The Phoenix dust has settled and the Championship field that gathered in Las Vegas to start the ten-race Chase has been whittled to four. All that remains is one race to see who will win the MENCS Championship. On November 17th, someone will win his second NASCAR Cup Series championship or Denny Hamlin wins his first. Unlike the previous rounds where points carried over, this is a winner take all affair. Whoever finishes highest among the final four will claim the sports’ biggest prize. Below is a tale of the tape on the drivers, the track and my thoughts on Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
There are no real surprises among this year’s contenders. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex, Jr. , Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick have the most wins this season, 21 out of the 35 Cup races. This quartet also has the most top-5’s this season, the most top-10’s and four of the five top lap leaders. According to VegasInsider.com, Busch and Truex are slightly better than 3/1 to hoist the trophy Sunday night, while Hamlin and Harvick are exactly 3/1. There is no real favorite. So who will win the MENCS Championship? And will the eventual champion win the race? Let’s first break it down by the numbers.
Denny Hamlin #11 FedEx Toyota
Car Owner: Joe Gibbs Full-Time Years in Cup: 14 Crew Chief: Chris Gabehart
Hamlin began the 2019 season by winning his second Daytona 500. He has added five more victories, including playoff races in Kansas and last week’s dominating run at ISM Raceway. Denny has never won a championship in NASCAR. He joined Joe Gibbs Racing in 2004 with seven starts in the Xfinity Series. Partially due to an impressive showing in his first Darlington race, Hamlin ran a full-time campaign in 2005. He followed a similar path that season, showing well in a few Cup starts and taking over the 11 car in 2006. Hamlin has remained with Gibbs his entire career, racking up 37 career wins.
Martin Truex, Jr. #19 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Toyota
Car Owner: Joe Gibbs Full Time Years in Cup: 14 Crew Chief: Cole Pearn
The 2017 champion Truex has won a series-high seven races this year, including three in the playoffs. Team performance was sluggish as he began his first official season with Joe Gibbs, after driving for satellite team Furniture Row Racing since 2014. With his long-awaited short track win at Richmond in May, Truex hit his stride, winning three of the next seven events. Truex also boasts back-to-back Xfinity Series Championships in 2004-05. Having won the first race in the Round of 8, Truex and his team have had three stress-free weeks to prepare for Homestead. He has 26 career wins, 23 of which have come since 2016. For perspective, that’s two more checkered flags than the next guy on our rundown over the same period.
Kyle Busch #18 M&M’s Toyota
Car Owner: Joe Gibbs Full Time Years in Cup: 15 Crew Chief: Adam Stevens
Busch was the dominant driver of the first half of the season. He reeled off eleven straight top ten’s to begin the year and won four of the first fourteen races. As regular-season champion, Kyle began each of the first three rounds of the playoffs as the points leader. Much has been made of his winless streak, but he has only run poorly based on his own stratospheric track record. Busch has been with Gibbs since 2008, winning his sole championship in 2015. He has 55 wins in Cup and a staggering 207 across NASCAR’s top three series.
Kevin Harvick #4 Busch/Mobil 1/Jimmy John’s Ford
Car Owner: Tony Stewart & Gene Haas Full Time Years in Cup: 19 Crew Chief: Rodney Childers
Harvick cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs before punching his ticket to the finale by winning Texas. In fact, his four victories have all come since July. He is the only non-Gibbs driver in the final four. Happy has been superb at Homestead. He has finished no worse than 4th in the current playoff format and has scored top ten’s in every race since 2007. The Ford driver now sits tied with owner Tony Stewart in career victories with 49.
The Field of Battle
Homestead-Miami Speedway has been the last race of the Cup season since 2002 and the championship decider ever year of the playoffs. This will be the last, however, as ISM Raceway hosts the finale. Each of the final four has won at the track since 2013, with Hamlin adding a victory in 2009. The track has progressive banking in the corners and the high line generally proves the quickest, albeit riskier, line. There has been an average of six cautions over the past four Ford 400’s, and a whopping thirteen in 2014, the first season of the current playoff format. Over the same time span, an average of 20 cars have finished on the lead lap and there have been eighteen lead changes per race.
The Bottom Line
This is the foursome that should be deciding the championship. Each driver has looked near unbeatable at points of the season. But this doesn’t mean a victory is assured for a contender. The specter of Kyle Larson remains a real threat. Larson has led in each race since 2015 and dominated 2016 and 17’s races without winning. There are the Penske drivers, with whom each of our quartets has history. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney will certainly no layover for anyone.
The other three Stewart/Haas drivers could play a role. Harvick is seemingly alone in his quest for a second title, but Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, and Daniel Suarez have all shown the speed at the mile and a half tracks this season. It will be interesting to see how the aero package will adapt to Homestead as well, seeing as there is no Spring race to draw notes from. Will, this race look like Kansas, Kentucky, and Chicago, where restarts, in particular, were chaotic? Or will it resemble Texas and be little more than a one-groove track? In either event, two things are certain: track position will be key and teams’ choices to go for downforce or trim the cars out will bear watching. Will one of the Gibbs cars go contrarian and opt for sheer speed? Not likely, they have all chosen higher downforce and better handling at similar tracks this season. Harvick and his Ford are more likely to go that route.
My Crystal Ball
I see these four guys stepping up and putting on a show. Sure the race will get strung out like it always does. Harvick and his slicker car will race out to leads and the Gibbs tortoises will reel him in over long runs. Somewhere in the third stage, a caution will come out and we will see a mad dash for the checkered flag. There will be a point where the paint is traded between teammates. I felt confident that Truex would prove his dominance with an eighth victory on the season until seeing the clutch performance that Hamlin put up in the desert. Is this the time for Denny to shed the bridesmaid label? It is always difficult to pick against the raw talent of Kyle Busch but there has just been something missing in that team in key moments. In the end, Kevin Harvick turns a late-race caution into a charge to the front and pulls away to win his second title.
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