Will a non-title contender steal the show in NASCAR’s finale?
This weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway is a battle among four drivers all going for championship trophy. However, there are 39 other drivers in the field who are hoping to end the season on a high note with a victory.
While the attention is focused on championship contenders Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman, do not expect the other stars of NASCAR to lie down and let them steal the spotlight.
During Friday’s opening practice session, eight of the top 10 drivers were non-championship contenders, with Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski leading the way.
Just because they are no longer in title contention this weekend does not mean drivers like Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson are not going to race for one more win.
While his teammate Logano is focused on winning his first Sprint Cup championship, Keselowski and his crew chief Paul Wolfe are looking to add another winner sticker to the No. 2 Ford.
"We will treat this race as we treat the rest of them — we show up to win," said Keselowski. "Since we are not in the Chase, we have nothing to lose, but we still have a lot to gain. This team has six wins this year and we like the sound of seven."
After missing out on being a part of the Championship 4 by one point, Gordon vowed to go out and win Homestead.
"I’m disappointed we’re not one of the four teams battling for the championship this weekend, but we’re going to do everything we can to win the race and end the season on a positive note," said Gordon.
The four-time champion got off to a great start Friday by winning the pole for Sunday’s race. In fact, seven of the top 10 in qualifying were non-championship eligible drivers, with Gordon, Busch, Matt Kenseth and Keselowski sweeping the top four.
"No matter what kind of format there is, everybody’s goal is to come in here and sort of spoil the championship by winning this race," said Gordon. "This is one of my favorite races to win, and that’s because you have the longest stretch between when the next race is, so you can enjoy it probably longer than any other race that we have because you end the season with it. This is a tough place to win at. Yeah, there’s a lot on the line for those guys, and we want to be the spoiler. There’s no doubt about that.
In addition to those drivers looking to earn another win on the season, there are a host of other drivers searching for that first trip to Victory Lane before it is too late. Drivers still winless on the season include the likes of Tony Stewart, Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray and rookie Kyle Larson.
Scoring a career-high seven wins last season, Kenseth is surprisingly still searching for his first victory of 2014 and has only one more shot. Qualifying in the third spot for Sunday’s race, Kenseth is showing the speed needed to contend for the win, but does not feel this weekend is a must-win race.
"It’s always important to run up front and be competitive, and obviously to win races," said Kenseth. "I don’t know that it’s any more or less important to me than any of the other 35 races this year. That’s what we show up every weekend to do. Obviously the longer you go without a win – I don’t feel the pressure or anything like that, but you think about it a little more. It would be great to end the season on a positive note."
For Stewart, a victory Sunday at Homestead would extend the streak of winning a race every season for 16 years, dating back to his rookie season of 1999. Stewart, a three-time Homestead winner, should have a solid shot at the victory Sunday evening, but will start from the 28th spot.
Also on the line are positions five through 16 in the season-ending standings. With only four drivers left in the title fight, the other 12 drivers are looing to finish as high as possible in the standings, and a win would go a long win in solidifying that goal.
"Our goal is to get to fifth in points," Gordon said after giving Hendrick Motorsports its 200th pole. "We’re still racing extremely hard. We’re not going to go out and race the points necessarily, we’re going to try to go out there and win the race and hope that we can get to fifth (in points).
The non-championship eligible drivers have history on their side, too. Since the season-ending race has been held at Homestead-Miami Speedway the eventual champion has only gone to Victory Lane on one occasion, when Stewart won the race and the title in 2011.
So while the champion is decided in Homestead, it is usually a non-championship eligible driver that ends up in Victory Lane at the end of the night.
While many feel this year’s champion will have to win the race in order to win the title, it is certainly not a requirement. The champion will simply have to beat the other three championship-eligible drivers, leaving the door open for another of NASCAR’s big stars to sneak in, score the victory and end the season on a high note.
VIDEO: Brad Keselowski discusses not making Championship Round