by Ryan Isley
Not one, not two, not three. Four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers will take their talents to South Beach in hopes of doing what LeBron James was able to do in the city – win that elusive first championship.
Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman all head into the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday with their eyes on the prize – the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. The four drivers have survived three eliminations in the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format and will now go head-to-head to determine who takes home their first title.
Here’s the deal: the driver among those four who has a better finish in the Ford EcoBoost 400 is the Sprint Cup Series Champion. Easy, right? Well maybe. And then you realize that there will also be 39 other drivers on the track who aren’t racing for the championship but could just as easily decide it. Yeah, not so easy.
Let’s break down the four finalists, shall we?
The Final Four in 2014:
This season, all four drivers have competed in 34 races together (Hamlin missed the Auto Club 400 in California early in the season). Harvick had the best finish 11 times, Logano 10 times, Hamlin eight times and Newman five times. Newman finished better than Harvick and Logano in the race that Hamlin missed.
Harvick: The 38-year-old Harvick is in the Championship Round because he took the checkered flag at the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway last weekend. That win gained him an automatic spot in the Championship Round, one he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise as it turns out. The win at Phoenix was the fourth on the season for Harvick, which ties for the second-most wins in a season in his career.
Harvick has won eight poles on the season and owns a career-best average starting position of 9.2. Unfortunately, he experienced some difficulties with his pit crew during the season and his average finish of 13.3 is his worst in the last five seasons. Heading into the Chase, Stewart-Haas made a change and swapped crews, giving Harvick the crew that had serviced the car of Tony Stewart. The move seems to have worked, because Harvick has an average finish of 8.8 in the nine Chase races and has six finishes in the top-10.
Harvick led all drivers with 2,083 laps led this season, besting the next closest driver by 543 laps.
Hamlin: The defending champion of this race, one would think that Hamlin has to be coming into this weekend with confidence. Unfortunately, Hamlin hasn’t seen victory lane for over six months, last winning at Talladega on May 4. That win was the only one of the season for Hamlin, who had an average finish of 14.5 this season. That number didn’t improve much during the Chase, as Hamlin has an average finish of 12.4 so far.
Part of Hamlin’s problem this season has been his average starting position of 14.7, which is 13th in the series overall and the worst among the four finalists.
Logano: The young pup of the group, the 24-year-old Logano led all four drivers with five wins in 2014. His five wins were second only to Brad Keselowski, who had six but failed to advance to the Championship Round. His two wins in the Chase tie him with Harvick and Keselowski for the most wins in the last nine races. Logano has not finished worse than 12th in any of the nine Chase races and owns an average finishing position of 5.3, with six top-5s.
Logano tied Jeff Gordon with the most top-10s in the 2014 Sprint Cup season, as each driver finished in the top-10 22 times and his 16 top-5s tied him with Keselowski for the most in the series. His 11.2 average finishing position for the entire season was second in the Sprint Cup Series to just Gordon’s 10.4 and was Logano’s career-best by almost three full spots (14.1 in 2013).
Newman: It is almost a miracle that Newman not only made the Chase, but lasted through to the Championship Round. He is the only driver of the four who went winless on the season, which has to have NASCAR management scratching its head since they have decided to emphasize winning this season more than ever. Newman advanced to the Championship Round by pushing Kyle Larson into the wall on the final lap last week to gain the one spot he needed to surpass Gordon for the transfer spot.
Newman somehow has managed to make it to the final four drivers despite not having a win, not winning a pole, finishing in the top-5 just four times, finishing in the top-10 only 15 times and leading just 41 laps, which was fewer than 21 other drivers. His average finish of 13.4, however, was the fifth-best in the Sprint Cup Series and trailed only Logano of the four drivers remaining. One way he did that was by leading all Championship Round drivers with 30 lead lap finishes, and he was second only to Gordon’s 31 in the category.
The Final Four at 1.5-Mile Tracks in 2014:
This will be the 11th time that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has gone to a 1.5-mile track this season. Logano has been an ace on 1.5-mile tracks, winning twice and finishing in the top-5 six times for an impressive average finish of 6.5. Harvick has five top-5 finishes, but a 41st-place finish at Las Vegas and a 42nd-place finish at Texas in the first two races at 1.5-mile tracks this season dragged his average finish down to 13.3. Without those two races, Harvick’s average finish at 1.5-mile tracks in 2014 was 6.3. Newman and Hamlin each have just one top-5 finish and five top-10 finishes at 1.5-mile tracks in 2014. Despite just a best finish of third, Newman has been steady at 1.5-mile tracks with an average finish of 10.2. Hamlin, meanwhile, has the worst average finish of the group at 14.2.
During the Chase, there have been four races at 1.5-mile tracks. Logano and Harvick each have one win and three top-5s, while Hamlin is the only driver to finish in the top-10 all four times. Hamlin’s best finish was sixth at Chicago in the Chase’s opening race. Newman has two top-10 finishes and two 15th-place finishes. All four drivers have finished 15th or better in each of the four races, with Harvick (5.0) and Logano (5.25) leading the four in average finish.
The Final Four in Their Careers at Homestead-Miami:
Harvick: Leads the four drivers with 5-top-5s and 11 top-10s in his 13 races at Homestead-Miami and has an average finish of 8.1, the best among the four drivers. He has six straight top-10s, which includes a runner-up finish and two third-place finishes.
Hamlin: The only one of the four who has ever been to victory lane in a Sprint Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami. In fact, he has been there twice, winning in 2009 and 2014. Hamlin has four top-5s and five top-10s in his nine career races at the track. Hamlin’s downfall at Homestead-Miami has been the starting position, as he has an average start of 29.2. He won from the fifth spot last season.
Logano: The least experienced of the four at the track, obviously. In his five races at Homestead-Miami, Logano has just a single top-10 as he finished eighth last season. He has improved each of the last three races at the track, going from 39th in 2010 to 19th in 2011 to eighth in 2014.
Newman: Has raced the track 12 times in the Sprint Cups Series with one top-5 and four top-10s to show for it. He has just three finishes of 12th or better in his last eight attempts and finished 17th last season.
While the irony of Newman winning a championship by not winning a single race after winning the most races and finishing sixth the season before the Chase was created would provide the most ironic outcome for a NASCAR championship, I don’t see it happening. Newman has been that pesky 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament that keeps hanging around and advancing, but his run ends here.
We already know what I think of Hamlin even being in the Chase, but I don’t think this is his year either. With just one win this season and very little success in the Chase so far, Hamlin’s season likely ends up without him holding the trophy. His best hope is his past success at Homestead-Miami, but some of those races were run without the person winning the championship even needing to finish well.
Logano has been the hottest driver in NASCAR at stretches this season, and one of those stretches was at the beginning of the Chase when he finished 4-1-4-1-4 in the first five races. However, I just don’t think he has enough to pull it off this weekend. It is just the second time in his young career that Logano has made the Chase and he was not a factor last season, finishing eighth. The 2014 Chase will be a learning experience for Logano and just might be the moment that he points to when he does win his first championship. He will be a force for years to come, which is saying something after how his Sprint Cup Series career began.
That leaves us with one driver remaining.
Your 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion – Kevin Harvick. Riding all of the momentum of needing a win to get into the Championship Round, Harvick will go into Homestead-Miami and do what he always does – finish well. With the 11 top-10s, he definitely knows his way around the track. This time, there will be a trophy waiting for him when he crosses the finish line. And maybe a new firesuit for his wife, DeLana, that Logano can hand her.
NASCAR might have its hands full watching for other things that may happen on the racetrack, such as team orders to help a teammate or bad blood boiling over from past incidents. Or both.
In the case of Logano, he has Keselowski as a teammate and it serves to reason that Keselowski would do anything he can to help Logano win a championship, especially if it comes down to Logano and Harvick. In Harvick’s corner, he has Stewart and Kurt Busch, who at this point would be wise not to try anything that might raise eyebrows. Newman has the support of Richard Childress Racing, who you know won’t say it publicly, but would love to see Harvick’s day spoiled. Hamlin has Gibbs teammate Matt Kenseth, who might have been someone to watch for if Keselowski made the Championship Round.
There could be other incidents between drivers who are not even a factor in the championship that could alter the outcome as well. Guys who feel as if they have been raced wrong earlier in the year just might take a chance to even the score at Homestead-Miami. NASCAR has pretty much shown over the past few weeks that it is back to “boys have at it” mentality and approach, so why not just go ahead and have at it?
We may not know how this thing is going to play out or who will be left standing with the trophy at the end of the day, but there is one thing we do know for sure: this is it, the final race of 2014. Either Harvick, Hamlin, Logano or Newman will add his name to the list of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions.
It should be one hell of a party on South Beach. Harvick will bring the Budweiser.