There was certainly no shortage of drama, suspense and emotion in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway – as you would expect of the race to determine which three drivers will join Martinsville winner Joey Logano in the Championship 4 round this week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
In the end – as they had in the beginning and middle - the season-long high-achievers – the “Big 3” – showed why they are just that. But even they had to overcome sizable setbacks and strategy twists in a thrilling final push to settle who will run for the championship in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).
Regular season champion Kyle Busch overcame being down a lap Sunday – getting caught on pit road during a caution flag - to regain the lead for good with 36 laps remaining to hoist his eighth trophy and put an exclamation point on his 2018 championship intentions.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will be joined by fellow eight-time race winner Kevin Harvick, of Stewart-Haas Racing, who rallied to a fifth-place finish after an early race flat tire put him laps down to the leader. And that was after a significant midweek penalty to the No. 4 team nullified his Texas win from being an automatic Championship 4 berth. A 40-point penalty from NASCAR for an illegal rear spoiler vastly changed the complexion of the nine-time Phoenix winner’s championship blueprint and sent his longtime champion crew chief Rodney Childers to the sideline for the remainder of the season. Veteran crew chief Tony Gibson is calling the races in his place.
Joining Logano, Busch and Harvick will be reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion Martin Truex Jr., a four-time winner in 2018 that shows up in Homestead with plenty of extra title motivation himself. His No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota team is transitioning out of the sport at the end of the season and the team would love nothing more than to go out on top.
"Well, it's exciting for us, I think, to be in this position again," said Truex, who finished 14th Sunday.
“This is our third trip to Homestead in four years, which I think is something we're all really proud of as a group, and obviously going to be our last race together as a complete group, it's definitely going to be a special weekend.
“You know, all we can do is prepare the best we can and do the same thing that we've done down there before and just try our best. That's all you can do at the end of the day. We've got a great team. It's been an amazing, amazing ride together, and hopefully we can get down there next week and make our owners proud and just live up to our potential.”
For the first time in NASCAR Playoff history the four drivers eligible to win the championship account for more than 50 percent of the regular season wins.
Points advantages, season trophies and regular season honors are muted now, however – a championship trophy will go to the highest finisher of this single race.
Many are calling it the most competitive foursome in the championship race era. Three of the four have won Cup championships at Homestead in the last four years – and those three (Busch, Harvick and Truex) have accounted for 20 wins in the 35 races to date this season.
The work of these three championship finalists has been amazing all season, but Team Penske’s Logano shows up in South Florida with the best average finish (9.4) in the nine Playoff races. The 27-year old won his way into the title hunt at Martinsville and is the only driver without a title.
All four of these drivers have multiple wins on the season. They have each earned at least 20 top-10s and together have accounted for more than 5,200 laps led.
Together their winning percentage on the season is 62.9 percent - well above the combined winning percentage of any previous championship foursome. The previous best was last year’s group of Busch, Harvick, Truex and Logano’s Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski who accounted for 48.6 percent of the race wins. This year’s talented foursome is well above the 2014 inaugural Championship 4 field at 28.6 percent.
And the highly competitive, high achieving nature of this year’s championship foursome certainly isn’t lost on those drivers.
"I don't know how you could pick a favorite necessarily," Busch conceded Sunday after his victory.
“Harvick has won there (at Homestead-Miami), we've won there, the 78 (Truex) has won there. You know, Harvick has beat us all. I beat Harvick the year I won. Truex beat both of us last year. I think it's just a matter of being able to go out there and race your race and do what you can with what you've got and have an opportunity to be able to be leading the race essentially on that last lap. That's what approximate it boils down to.
“Anything can happen in between, and we've seen it the last few years kind of how crazy things can get with the (Joey) Logano and Carl (Edwards) restart, with last year me having to run down Truex and not quite having enough to be able to pass him. Some other years it's been kind of maybe anti-climactic, but I would predict this is the best four, the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time.”