The Championship Four is set for the Monster Energy Cup Series Showdown next week at Homestead Speedway in Miami, Florida next Sunday. Joey Logano was locked in by virtue of his win at Martinsville, Martin Truex Jr. secured a position on points, Kevin Harvick had to fight and claw after the penalty and encumbered win from Texas, but he pointed his way in as well as Kyle Busch who would’ve been in on points either way but checked off his 8th win of the season for good measure yesterday at ISM Raceway.
It really was an exciting race from the drop of the green flag with the new configuration of the race track that saw enhanced fan experience zones all across and the biggest noticeable difference was the start/finish line being moved to where the old exit of turn 2 used to be. This made all restarts throughout the weekend much more interesting with the “dog-leg” often being used and cut on restarts creating for 3, 4 or even 5 wide racing before entering the new turn 1.
Harvick sat on the pole and paced the field for the majority of the first stage before he had a right front tire go down in the closing two laps of the stage. The No. 4 team caught a massive break as not only did the car not incur fatal damage from the tire failure, as we saw several times late on in the race, they only lost one lap since the stage was coming to a close and only had to incur the minor penalty of restarting at the tail-end of the longest line due to servicing the car at the end of the stage with pit road closed. Harvick and interim crew chief Tony Gibson caught a few breaks as they were able to quickly regain their lap through the lucky dog position and wound up avoiding a major wreck later on in the day through pit stop strategy that put the 4 ahead of the crash that took out two contenders, rather than in the middle of it. Harvick and the 4 team for SHR secured the final position in Miami with a 5th place finish and overcame the adversity of losing a win, their crew and car chief for the final two races, at least in Phoenix.
Back to the race result in the Can Am 500, Kurt Busch was the best car on track for much of the day after Harvick blew a tire in stage one, leading 52 laps and even overcame a penalty where he was called for “passing the pace car entering pit road”. He was back on the lead lap and in position to potentially win the race and advance to run for a championship over his teammate, when on lap 269 Denny Hamlin was racing for the lead on a restart with the 20 and 41 when he got loose underneath Busch and a wreck ensued that dashed the chances of not only Busch to win and advance, but also Chase Elliottt who won stage one and was running up front for most of the day. Clint Bowyer was also knocked out of the running with a tire failure which meant the only car that could possibly win and advance to Miami over Harvick was Aric Almirola in the No. 10.
Kyle Busch won the restart on lap 277 over teammate Erik Jones and despite a rash of late cautions and restarts was able to keep the pace and lead the race. With 12 to go on the final restart he was able to hold off the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski and the charging 10 car to secure the victory, the 51st cup series win of his career putting him in 11th place all time. “What a day! What a race! It’s an awesome team and awesome group of guys. Can’t say enough about everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing, all the men and women there that work so hard to prepare such great race cars that I get to drive,” Busch said following the race in victory lane. “I didn’t think we were the best car, but we survived, and did what we needed to do today. It’s just about getting to next week, and once we were locked in, it was ‘all bets are off and it’s time to go.’,” Busch concluded.
The win was not only the 8th of the season and 51st of his career in the cup series, but it was also the 194th overall win in NASCAR for the 33-year-old Kyle Busch who is just six wins shy of the King’s 200 by virtue of his 92 wins in the Xfinity Series, 51 in the Truck Series and now 51 on the cup side. Kyle Busch is one hell of a race car driver, love him or hate him there’s no denying that.
The stage is set for next Sunday. The final four includes three former champions who have won in this same playoff format (Harvick ’14, Busch ’15, Truex ’17) and all four guys have made it to this stage and failed to become a champion as well with Logano finishing as the runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in ’16. Another intermediate track is on the docket for this weekend in Homestead, but it’s a very unique racetrack that often creates some great racing with the high-line often coming into play. A few non-playoff drivers love to race there as well and could contend for the win, I’m talking about the Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson‘s of the field, but the fact remains that one race will crown a champion on the 2018 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series season. All these guys have to do is beat their competition on Sunday and they will be immortalized. The “Big Three” proved all season long this is exactly where they are meant to be, winning race after race and stomping the field and the guy who secured the final position was right up there in average finish all year and won at the right time to get a ticket to the championship party.
Now for my pick. From the jump I’ve thought this was Kevin Harvick’s year. The 42-year-old won three of the first four races of the year at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix and won 5 more throughout the rest of the campaign. This team has been tested with breaks not going there way several times when they clearly have the best car in the field, and have had to twice battle back from a mid-week ruling from the sanctioning body where they have concluded that their winning car violated one of NASCAR’s rules, be it a rear-window infraction or an unapproved spoiler. This team has just clicked on an entire different level. When they hit it right, no one else is even close. Atlanta, Vegas, Kansas, Michigan, Richmond, Texas the list goes on. They have even moved guys to win a race with good and clean hard racing like they did to the No. 18 at Loudon in New Hampshire. Even without Rodney Childers on the pit box next Sunday, I am sticking with the 4 of Kevin Harvick to win his second championship. That team’s program on the mile-and-a-half this season has been the clear-cut best of the field add to that the intensity and intelligence of the driver to stay cool, calm and collected under pressure, and Harvick is my guy next Sunday.
As good of a story it would be for Furniture Row Racing to go out with back-to-back titles as well as for Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn, they just haven’t shown the speed and consistency all season to match the 4 & 18 like they did a year ago. Busch could very well wrestle that title away from Harvick, but the Ford’s have been much better than the Toyota’s all season long and I’m rolling with the hot hand. As for Joey Logano, it’s neat for him to make it here if you’re a fan and all, but he and his team are nowhere near as competitive week-in and week-out as the other three teams and he hasn’t exactly made a lot of friends out there on the race-track to get here. Harvick wins, but it’s still going to be one hell of a show next Sunday.
It all goes down 3 PM ET on NBC next Sunday in Miami.