by Ryan Isley
The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has come down to this. Four drivers, 267 laps and 401 miles to crown a champion. That part is going to be similar to any NASCAR season under the current Chase for the Sprint Cup format. But one thing this season has that not every season will have is that all four drivers have a storyline heading into Homestead.
Kyle Busch – The Comeback Kid:
The 30-year-old driver couldn’t have possibly imagined he would be sitting in this position just one week into the 2015 season. Before he could even compete in a single race in the Sprint Cup Series this season, Busch underwent surgery to repair a compound fracture in his lower right leg and a fracture in his left foot he suffered in a crash with just 10 laps to go in the first NASCAR Xfinity Series race of the season at Daytona International Speedway. And just like that, it seemed like Busch would be looking towards 2016 as the season he could possibly win his first Sprint Cup Series championship.
NASCAR had announced before Busch climbed into the seat of his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota that Busch would be eligible for the Chase if he could win at least one race and finish the regular season in the top 30 in points. It seemed more like an empty gesture, seeing as how it would be difficult to get that high in points after missing 11 races.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Busch somehow won at Sonoma Raceway in just his fifth Sprint Cup Series race of the season to earn the win part of the equation. He wasn’t done finding victory lane, though. Starting at Sonoma, Busch went on to win four out of five races to put himself right in the thick of contention. After a second-place finish at Watkins Glen two weeks after his fifth win, Busch was 30th in points and in the Chase.
Busch has also had a great season off the track, as he and wife Samantha welcomed their first son, Brexton, into the world the week before Busch took part in that first Sprint Cup Series race of the season at Charlotte in May. The birth of Brexton and what felt like a new demeanor from Busch following the injury and Brexton’s arrival seem to have made Busch almost more likeable among fans.
Now can he make the comeback complete with the most unlikely of championships?
Jeff Gordon – One Final Ride:
The four-time Sprint Cup Series champion announced heading into the 2015 season that it would be his final season as a full-time driver. While Gordon has not finished higher than 6th in the championship race since 2009, he has now made the Chase for 10th season in a row and will finish no worse than 4th in 2015. Despite not winning a race in the regular season this year, Gordon was able to make the Chase based on points.
As everyone else was looking at 2015 as a ceremonial send-off for the 44-year-old, Gordon entered the season looking to win a championship and guaranteed himself a spot in the Championship Round of the Chase by winning the first race of the Eliminator Round at Martinsville. Not only did he take away a nice clock, but he also secured his spot in Homestead to try and finish the “drive for five.”
The driver of the No.24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is the final man standing from one of NASCAR’s best teams, something many people probably wouldn’t have expected heading into 2015. The two popular preseason picks from Hendrick Motorsports to be racing for a championship[ at Homestead would have been six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and the sport’s most popular driver – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Gordon was once one of the most hated drivers in NASCAR but in recent years has become one of the sport’s more beloved stars. That popularity became obvious throughout the 2015 season as fans continued to line up to see a surefire first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer for the final time.
Gordon is third all-time in wins in NASCAR’s premier series with 93, and if he can win his 94th in his NASCAR-record 797th straight Sprint Cup Series start, the final ride will be one to remember.
Kevin Harvick – The Defending Champion:
The winner of the initial Championship Round of the Chase in 2014, Harvick didn’t rest on his laurels in 2015. He began the season with two wins and two runner-ups in the first five races and stayed on top of the points standings for virtually the entire regular season.
While Harvick is tied for just fifth in wins with three, nobody in the Sprint Cup Series has more top-5s (22) or top-10s (27) than Harvick in 2015. Nor has anyone even come close to leading as many laps as the 2014 champions has this season. Harvick has led 2,248 laps so far in 2015, 889 more than the driver who has led the second-most laps (Joey Logano, 1,359).
It looked like Harvick would not get the chance to defend his title, as finishes of 42nd and 21st in the first two races of the Chase had his back to the wall. But just like in 2014, Harvick responded. Last season, he won the final two races of the season to put himself into the Championship Round and then to win the championship. This season, Harvick was victorious in the final race of the Challenger Round to advance.
While he didn’t win to advance to the Championship Round, he accumulated the second-most points in the Eliminator Round to secure his spot at Homestead. The only driver with more points that Harvick’s 123 in the Eliminator Round was Earnhardt, Jr., who had 125 and a win but was eliminated in the previous round.
Harvick is trying to become the first driver to repeat as the series champion since Johnson won five straight from 2006-2010. Before that, it was Gordon, who won the title in 1997 and 1998.
Martin Truex, Jr. – The Underdog
When the season started, few people thought that a driver from a one-car team could come out and compete with the superteams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing or Penske Racing. But here we are. The 35-year-old driver has put himself into championship contention while driving for Furniture Row Racing.
Truex, Jr. earned his way into the Chase with a win at Pocono in June, a win that transcended all fan bases. Fans of all drivers showed their support of the win, but not only because of the underdog role Truex, Jr. has taken on. Part of the reason people have been rooting for Truex, Jr. is because of the fight his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, is battling. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer last season, Pollex has been an inspiration to many, not only in NASCAR circles.
The way Truex, Jr. has been able to bounce back from a disappointing 2014 and make a name for himself among the big boys in the sport has been one of the better storylines of 2015.
Part of Truex, Jr.’s success has been his consistency. He is tied for fourth with 22 top-10s and has finished on the lead lap 30 times in 2015, tied for the second-most among all Sprint Cup Series drivers. His average finish of 12.2 is seventh-best, better than drivers like Johnson, Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards.
America loves an underdog – can Martin Truex, Jr. give NASCAR fans another reason to celebrate th way they did at Pocono?
And The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Is…
Seeing as how I was TERRIBLE with my preseason NASCAR predictions, I almost feel bad even trying to pick a champion for 2015.
But here goes…
I am picking Jeff Gordon to not only win the race, but to hoist the Sprint Cup Series championship trophy for the fifth and final time in his career.
This should be a really good fight for the championship, as three of the drivers are in the top-4 as far as average finish at Homestead, with Harvick first at 7.6, Truex, Jr. third at 10.0 and Gordon fourth at 10.6. Busch has an average finish of 23.1.
Harvick and Gordon are the only two of the four who have wins at Homestead. Harvick obviously is the defending champion, while Gordon won the race in 2012. Each of the two also have 12 top-10s at Homestead, while Gordon has seven top-5s in 16 races and Harvick has six top-5s in 14 races.
Truex, Jr. and Busch have each raced at Homestead 10 times. Truex, Jr. has seven top-10s and three top-5s, while Busch has just one top-5 and three top-10s.
The easy pick here would be Kevin Harvick, who I believe will finish second in the championship. Truex, Jr. will finish third and Busch will finish fourth.