While Zoo Miami simply got a cheetah to do the dirty work, predicting the eventual Sprint Cup Series champion is no easy task.
More than any other race, the NASCAR Championship Race at Homestead Miami Speedway is a total crapshoot. Sure, the team that performs the best and has the fastest overall car will likely win the race, and the championship, but it’s hard to lean on prior data to reach that conclusion.
The Championship Four of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. will have their teams find every advantage, and Homestead is a unique track with no equal on the schedule. As a result, the Ford EcoBoost 400 will come down to the peripherals like pit stops, restarts and pit strategy.
Here’s what each contender has working for and against him this weekend in South Beach.
Three wins, 27 top-10s, 8.9 average finish in 35 starts
The defending Sprint Cup Series champion enters the event as the favorite, and has been even faster than he was last season when they took the crown. Sure the No. 4 has two fewer wins but they’ve been more consistent, posting seven more top-10s and an average finish four spots better than 2014.
Unlike last year, where pit stops were a question mark until a playoff swap with the No. 14 team, there have been no such concerns this year.
Now Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have two years working together and have communicated like it too. At Homestead, Harvick has 12 top-10s in 14 starts with his first victory at the track last year, securing his first championship.
The only trouble Harvick has had this season is in the luck department, but he always seems able to overcome it.
One win, 20 top-10s, 13.9 average finish in 35 starts
Prior to the Chase, it would be pretty hard to peg Jeff Gordon as a championship contender. His 15th-place average finish was the worst of his career and he had gone winless one year after winning four times and looking like the championship favorite until his elimination at Phoenix.
There have been times where the No. 24 has looked like a different team during the playoffs. Gordon led laps at Chicagoland, and remained a restrictor plate favorite at Talladega, all before winning at Martinsville to advance to the Championship Four and showing increased speed at Texas and Phoenix.
In all, he’s led all playoff drivers with a 7.7 average finish during the Chase itself.
But mostly, Gordon’s final playoff run has been defined by grit and survival. At races like Charlotte and Kansas, Gordon merely survived to top-10s while the other contenders eliminated themselves. In fact, the four-time champion has even admitted that his team did not put a perfect race together until Talladega and Martinsville.
Prior to those races, Gordon had made mistakes on pit road. He consistently lost track position on early pit stops and struggled to regain it throughout the race. He simply didn’t have the speed needed to work his way through the field either.
But if Alan Gustafson can order up the right changes and keep Gordon near the front of the field, the pit crew is good enough to earn him a few more positions before restarts. And while Gordon used to struggle on pit stops, he’s gotten much better at them, and that could be the key to securing that elusive fifth Sprint Cup championship.
And one has to think Hendrick Motorsports has saved its fastest bullet of the year for Gordon’s last race.
Four wins, 15 top-10s, 11.2 average finish in 24 starts
True to form, Busch serves as the most controversial figure in the Championship Four, having missed the first 11 races of the season due to injuries sustained in the season-opening XFINITY Series race at Daytona.
When he returned, he was spectacular, meshing with his old XFINITY crew chief Adam Stevens to the tune of four victories in the remaining 15 races of the regular season. He’s cooled off somewhat during the Chase, but he’s made up for it with the consistency needed to advance to Homestead.
His JGR pit crew is spectacular and this package with the tapered spacer has always suited his skillset well, going back to XFINITY competition.
While Harvick enters the race as the favorite, Busch has to be considered favorite 1a.
Martin Truex Jr.
One win, 22 top-10s, 12.2 average finish in 35 starts
Truex is the closest thing to a Rocky Balboa figure as you could have in NASCAR. Like the fictional boxer, Truex is a championship caliber athlete that wasn’t able to show his max potential until his pairing with the right people and situation.
Crew chief Cole Pearn is a hidden gem and Furniture Row Motorsports owner Barney Visser has slowly invested in his Colorado-based team in preparation for this moment. Their strength lies in consistency, but you have to wonder if Furniture Row is capable of building a car that can compete head-to-head with the likes of Hendrick, Gibbs and Stewart-Haas in a one-race winner-take-all environment.
Kevin Harvick is the defending champion and has the best overall numbers of the Championship Four. As a driver, he’s been excellent at Homestead no matter the package or team he’s driven for. His over-the-wall crew has been near the top of the charts all season, and he’s the only guy that’s proven he can win the championship under this format.
His must-win performance at Dover in the Chase was a reminder that he leads NASCAR in clutchiness if such a stat existed. Furthemore, Harvick has beat the other three championship finalists head-to-head 17 times this season.
For all those reasons, Harvick is the favorite to win this championship on Sunday. So perhaps the cheetah wasn’t such a bad idea after all. It picked Harvick too.
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