NASCAR’s long and winding road to Homestead has featured some odd twists and turns, bumps and bruises, and the sad realization that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is saying adios.
Junior’s retirement from Cup racing after 19 seasons on the circuit undoubtedly will make this year’s final ride a sentimental journey on Sunday near Miami, but the most important business of the day involves four other drivers:
Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski.
The last drivers standing in line for the season title include three previous champions and Truex, who happens to be the most dominant driver of the 2017 season with seven victories in 35 races. If we carry that Championship 4 profile to include personalities, Truex also wins the good-guy popularity contest running away.
Harvick, Busch and Keselowski each have an edge to his game. That’s also a nice way of saying each of them can come across as a pretentious jerk at times.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s good for business.
There are bonus points in play as well: None of those three guys like each other much and have the spats and the cuss words and the kerfuffles to document it all.
“If you ask Brad, he can fix the world’s problems; that’s all there is to it,” Busch said earlier this season, shooting back after Keselowski suggested that the Toyota teams — which include Busch and Truex — had an unfair competitive advantage.
It should make for a festive Sunday afternoon in South Florida — a little bump and grind optional — but the heart of the matter remains on how the scuffle on the track plays out.
So I’ll split hairs and give you the two guys most likely to end up with a championship sip of champagne:
Truex or Harvick.
There is something special about Truex. Beyond those seven wins, he has 18 top 5s, 25 top 10s and 2175 laps led — all series-leading numbers. Truex’s average finish in the other eight playoff races is 2.37 if you take away the crash-fest outlier in Talladega.
“We’re all excited about going to Homestead with the opportunity of winning the championship,” Truex said after finishing third in Phoenix this past weekend. “This is what we set out to do at the beginning of the year.”
While the paper trail leads to Truex, the wild-card hunch is all about Harvick. His No. 4 Ford hasn’t been dominant all season, In fact, there were quite a bit of struggles as the Stewart-Haas Racing team made a manufacturer’s switch from Chevrolet to Ford.
But after a victory in Texas two weeks ago, Harvick has worked his way into the championship conversation very loudly.
“Everybody is pointing their fingers at Truex as the guy,” said Larry McReynolds, NASCAR analyst for Fox Sports. “And understandably so. … If you look at performance numbers, Truex has to be the favorite.
“I tend to put Harvick right beside Truex. When the playoffs started I probably couldn’t do that. Obviously they were suffering from having the blues making the change from Chevy to Ford. When they won that race in Texas and drove right by the 78 car (Truex), that made a pretty strong statement.”
Yes, sir, it did. Harvick won the season title in 2014, a year when he won five races. He only has two victories in 2017 but has finished no worse than fifth in his last three races.
“When he gets locked in like that, he’s dangerous,” co-owner Tony Stewart said in Texas. “That’s something the 78 team should be worried about in a couple of weeks. … It’s like dangling meat in front of a tiger. You do that with this crew and this driver, there’s some good things that can happen.”
Great things even. Gentlemen, start your engines, and watch out for the No. 4 because he may be running on tiger juice.
The NASCAR Nation would be remiss in not offering a final tip of the hat to Matt Kenseth.
His victory at Phoenix was truly one of the great moments of the 2017 season. The 20-year Cup veteran isn’t getting kicked to the curb, but close enough. He doesn’t have a ride in 2018 after he was bounced from Joe Gibbs Racing in favor of 21-year-old Erik Jones.
It wasn’t performance-based. Kenseth made the 16-driver playoffs this season. It was a money move, driven by 45-year-old Kenseth’s high salary against a lack of sponsorships moving forward.
So if this is goodbye, the victory was a sweet way to close out a great career.
“Yeah, it’s really not describable,” the 2003 season champion said after the race. “With only two (laps) left, I didn’t think we probably had a good chance of getting back to victory lane. It’s been I don’t know how many races — somebody’s probably going to tell me tonight — but it’s been at least 50 or 60, so it’s been a long time. We’ve had a lot of close ones. Just felt like it was never meant to be and today it was meant to be.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
George Diaz is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.
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