs and an average finish of 19.8

Since he won his first race of the season at Pocono in August, Kyle Busch has been the man most likely to capitalize on Truex’s misfortunes and mistakes.

He’s rattled off four more wins since that race (a series-best), and is the only driver in the Championship 4 besides Truex to win in two of the three playoff rounds completed. While the Round of 12 was abysmal by his own standards, Busch managed to skate through it and won at Martinsville to seal a place in Homestead.

Now, Busch returns to the Championship 4 for the third year running.

Busch’s biggest advantage will be a combination of Toyota horsepower (in a year where they have clearly been the fastest of the three manufacturers) and experience. Busch won this race and the series title two seasons ago after missing the first 10 races with a broken ankle; a repeat on Sunday would make him a two-time series champion.

His Homestead statistics have improved with each passing year. Save for a broken rear axle in 2014, Busch has finished in the top 10 in each of the last five years here. Among the Championship 4, his only poor Homestead statistic is his average career finish, which is the worst of the bunch.

However, this race is a test of a team’s mile-and-a-half program during a season more than anything else, and in that sense, Busch and the No. 18 have been one of the best. If his overall form holds, then it should be he and Truex racing heads-up for the championship in South Florida.

Continued on the next page…

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