After 11 months, 13,527.167 miles, 10,274 laps and 35 points races, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season officially comes to an end Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the first-ever four-way championship shootout.
Sunday night’s Ford EcoBoost 400 represents a bold, and for the most part well-received, experiment for NASCAR: Four drivers will enter the race in a dead-heat points-wise. Whichever one of the four finishes ahead of the other three will be crowned Sprint Cup champion for 2014.
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No bonus points, no complicated math. Beat the other three guys and you are the new champion.
On paper, the odds weigh heavily to Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, not Denny Hamlin or Ryan Newman.
In the nine races contested so far in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Harvick has been the best finisher of the finalists four times, vs. three for Logano, two for Newman and none for Hamlin.
Over the 35-race season to date, Harvick has been the top finisher among the four 11 times, with Logano topping the competition 10 times, Hamlin eight and Newman six.
Hamlin, who has but a single top-five finish in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this year, won at the 1.5-mile Homestead track last year and had a great test this time around in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
"I told you all before the Chase started that I feel better about winning Homestead than Martinsville, and after the test we had there two weeks ago, I still believe that," Hamlin said last week at Phoenix. "I’m ready to go."
Newman, the only winless driver among the four, isn’t willing to count himself out, either.
"You could have a fast car, you could have a consistent car, you could have a good long-run car, and you’ve got pretty good chances of having a good day at Homestead," said Newman, who is in his first year at Richard Childress Racing. "The fastest car may not win, the best car on a restart may not win. You just never know. It could come right down to fuel mileage and three of the four of us could be coasting on the last lap. You just never know. We’re in this hunt."
Logano, meanwhile, has had a breakout second season with Team Penske, opening the Chase with two victories and a staggering average finish of 2.8 over the first five races. That’s cooled noticeably to 8.5 over the last four races, but it’s still pretty darn solid. And Logano has two victories and six top-five finishes on 1.5-mile tracks this year. While Harvick has five top-fives at 1.5-mile tracks, Newman and Hamlin have just one each.
Certainly, Logano is confident after rallying back from a dismal stretch at Phoenix to clinch a Chase spot. Asked after that race who he thought had the best team, Logano said, "I say we do. Everybody has the same amount of points it’s all about how good your team is, and I feel like I’ve got the best team. … My hat’s off to all the Shell/Pennzoil guys on this team. They deserve to be in the final four. We proved it throughout this whole Chase and really this whole year."
But the man of the hour is Harvick, who left car owner Richard Childress after 13 years to join his old friend Tony Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing for 2014. All year long, Harvick has consistently had one of, if not the fastest, car on the track, and is peaking at just the right time. Harvick dominated last week at Phoenix, leading 264 of 312 laps en route to the victory, and he finished second the week before at Texas. His stats are strong at 1.5-mile tracks, too, and he’s not finished worse than 10th in his last six starts at Homestead.
Harvick’s team is a first-year unit, and from the beginning he and crew chief Rodney Childers have formed a powerful bond.
And for Harvick, it’s been a whole new experience.
"You know, that’s just different than anything I’ve ever been involved in," he said. "There’s just not one guy on this team or in the company that hasn’t said, ‘Hey, what can we do for you, how can we make this better, how can we support it?’ whether it’s a crew chief or a driver or an owner, whatever the case may be, and that’s just not what I’ve been accustomed to."
So now, it’s time to settle it.
May the best team win.
VIDEO: Jeff Hammond says Hamlin has the edge at Homestead