By Steve Mickey
It took almost ten months, thirty-five races and a seven hour rain delay before NASCAR could determine the four Sprint Cup drivers that would go to Homestead-Miami this weekend with the opportunity to run for the series title. Jeff Gordon had already punched his ticket into the final with his victory at Martinsville but the seven remaining Chase drivers entered Sunday’s race at Phoenix knowing that each of them would have the opportunity to become one of the four drivers that would make up the Championship 4.
Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. will join Gordon at Homestead as the four drivers that have survived the nine Chase races and will transfer into the Championship Round. These are the four drivers that entered Phoenix in the top-four positions in the points (Gordon locked in with win) and were able to remain there after the race was called due to rain after 219 of the scheduled 312 laps.
Harvick as he has done so many times this season led the most laps on his way to a second place finish to race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. He actually lost the lead to Earnhardt on the last pit stop after a caution came out while he was getting service. His second place finish set a record in the series as it was his 12th second place finish of the season but this one was good enough to secure his spot next week as one of the Championship 4 drivers. He will be the only driver of the Championship 4 having won a title under the Chase format so he will know what to expect this week considering the PR demands and what to expect once he gets to the track.
Busch will enter Homestead as the most unlikely driver to become one of the Championship 4 after starting the season watching the Daytona 500 from his hospital bed. Busch was involved in a crash in the Xfinity Series the day before that left him with a broken leg that forced him to miss several races. Once back into his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, the Chase rules dictate that he had to win a race and be inside the top-30 in points to become Chase eligible. Against all odds he was able to accomplish that and once in, he showed the consistency needed to advance through the first three rounds.
Truex Jr. will enter Homestead as the dark horse of the four-man field as his Furniture Row Racing team is the only one-car operation in the entire Chase field. His fourteenth place finish was good enough to give him a five point lead over Carl Edwards for the final transfer spot even though Edwards finished two spots ahead of him.
Gordon will no doubt enter Homestead as the fan favorite as he announced before the start of the season that this would be his last year. It will be his final race of his 23 year career that has already produced four series titles and he now becomes one of the few athletes with the opportunity to finish his career with a championship.
The ten-race Chase now comes down to one final green flag and the rules for determining which one of the four drivers will get to hoist the championship trophy over his head in Homestead’s victory lane is very simple. The highest finishing driver of the four will be crowned the champion as bonus points for leading laps are not figured in as points don’t matter, it’s all about who crosses the finish line first!
CHASE NOTES: Kevin Harvick is the defending race winner at Homestead as he had to win last season’s race to capture his first Sprint Cup title. His 7.6 finishing average at the track is the best of the four drivers. Jeff Gordon joins Harvick as the only Championship 4 drivers with a Homestead win. Kyle Busch’s 23.1 average finish is the worst of the four drivers and he also has posted the fewest top-10’s with three.