By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Sixteen drivers entered the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with a shot at the championship, but now we are down to the best of the best.
Press conferences with some good-natured ribbing have been held, the drivers have had the opportunity to dial their cars in throughout practice and qualifying over the last few days and now all that’s left is to race it out and see how things shake out by the time the checkered flag falls.
Before Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, and Martin Truex, Jr. wage war on Sunday afternoon for the ultimate prize in stock car racing, we’ll break down the season that these four have had and their outlook on the 400-mile battle ahead at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nevada
Past Championships: 2015
2018 Season Stats: Eight wins, 21 top-five finishes, 27 top-10 finishes, four poles, 1448 laps led, and an average finish of 8.4.
Homestead Specific Stats: One win (2015), three top-five finishes, six top-10 finishes, 322 laps led, and an average finish of 18.5 in 13 starts.
Starting Position: Second
With eight wins on the year, Busch is on track to top his career best wins mark set back in 2008 if he should win Sunday to claim his second championship. By all accounts, Busch had the fastest car in last season’s finale, only to run out of time before the checkered flag flew.
Always a threat to win on any type of track, especially the 1.5-mile tracks, Busch should likely be at or near the front of the field all afternoon. It will just come down to whoever executes the race the best to see which of them comes home with the title.
“You just have to have things kind of fall into place and kind of go your way. Not everything has to, but just a little bit. We’ve had an awesome year and, the way we’ve been able to perform and how we’ve been able to do things in this playoff, it hasn’t quite been pretty all the time but we did what we needed to do in key moments…if momentum is anything, obviously we’re ready to go. We’ll rock and roll into Homestead and it feels pretty good.
“It’s obviously a great opportunity to be able to go race for a championship, and that’s what this format is. It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. There are four of us who go for winner-take-all at Homestead. It means a lot to have that opportunity, not only for myself, but for M&M’S, Toyota, Interstate Batteries and everyone at JGR who helps us to be as good as we’ve been. It’s what your whole season comes down to. I’m looking forward to Homestead and we’ll see if we can bring home another championship.”
Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford
Hometown: Bakersfield, California
Past Championships: 2014
2018 Season Stats: Eight wins, 22 top-five finishes, 28 top-10 finishes, four poles, 1932 laps led, and an average finish of 9.0.
Homestead Specific Stats: One win (2014), nine top-five finishes, 15 top-10 finishes, one pole, 315 laps led, and an average finish of 6.8 in 17 starts.
Starting Position: 12th
All four championship drivers are probably among the most evenly matched we’ve seen in recent years, but if there was one driver to pick that stands out among the rest, it has to be Harvick.
Stewart-Haas Racing and Ford in general have been stout this year, especially on the 1.5-mile tracks. With Homestead falling in that category, it could be déjà vu all over again with the other three watching Harvick drive away in their windshields.
The only downfall that the No. 4 team seems to have is on pit road, with issues there hampering them at times this season. If they can keep from shooting themselves in the foot, Harvick could be a two-time champion at the end of the night.
“Obviously with everything that’s happened this year, you want to win the championship because obviously you think it would be icing on the cake with everything that you’ve accomplished. But it’s just not that easy,” said Harvick.
“There’s nothing that’s going to devastate us to the point of not being able to function any more. But to go along with everything you’ve done this year, it definitely would seem fitting to add that to the year end. This is a very unique place that isn’t like any other place that we race from a mile‑and‑a‑half standpoint. It’s always warm. It’s always worn out. It always goes from day to night. The conditions change a lot.
“There’s so many different things here that it’s really hard to put everything together to the point of making your day perfect, because it’s just not going to be perfect. That’s just not the expectation going into it, to think that everything is going to be perfect. You want it to be perfect, you control all the things that you can control, but you have to go in in the back of your mind knowing you’re going to have to adapt and adjust at some point, just like we did last week to adversity, something going wrong. You can’t let that rip everything apart.”
Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford
Hometown: Middletown, Connecticut
Past Championships: None
2018 Season Stats: Two wins, 12 top-five finishes, 25 top-10 finishes, one pole, 854 laps led, and an average finish of 10.9.
Homestead Specific Stats: No wins, two top-five finishes, four top-10 finishes, one pole, 78 laps led, and an average finish of 14.9 in nine starts.
Starting Position: Fifth
Sunday’s championship field consists of the “Big Three” …and Joey Logano. While some may consider Logano the underdog among the others in the finale that have been dominant all season long, the Team Penske driver is taking it all in stride, electing to do his talking on the track.
Since locking himself in with a win at Martinsville, Logano’s team has had the opportunity to work on their Homestead car, something that could be pivotal when it comes to the No. 22 team claiming their first championship together.
“Sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut, just go out there and kick ass,” said Logano. “That’s just what you do. You go out there to win, that’s pretty much it. I’m not going to talk to talk. I’m just going to go out there and race my car.
“I feel like here last year, Miami, we ran pretty well, too, when we didn’t have ‑‑ you’re not the priority car at that point, so you’re not getting everything because we weren’t in the Playoffs, you don’t get all the good stuff at that point, right? We ran pretty well here, as well. I feel confident in that.
“I feel confident we’re going to make a lot of pit stops because the tires wear out really quick. I have so much confidence in this pit crew to do their job that we’re going to go out there and do our things, have fun with that. We’ve had more time to think about this. Everybody else has been racing with their tongue out the last two weeks, three weeks. Since we won Martinsville, we’ve been able to shift our focus and methodically focus on this weekend.”
Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Hometown: Mayetta, New Jersey
Past Championships: 2017
2018 Season Stats: Four wins, 19 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, four poles, 996 laps led, and an average finish of 11.0
Homestead Specific Stats: One win (2017), four top-five finishes, eight top-10 finishes, 189 laps led, and an average finish of 11.5 in 13 starts.
Starting Position: Third
It’s one last hurrah for Furniture Row Racing on Sunday. Following the conclusion of the season, the team will be shutting down, so not only will Truex be racing for a second-straight title, he’ll also be the sentimental favorite hoping to deliver his team and car owner Barney Visser one final win before they ride off into the sunset.
Last season, we saw just how powerful Furniture Row can be when they band together and this time around that bond is even stronger as they would like nothing more than to go out on top of the mountain.
The team and driver have the speed, so we could be looking at the first repeat champion since Jimmie Johnson went on his magical five championship run between 2006 and 2010.
“Homestead is a tough track, it’s a long race and anything can happen,” Truex said. “We saw last year that we were really good on short runs and the 18 (Kyle Busch) was good on long runs and at the end it came down to a short run and we were able to hold him off. You have to have a little bit of luck on your side, you have to have a good race car and you have to have things play out the way you need them to suit your setup and suit what you’re doing.
“For us, we’ve got a lot of confidence and we really don’t have a lot of pressure on us. We’re going to go down there and all you can do is give it your best. We haven’t been the fastest car this year by any means, but when we hit it right we can beat anybody. If we can go down there and hit it right, we’re going to have some fun.”