Plenty still at stake in season finale
It’s all about Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway as they race head to head for the Sprint Cup championship.
Their showdown in the season finale is sure to cap one of the best championship races in NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup history.
Yet their battle is not the only big story that could develop at Homestead.
Numerous drivers have unfinished business, goals to achieve and scores to settle.
Here’s a look at the other storylines that could share the spotlight with Edwards and Stewart:
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally wins
The 2011 season has been a good one, with close competition, thrilling finishes, fireworks and feuds on the track and a compelling championship race.
Nothing could cap it off better than a win by Earnhardt Jr.
The sport’s most popular driver hasn’t won in more than three years now. He rebounded from two years of struggles by making the Chase this season, but his recovery and resurgence will never be complete until he wins another race with Hendrick Motorsports.
Though he typically struggles at Homestead, he could take this season from good to great — for he and his team and all of NASCAR Nation — with an upset at Homestead.
2. Matt Kenseth seeks revenge
Kenseth, who has three wins this year and was a championship contender until a few weeks ago, could cap a good season with another win at Homestead, where he won in 2007.
But the mild-mannered Kenseth just might have other things on his mind — like getting even with Brian Vickers.
The frustrated and angry Vickers has retaliated against Kenseth twice in the past three races. After an incident on the track at Martinsville Speedway, Vickers ran down Kenseth and rammed into him late in the race.
Not satisfied since Kenseth had already wrecked and was running 30th, Vickers decided once was not enough. He wrecked Kenseth again last week at Phoenix, knocking him out of the race and officially ending his championship hopes.
Though the mild-mannered Kenseth normally is not the revengeful sort, it would not be surprising to see him make Vickers pay.
3. Kevin Harvick gets Kyle Busch – again
Busch paid dearly for wrecking Ron Hornaday in the Truck series race at Texas, getting suspended for both the Nationwide and Cup races that weekend.
Missing the Cup race eliminated Busch from championship contention and contributed to him falling to last in the Chase standings.
The retaliation against Hornaday simply continued Busch’s long-running feud with Harvick, who owns the truck Hornaday was driving.
Busch and Harvick have been at it all season, starting with their postrace confrontation at Darlington in May.
And now Harvick appears to owe Busch again after Busch wrecked Hornaday, ruining his championship hopes in the Truck series.
Harvick punted Busch in the season finale last year, sending him spinning when he believed Busch was holding him up to help teammate Denny Hamlin, whom Harvick was racing for the championship.
This year, Harvick is out of championship contention and Busch is essentially helpless since he’s on NASCAR probation.
Don’t be surprised if Harvick enacts more revenge on Busch, continuing their bitter feud on into next season.
4. Busch gets the last laugh
No one has been more ridiculed and embittered this year than Busch, who has gone from being caught speeding at 128 mph on a public road to getting punched by team owner Richard Childress to being parked by NASCAR for two races to being dumped for the final two races by his primary sponsor.
Busch now has nothing to race for, except a win.
A victory in the season finale might soothe some of the pain and ill feelings Busch has inflicted upon himself, his sponsors, Joe Gibbs Racing and everyone around him.
It would also give him an opportunity to finish the season by thumbing his nose at all his detractors. Busch’s trademark bow to the fans would be a fitting way for the embattled driver to end the year.
5. Another Kurt Busch tirade
The elder Busch always seems on the verge of blowing a gasket — and not necessarily under the hood of his car.
The 2004 champion has suffered a familiar fade in the Chase, finishing 13th or worse in his past six races thanks to a series of mistakes, mishaps and just plain poor performance.
It has left Busch on the verge of blowing his top. After he ran out of gas while leading and then got a speeding penalty last week, Busch, as usual, had some harsh words for his crew.
Crew chief Steve Addington has been rumored to be on the move after the season, and one more tirade by Busch in the season finale might just be the final straw.
6. An exorcist by Denny Hamlin
Hamlin delivered one of the biggest choke jobs in NASCAR history in last year’s season finale, blowing the points lead and the championship when he wrecked early in the race at Homestead.
He has been haunted all season by the demons from his late-season collapse. After winning eight races last year, he has struggled most of this season, barely made the Chase and is 10th in the standings with one race to go.
Two years ago, he won the season finale at Homestead to jump-start his title-contending run last season.
If Hamlin could win again, it might finally exorcize those demons, put last year’s collapse behind him and set him up for a return to contention in 2012.
7. Honoring Jimmie?
One of the most intriguing side stories this weekend is the end of Jimmie Johnson’s reign as champion. He has been on top for so long it’s hard to remember who won the last championship before he took over (Stewart in 2005).
Most fans are ecstatic that Johnson’s dominance has come to an end and that NASCAR will finally get a new Cup champion.
But how will they respond when Johnson congratulates the new champion and officially gives up his crown?
Will they honor Johnson for his remarkable and historic five-year reign? Or celebrate that it is finally over?
8. AJ Allmendinger wins
Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard, David Ragan and Regan Smith all scored their first Sprint Cup victories this year. Even upstart Trevor Bayne pulled off a stunning upset in the Dayton 500, making this the year of the first-time winner.
The most noticeable driver absent from that list is Allmendinger, who has been more consistent than all of them, ranking higher than any of them in the standings (16th) and finishing the season strong.
It would be fitting for Allmendinger to win the season’s final race, scoring his first win and giving NASCAR a stunning six first-time winners this year.
9. Juan Pablo wins on an oval
Juan Pablo Montoya, a native of Bogotá, Colombia, and a resident of the Miami area is a local favorite at Homestead.
It’s also the track where he made his Cup debut in 2006.
Montoya, the former IndyCar and Formula One star, has had mixed results in NASCAR so far. He made the Chase in 2009, but has struggled the past two years. He has two Cup wins, but both came on road courses. He has yet to win an oval-track race.
What better place for it to finally happen than at Homestead?
10. David Reutimann makes MWR official go ‘uh oh’
Reutimann was both shocked and devastated when told that he would not return to Michael Waltrip Racing next year.
Despite struggling all season, Reutimann has the only two wins in MWR history and has been with the team since its inception in 2007. He will be replaced next season by veteran Mark Martin.
Reutimann, who ran well last week at Phoenix, would like nothing better than to win in his final race with the team. And don’t think it can’t happen – Reutimann’s two wins both came on 1.5-mile tracks.
A victory at Homestead would not only show that the team might have made a mistake in releasing him but would go a long way in helping Reutimann find a new ride for next season.
It also would be a fitting twist for one of the sport’s nicest and most well-liked drivers.