One race remains on the 36- race Sprint Cup race schedule that has taken on the feel of a marathon after nine Chase races that has reduced the field of drivers eligible to win the title from 16 to four. The “survivors” of the three elimination rounds of the Chase going to Homestead-Miami this weekend are Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Harvick took the green flag knowing that he had to win to guarantee a spot in the final and, with all of the pressure of the entire season on him, he put on one of the more dominating performances of the year. He led 264 of the 312 laps on his way to his third consecutive Phoenix win.
Hamlin and Logano had to overcome problems in their pits to advance to next week. Hamlin’s crew broke a valve stem with an air wrench during a pit stop, forcing him to go a lap down and restart the race in 36th. He steadily worked his way back up through the field with some help from the caution flags to finish fifth. His other finishes of the Eliminator Round were a 10th place finish at Martinsville and an eighth-place finish at Texas. His Phoenix finish was good enough to put him on top of the points for the Eliminator Round.
Logano, like Hamlin, had trouble in his pits that forced him to go a lap down. He left his pit box with the gas can still connected to his Toyota, resulting in a penalty. After going a lap down he also took advantage of the numerous caution flags to get back on the lead lap. He eventually finished sixth that, when combined with his fifth place at Martinsville and his 12th-place Texas finish, was good enough for him to finish third in the Eliminator Round standings, only one point behind Hamlin.
Maybe the most unlikely driver to navigate his way through the Chase and into the final race is Newman. He has yet to win a race on the season, but his consistency has kept him advancing throughout the three rounds. On Sunday, his season came down to the final lap of the race. He battled Kyle Larson after taking the white flag before moving him out of the way on the final turn. The one spot that he gained when combined with his third-place Martinsville finish and 15th-place Texas finish was all he needed to advance as he clinched the fourth and final transfer spot by just one point over Jeff Gordon.
While the format for the Chase at times has been difficult to navigate, the rules governing the final race are very simple. This is the only race this season where the four eligible drivers will not have to worry about points. There will be no bonus points for leading a lap or for leading the most laps; all that matters is where a driver finishes. The highest finishing driver among the four will be crowned the winner.
It will be anything but a normal race weekend for these four teams when they arrive at Homestead. The media coverage will surpass anything that we have seen in recent years as the Chase more than did its job of building interest going into the last race. How a team is able to handle all of the pressure before the green flag waves may count for as much as what takes place once the green flag waves.
PIT NOTES: Denny Hamlin is the only driver of the four to have posted a win at Homestead-Miami as he has two wins on the Florida track including last year’s season ending race. Hamlin also has an average finishing position of 11.2 that is second to Harvick who leads the four drivers with an average finishing position of 8.1. Newman’s average finishing position is 17.0 and Logano’s is 20.8.
Event: Ford EcoBoost 400
Track: Homestead-Miami (1.5 mile oval, Turns: variable banking 180-200)
Date: November 16, 3 p.m.
Defending Champion: Denny Hamlin