As the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway approaches, it’s only natural for each of the title competitors to express confidence about the prospects in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400.
But with all the success they’ve enjoyed this year, do any of NASCAR’s “Big Three” drivers really have an edge in the season finale (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)?
That depends on your perspective. Kyle Busch won the final event in the Round of 8 last Sunday at ISM Raceway in Phoenix to lock up his spot in the championship race. But that win came on a relatively flat one-mile track, a far cry from the banked 1.5-mile intermediate speedway that will determine this year’s champion.
“Obviously, any time you can go to Victory Lane, it certainly means that you've been the latest winner, and you can go on into the next week kind of riding a high, but it's a totally different track, totally different everything,” Busch said on Thursday during Championship 4 Media Day at The Miami EDITION.
“Different circumstances on the line this weekend, obviously. A great final four here, one of the best we've seen, I think—kind of the entirety of the year.”
Indeed, Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.—the Big Three—have combined to win 20 of the 35 events contested so far this year. Busch and Harvick have claimed a series-best eight victories each, and Truex, the reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, has taken a checkered flag four times.
But Truex hasn’t won since he beat Ryan Blaney to the finish line at Kentucky Speedway on July 14, and Harvick’s Nov. 4 victory at Texas was his first since Aug. 12 at Michigan. Since then, Brad Keselowski, who was eliminated from the Playoffs in the Round of 12, posted three victories, tops in the series over the last 12 races.
Collectively, the Big Three won 17 of the first 23 races, a pace that has fallen off to three of the last 12, with Busch winning Playoff races at Richmond and Phoenix and Harvick winning at Texas (though he lost the benefits of the victory because of an infraction with the rear spoiler).
Accordingly, the only driver who didn’t have to fight for his place in the Championship 4 race at Phoenix was Martinsville winner Joey Logano, who hopes to be a very different kind of spoiler come Sunday, when he can win his first series title by topping the Big Three.
Logano is the only driver among the four who doesn’t have a title at NASCAR’s highest level on his resume. Harvick won the Cup championship in 2014, the first year of the elimination format. Busch followed in 2015, despite missing the first 11 races of the season because of injuries sustained in the February NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona.
Truex won his first title last year, holding off Busch in the closing laps to prevail at Homestead. In fact, Logano is the only one of the four who didn’t race for last year’s championship. Brad Keselowski, Logano’s teammate at Team Penske, was the fourth driver in the mix in 2017.
“It's the exact same four organizations that were here last year,” Harvick said. “Three of the four (drivers).”
“Yeah, it just depends on whether Brad or Joey are better drivers,” Truex quipped. “I'm not sure.”
“They both run into you a lot,” added Busch, referencing some on-track incidents between Truex and the Penske drivers, most recently when Logano moved Truex out of the way in the final corner to win at Martinsville.
“Probably best I keep my mouth shut on this one,” Logano chimed in.
Though the four Championship 4 races to date have produced four different winners (including 2016 champion Jimmie Johnson), there has bee a consistent theme: the winner of the championship has also won the final race.
Will that be the case when the Big Three and Logano take to the track on Sunday?
“I don't know,” said Truex, who will drive with the added weight of list last start with the Furniture Row Racing team, which will close its doors after Sunday’s race. “I mean, that's why we race, to find out. It's hard to say, but it's going to take a great effort. I feel like you're going to have to run first or second. From what Harvick said, he reminded me about (Kyle) Larson (who has mastered the high groove at Homestead). So, yeah, first or second is probably what it's going to take.
“I think, for me last year, that situation required me to put in perfect laps, with Kyle chasing me down. I knew he was faster. He was faster in the long run all night long, so I had to do something, find something, and one mistake, it was going to be over. So when you're put in those positions—and that's what I think was really cool for me personally about winning that race was the situation I was put in, I was able to overcome it.
“I didn't fold. I didn't buckle under pressure. I didn't let it get to me. I was able to take care of it and get the job done. So that was really cool to beat somebody like Kyle in that situation.”
Busch would prefer to avoid a similar result this year. Scoring his 51st Cup victory at Phoenix, Busch surpassed NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson on the career win list. But Busch also craves a second title.
“Obviously, you kind of see it right now with this group of four,” Busch said. “You've got three one‑timers and a zero-timer. But that will allow either another one‑timer, which only leaves Jimmie (Johnson) as the only repeat champion, or finally you see another guy kind of step into his own with being able to win two.
“There's been a lot of great champions in our sport, and many of them only have that one championship. I think it would solidify the first in making your history in this sport.”
Harvick won’t have the services of crew chief Rodney Childers or car chief Robert “Cheddar” Smith his weekend. Both were suspended as part of the L1 penalty for the illegal spoiler. But Harvick has a history of overcoming adversity, even under unlikely circumstances.
The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford faced a must-win scenario at Phoenix in 2014. He won and advanced to the Championship 4 Round. Harvick then won again in the final race to secure his title.
“For me, there's always some incentive in proving people that you can do something that isn't what they think you should do,” Harvick said. “I think as you look—you can look at my whole career. ‘You shouldn't win. You couldn't win. Then you did.’
“Last week it was, ‘This penalty is going to slow them down.’ Like I told you last week, when they take 10 away, we find 20. It's just the mentality of the race team. It's always push the limits. When they back you against the wall, make it better than it was before.”
When the Big Three and Logano race at Homestead this weekend, it won’t be a matter of who’s better. It will be a matter of who’s best. With the race still three days away, all four drivers can make a case for their respective superiority.
On Sunday’ they’ll get a chance to prove it.