NASCAR

Sunday won't be all about the champ

Jimmie Johnson has never lost the title when taking a lead into the season finale.
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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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GLENDALE, Ariz.

And then there were three …

Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick are all mathematically eligible to win the 2013 Sprint Cup championship, but history is certainly on the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team’s side.

Johnson, who leads second-place Kenseth by 28 points, has never lost the title when taking a lead into the season finale. If Johnson finishes 23rd or better in Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he will clinch his sixth Cup title.

Although Johnson finished 32nd and 36th in his last two starts at HMS, after testing there two weeks ago the title is his to lose barring mechanical failure.

But just as Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway was overshadowed by the Chase, this weekend’s crowning of a champion will take precedent over five story lines that deserve their due.

1. Last Homestead?

When Jeff Burton was asked about an era ending given that he, Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte are scaling back, he quipped, “We are going to go film a movie about three old guys in (Las) Vegas,” Burton said. “That just dawned on me. I’m thinking that might work. Mark would be boring as hell, though. He would be in the gym every morning.”

IT ADDS UP

Where did your favorite driver finish in the 2013 final standings?

The affable veterans have a combined 82 wins in 70-plus seasons of Cup competition. Martin will remain with Stewart-Haas Racing in a role yet to be fully defined – other than testing for Tony Stewart, who is expected to be sidelined until Daytona Speedweeks in February. Burton insisted Friday he “will be involved in the sport” and has been rumored as the top candidate for the third car at Michael Waltrip Racing next season before a possible broadcasting opportunity opens in 2015 when NBC returns to NASCAR. Labonte has been the least vocal of the three. Though the 2000 champion may have run his last race at Phoenix on Sunday, he has not announced his plans. However, team owner Tad Geschickter has offered him a position at JTG/Daugherty Racing should Labonte wish to remain.

2. Breaking up is hard to do

Harvick seemed a bit verklempt after winning Sunday, which is understandable given that he’s leaving Richard Childress Racing after 14 seasons. At 37, perhaps it is time for Harvick to leave the nest to see if another organization can supply him with equipment that will allow him to finish higher than third in the standings.

For Ryan Newman, it was better to seek a safe haven than remain at SHR, where he was no longer welcome. Similar to Harvick, a change will likely benefit Newman, 35, although since aligning with his former crew chief, Matt Borland, Newman was part of SHR’s best team. With RCR reinforcing its engineering base, Newman should fit right in.

Martin Truex Jr. has exhausted the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve pity party and appears stoked about his move to Furniture Row Racing next year. With Newman’s move to RCR and the technical alliance between the organizations, Truex joked that he’ll have more to share with his buddy on future hunting trips.

The last two years served as a wake-up call for Kurt Busch as he transitioned from a powerhouse at Penske Racing to what was once James Finch-owned Phoenix Racing and then to a safe haven with Furniture Row Racing. Now Busch returns to another multi-car operation in SHR. It will be interesting to see what the dynamic is come February. Though Busch worked well with Harvick through the RCR/FRR connection, SHR will be more of a group effort. The first step for Busch, however, will be to find a crew chief. It appears Borland is back at the top of the list.

3. Adios, mi amigo …

Wasn’t it just yesterday when Chip Ganassi announced that Juan Pablo Montoya was joining his Sprint Cup operation? Seven years and six crew chiefs later, the driver that dazzled us in Monaco and Monza is returning to open wheel with Penske Racing. If I had to pick one driver in the last decade who did not live up to expectations, Montoya would be it.

Certainly, he has the talent. And, no, he hasn’t always had competitive equipment. Though Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has sparkled at times, JPM is its only driver ever to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup (2009). That year also offered Montoya’s best shot at winning on an oval – at New Hampshire. Yes, his road course wins were impressive. Yes, he was hosed by a speeding penalty at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But with one race remaining at what is his current home track, HMS, perhaps Montoya will make liars out of all of us and prove he can win on an oval.

4. Crew chief carousel

It’s the most asked question by NASCAR fans: Which crew chief is going where? For whatever reason, the current crew chiefs have been more guarded about their statuses than in years past. The rumor mill has been off the chart since Loudon – the second race in the Chase. The scuttlebutt picked up at Talladega, when qualifying was rained out and names such as Alan Gustafson and Darian Grubb – both of whom are under contract – were thrown into the mix.

On Sunday, team owner Rick Hendrick insisted there will be no changes among the crew chiefs in his stable for 2014. “Nobody has even discussed anything,” he said. “Everybody is pretty happy with what we got, good momentum in the Chase, winning races. Take the things like blown tires and engines out of the equation and it’s one of the best Chases we’ve had. So there’s no reason to change anything.”

5. The Changing Faces of NASCAR

For more than 40 officials, Sunday will be their final race. These are men and women who have become more than just members of the sanctioning body over the years, they have become friends. I wish them well in their retirements – or whatever adventures they choose beyond the track.
 

Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Juan Pablo Montoya, Bobby Labonte, Martin Truex Jr., Mark Martin

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