It took 12 extra laps in Sunday’s Can-Am 500(k)Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway before the field of four drivers that will compete for the title this weekend in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami was set. Only two spots were left to be filled when the green flag waved to start the race as Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards had already punched their ticket into the fi- nals with their wins in the Round of Eight.
Matt Kenseth was leading the race with two laps to go, and apparently on his way to claiming one of the two remaining transfer spots, when the caution flag came out for Michael McDowell who spun out and ended up hitting the wall. Kenseth had control of the restart and selected the outside lane that had proved to be the preferred line on every restart with Alex Bowman in second.
Kenseth was the class of the field at that time, but the real battle was shaping up behind the front row as Joey Logano and Kyle Busch both started on the second row and both drivers were trying to claim the fourth and final spot to move into the final. Just behind them in the third row was Kevin Harvick, who had to win to advance, so you had three out of the top five battling for one spot as it appeared that Kenseth would take the automatic third berth in the fi- nal with the win. The competition was so close between Logano and Busch that the two were actually tied in the point standings when the race restarted, but Logano would have advanced because he held the tiebreaker between the two drivers as he also had posted a second-place finish in the Round of Eight.
On the restart, Busch, who was lined up behind Bowman, tried to make the pass but ended up hitting Bowman, forcing him to get loose and move down toward the inside wall. Kenseth meanwhile had a great restart and appeared to pull in front of Bowman just enough to make the move down in front of him heading into the turn. It turned out that Kenseth had not completely cleared Bowman and made contact with him on his rear quarter panel. The contact sent Kenseth into the outside wall with Logano taking advantage by grabbing the lead with Busch moving up to second as another caution flag waved.
On the final restart, Logano took the lead and never looked back as Busch finished second, which turned out to be good enough for him to join Johnson, Edwards and Logano as the four drivers that will take the green flag Sunday at Homestead with the opportunity to run for the championship. There will be no bonus points awarded in the race as the highest-finishing driver will claim the title. In the previous years that the current Chase format has been used, a driver has had to win the race to win the championship.
The Championship 4 is a starstudded lineup as it features a sixtime champion in Jimmie Johnson and the defending Sprint Cup Champion in Kyle Busch. Edwards has experience in the final race as he lost a title to Tony Stewart when the two ended tied in 2011 in the points at the conclusion of the race, but Stewart won the tiebreaker as he had posted five wins in the 10 Chase races that season. Joey Logano will enter without the final race experience of the other three, but he showed on Sunday that he can thrive in a pressure situation.
Edwards leads all four drivers with two Miami wins followed by Busch with one. Edwards also has the best average finish (9.2) followed by Johnson’s 14.1. Busch has the worst average finish of 21.1 with Logano posting the worst top- 10 finishing percentage with 28.6.
All four drivers now have 267 laps of racing between them and the 2017 Sprint Cup Championship as well as 36 other drivers that will also take the green flag. All four drivers and their crew chiefs will have to enter the race knowing that they have to practice, qualify and compete to win the race as history suggests that second place has not been good enough.
Race Preview Event: Ford EcoBoost 400. Track: Homestead- Miami Speedway (1.5 mile oval, 18o-20o of banking in the turns). Date: Nov. 20, 2:30 p.m. TV: NBC. Radio: MRN. Defending Champion: Kyle Busch.