This is it. Thirty-five long race weekends, a full-throttle playoff clash and the final stage of the season is set. The four drivers that remain will battle for the right to be called 2017 champion and take home the coveted trophy at the conclusion of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead in Miami, Florida.
Say what you will about the final four, but after all the battling and jockeying for playoff position especially in the round of eight, these final four drivers have combined to win 17 of the 35 races this season and deserve to be in this spot. After Denny Hamlin cost Chase Elliott the win at Martinsville, and Elliott returned the favor to the driver of the No. 11 costing him a spot in the championship four, it was Brad Keselowski who pointed his way in to Miami and comes in as the ultimate underdog. The driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion struggled in Phoenix, but did enough to make it through with lady luck on his side. Keselowski has won in the playoffs scoring victory at one of his best tracks, restrictor-plate Talladega. Keselowski hasn’t quite had the same speed as his Ford counterpart Harvick, nevermind the Toyota’s that dominated on 1.5 mile tracks this season. Paul Wolfe and his driver will not go down without a fight, but I just don’t see how Keselowski beats the other three drivers to win his second title.
From the underdog to the heavy favorite Martin Truex Jr. What can I say about the driver of the No. 78 that hasn’t already been said a million times? 7 wins this season, total domiantion on the 1.5 mile tracks and collecting playoff points at each stage of the season. Cole Pearn will have the setup ready to rock when they roll the car off the truck in just a few hours for opening practice and Truex Jr. has embraced being the favorite. He doesn’t lack confidence and is ready to go out, run up front, and win his first championship. In the playoffs alone, Truex has scored three victories at the 1.5 mile tracks in Chicagoland, Charlotte and Kansas while nearly adding another in Texas. It’s all come down to one race, and if anyone wants to win the championship, they’ll have to beat the 78 on his turf to do so.
Remember that near-win at Texas for Martin Truex Jr.? If you’ll recall it was 2014 champion Kevin Harvick who tracked down the 78, made the calculated pass and punched his ticket to the championship four in Homestead. Confidence for Harvick and Rodney Childers is through the roof and the “The Closer” picked the exact right time to put it all together and has all the momentum is his favor. In a season where many wrote off the driver of the No. 4 with just one victory prior to the playoffs at road-course Sonoma, the Stewart-Haas Racing flagship team has flipped it into overdrive and began the journey towards their second title. Harvick is one of the most calculated and intimidating drivers in the series, and he enters Miami as a unstopabble force that the two Toyota’s will attempt to stop in his tracks. One race, one driver and I know many will take the veteran to make the right move to win a title.
The final driver representing the championship four is Kyle Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing 2015 champion struggled to close out a race in the first-half of this season not winning his first until Pocono in late July despite domination some weekends and near-wins that eluded his grasp. The No. 18 swept Bristol weekend in August and entered the playoffs with two wins in his pocket. He quickly silenced the crtics scoring back-to-back wins in the opening round at New Hampshire and Dover stating his case to be series champion. Busch fought through some tough breaks in the round of 12 and after avoiding near elimination, headed into the round of 8 with a clean slate. Busch would quicky punch his ticket to Miami with a short-track win in Virginia passing up teammate Denny Hamlin on a late-lap restart and scoring his fifth victory of the season. Adam Stevens has done a remarklable job with his crew all season getting the most out of them, and this team will be ready to roll on Friday and potentially go out and grab yet another Coors Light Pole in 2017.
This race also respresents the final of the illutrious career of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Thanks to his partners at Axalta, Junior will honor the early days of his career with the legendary Budweiser paint scheme seen on his famous No. 8 ride. The driver of the No. 88 will go out in style and hopefully score a top-10 finish in the final race of his career. I want to personally thank Dale for all the enjoyment he has brought to race fans like myself throughout the years and is one of the best restictor-plate racers of my lifetime. Matt Kenseth will also likely be running his final laps on Sunday with no ride lined up in 2018. The 2003 series champion has always been one of the most respected guys in the garage and the sport will not be the same without him. It was great to see him break-through and score his first win this season and perhaps the final one of his career at Phoenix.
Now for my pick. This is a tough call, it really is. All bias has been set aside for this selection. Martin Truex Jr. has had a dominant season and 7 wins are exceptional for that small Colorado-based team. However, I have been saying all season that despite their success and how great of a guy Truex is, I don’t see them being able to get it done on a late restart. How many times did that happen earlier this season? Despite the 7 wins, the 78 team has had a chance to win at least 5 more times and lady luck was not on their side. We have seen Harvick make a veteran move and chase down the 78, making the pass for the win. Harvick is battle-tested, but he’s not my pick either. I’m going with Kyle Busch. This driver just rises to the occassion and comes up clutch in the biggest of spots. He’s probably the best wheelman NASCAR has and he thrives in every series and every type of track. I think Kyle Busch wins on a late-lap pass on a restart finally toppling the giant that is Martin Truex Jr. on the 1.5 mile track in 2017.
One thing is certain, this is going to be one hell of a final chapter for the 2017 season and you shouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m also going with Christopher Bell in the No. 4 of Kyle Busch Motorsports to win the Camping World Truck Series Championship tonight and William Byron to win the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports. One race to crown a Monster Energy Cup Series Champion with a great weekend of racing in store all around fpr all three series.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank