Lee Spencer has the rundown on an intriguing Final Four as NASCAR gets set for the Chase finale at Homestead Miami.
On Sunday night at Phoenix International Raceway, the top-four drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings were content to let it rain.
After all, those same four drivers – Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. – had led the Chase grid entering the weekend, and had no complaints when a downpour shortened the last race in the Chase’s Eliminator Round and therefore preserved their spots in the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Gordon, who won at Martinsville two weeks earlier, was the only driver locked into a transfer spot. The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team had ample time to prepare for the Championship Round.
For Harvick, Busch and Truex, nothing was set in stone. Yes, Harvick, the defending race winner and Sprint Cup champion, was the favourite entering Phoenix. For the comeback kids – Busch and Truex – the road to Homestead-Miami was certainly not automatic.
After Busch broke his right leg and left foot in a vicious wreck in the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona in February, he missed the first 11 Sprint Cup races of the season. Nearly nine months after the accident, he is one race away from a shot at the title for the first time in his Cup career. Truex wasn’t even in the Chase in 2014. He finished 24th in the standings. A new crew chief (Cole Pearn) – and a new set of priorities – has guided him to one of the coveted spots in the final four.
With the field set for the 2015 Champion’s Round, never before have there been such compelling tales from the four remaining contenders.
In Championship Form
As strong as Kevin Harvick was in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, the No. 4 team improved in every category in 2015 except for wins and poles. However, his average qualifying position dropped from 9.1 to 8.2 (a career best) and his average finish improved from 12.9 to 8.9 (best in the series).
Perhaps if Sunday’s Quicken Loans 500 would have gone the distance, Harvick may have been on par to match his victories come Homestead. The 2014 champion did surpass his career-high laps led for a single season in Phoenix, with 2,248 – more than one-quarter of his career total laps at this point (8,811). His 22 Top-5s (including 12 second-place results) are more than one-third greater than last year’s totals. And Harvick’s 27 Top-10s exceeded last year’s mark (20) and the record 26 he had posted in 2010.
Still, Harvick has had to hustle in this year’s Chase. And his performance has not been devoid of controversy, starting with his 42nd-place finish in the opener at Chicagoland, where he got into it on and off the track with Jimmie Johnson. He entered the third race of the Challenger Round at Dover in a must-win situation and spanked the field. The Contender Round wasn’t pretty either, particularly after Harvick’s last lap miscue at Talladega – but he transferred into the Eliminator Round where he posted an average finish of 4.1.
“I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of things throughout the Chase,” Harvick said. “We’ve survived and advanced. It hasn’t been 100 percent pretty from one end to the other, but I think as you look at the Chase, it’s been championship material and that’s proven by making it to the championship race.
“I’m just really proud of everybody and we’re going to go down there and just do like we’ve done and race as hard as we can.”
The way Harvick races, no one would be surprised to find him in Victory Lane on Sunday night.
The Comeback Continues
Kyle Busch’s battles in 2015 started off the track, as he rehabbed his broken right leg and left foot. In April, with his pregnant wife Samantha then in her third trimester, Busch met with the media for the first time since his Daytona accident and vowed he’d be back better than before.
“It was tough to be at home and laying in bed and whatever and watching other guys race my race car,” Busch said. “But I can’t say enough about Adam Stevens (crew chief) and the teamwork and everything that went through this season of being able to keep everyone together and keep everyone focused and motivated for my return to get back in that car.”
After missing the first 11 races of the season, Busch returned to the No. 18 Toyota at Charlotte – five races earlier than expected. Given the extent of his injuries, there was no way he’d be ready for a road course. But not only was Busch ready, he won at Sonoma. Two weeks later, he took the checkered flag at Kentucky, won again the following week at Loudon, and completed the hat trick in the Brickyard 400.
At Watkins Glen, two races later, Busch satisfied NASCAR’s requirement for his Chase dispensation by not just winning but establishing himself in the top 30 in the points standings. He was actually 25th in the standings before the Chase grid was reset. Although Busch had hiccups in the first two rounds, he matched Harvick’s average finish of 4.1 in the Eliminator Round. In the 11 seasons since Busch has raced full-time in Cup, it’s the first time he’s been a contender entering Homestead.
“We put ourselves in a position to make the Chase and the rules are the way the rules are, and we’re going to make the most of it,” Busch said. “We’re playing with house money and we’re rolling to Homestead.”
A Different Type Of Fight
On the track, little went right for Martin Truex Jr. during his first season with Furniture Row Racing. The single-car operation based in Denver, enjoyed its first Chase berth one year earlier with Kurt Busch.
Half-way through the 2014 season, Truex still struggled to acclimate to the setups on the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy. In August, the driver received news that his girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer. Suddenly, his ill-handling cars were the least of his worries.
Team owner Barney Visser told his driver to take whatever time he felt necessary. Visser assured Truex his ride would be waiting for him. The entire Furniture Row Racing family rallied around the racer. Pollex’s battle pulled the team together.
Truex started 2015 with seven consecutive Top-10 finishes. After an off week, the team lost its momentum at Bristol, but recovered with another seven Top-10 race streak, including a win at Pocono which locked the team into the Chase. That same consistency has carried over to the playoffs. Although Truex has posted more Top-15s and less Top 10-finishes than he would like, he hasn’t experienced the failures that have plagued his competition.
The team’s steady performance has resulted in Truex’s best chance to win the title.
“We did what we had to do and Homestead is a really good race track for me and that’s our kind of race track for this team,” Truex said. “I’m excited about next week and the opportunity to do something special.
“This is the kind of thing that you dream about since you were a little kid. Having a shot to win a Sprint Cup Series championship is just awesome and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
Through it all, Pollex has been by Truex’s side, providing inspiration for the driver and the team. On the morning following the rain-delayed Phoenix race, the couple returned to Charlotte for what Pollex calls “Chemo Monday”. Fortunately, Pollex will conclude her chemotherapy after three more sessions. A win for Truex at Homestead, might provide the best medicine of all.
One For The Road
Despite Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR accomplishments – including four championships, 93 wins and 81 career poles – he’s quick to remind pundits that he’s never won the Chase.
It’s hard to believe Gordon hasn’t won a title since 2001 – the year in which he recruited Jimmie Johnson to drive the No. 48 Chevy.
Yes, Gordon has been close, particularly in 2004 when the Chase was introduced. He lost by 16 points to Kurt Busch and finished third. In 2007, he finished second to Johnson after leading the points for six weeks in the Chase. Last year, Gordon was the favourite. He led the points standings for 17 of 26 races heading into the playoffs, only to have Brad Keselowski knock him out of contention at Texas. The following week, Gordon missed the final transfer spot to the Championship Round by just one point.
In 2015, Gordon’s numbers are not nearly as stellar as the four wins and 14 Top-5 finishes the No. 24 collected last season. He earned his first win of 2015 at Martinsville three races ago – and Gordon enjoyed it as if it were his last. Not only did it end a 40-race drought, the victory guaranteed Gordon one last “drive for five” at Homestead. He will, of course, be retiring from full-time competition following the race.
“When I set out into this season and made the announcement that I made, I just hoped that this could possibly happen, and it is,” Gordon said. “Now it’s not enough for us just to go down there and be a part of it.
“We want to go there and push hard and get every single thing we can out of ourselves and our team and see if we can’t give these guys a run for their money.”
If Gordon pulls it off on Sunday, he would have the distinction of going out on top. What more could any athlete ask for?