By David Morgan, Associate Editor
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The preliminary races are over, now it’s time for the main event.
Four of the best in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will face off Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a winner take all race. To the victor goes the championship, while it’s better luck next year for the other three.
This year, it’s a Joe Gibbs Racing vs Stewart-Haas Racing showdown, with three JGR drivers – Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex, Jr. – taking on the lone SHR entry in Kevin Harvick.
Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch has been doing Kyle Busch things in 2019, winning races and racking up top-fives and top-10s along the way, but even with four wins on the season, Busch won’t be satisfied with himself unless he comes home with the championship.
Busch has been a part of the Championship 4 each of the last five years, scoring the title in 2015, but even with the Las Vegas native reaching the upper echelon of the sport with a championship, he seems to be even more focused on the missed opportunities of the other four years.
“Obviously with 2015 and being able to come out as a champion that was the greatest achievement,” Busch said. “You set your goal out for the beginning of the year to be able to go out there and do that and everybody’s goal there after is to always just get to Homestead and if we’re, if we’re eligible for Homestead, then we can go after that championship.
“I always look at it though as we want to be able to go out and win the championship. So, for us to be eligible five years in a row I think is a pretty cool thing, but to come out with one of four is not so cool.”
Busch noted that even with all the wins and championships he has been able to capture in NASCAR’s three national series, he is behind the plan he has for himself. He added that he still believes multiple Cup championships are achievable over the remainder of his career.
One of which could certainly come this weekend, even with a winless streak dating back to the summer.
“Definitely behind and in wins and championships,” Busch said. “Why? The list goes on. It’s a pretty long one. So how many can you get now is about where it’s at. If I end with one, that’s going to suck. If I can only get two, well, whatever. But three, four, five, I think five’s still achievable.
“Is this Kyle’s time? Being here five years in a row, I would certainly like to think so. But kind of sucks when you’re not able to bring home the trophy on Sunday.”
Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
There’s something different about the 2019 version of Denny Hamlin. This year, it seems that a confidence bomb has gone off within the No. 11 team and Hamlin really believes this is his year to get the monkey off his back and join the other three championship contenders with a title to his name.
Just take his comments from Championship 4 Media Day in Miami Beach, confidence has never been higher for the soon to be 39-year old.
“I think outside people have been more optimistic about my talents than maybe I have at times,” Hamlin said. “But there’s also times where I’ll do something, last week for instance, I mean, I’m pretty fucking good at this. I can do this.
“I know I’ve won big races. I stepped up to the plate when it’s really mattered. It hasn’t always equaled a championship, but I definitely think the narrative should be changed simply based off of last week.”
This season has been one for the ages, rivaling the 2010 season when he lost the championship to Jimmie Johnson. That season, Hamlin won eight races, compared to six this season, but with crew chief Chris Gabehart at the helm, Hamlin and his team, classify this year as their best shot.
Hamlin at times has seemed destined to capture the title this year, with the team running all year in memory of the late J.D. Gibbs, who discovered Hamlin and gave him his shot in the Cup Series with the No. 11 team. It all started with a win in the Daytona 500 and if you believe in destiny, Sunday could be a culmination for the Chesterfield, Virginia native.
“I didn’t have any fun in 2010. 2014, I really don’t remember a whole lot about my mindset from that week. Our cars really weren’t running that well, so I was probably just happy to be there.
“This year, I’m excited because I know I’ve got the opportunity, a really, really good, legit opportunity to go out there and get it done. I’m just going to do the same things, prepare the same way that I have all year. I know that will give me a chance. At some point in the race, I’m going to have an opportunity to take control and win the race.
“As long as I continue to do that, I’ll live with the result, win or lose.”
Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
The lone wolf for the Ford camp among a sea of JGR Toyotas, Harvick will be looking to spoil the party on Sunday by taking home the trophy and his second Cup Series championship.
Since winning the title during the original iteration of the Championship 4 in 2014, Harvick has been a constant presence in the season finale in all of the championship races that followed, except for 2016.
Despite a struggle by SHR to find its footing when the season began with this aero package, Harvick and his team quickly turned the tide and once again, the wily veteran is right in the mix and a major threat to the JGR trio that he will have to face off against.
“It’s been a great second half of the year, I think our team has really proven to not only everybody else but ourselves just how much, how good we are as a group and how much we have had to work this year to get to where we are,” Harvick said.
“And it’s been very rewarding to sit here and be able to look at each other and have celebrated in Victory Lane and have a chance to race for a championship is something that I’m really proud of the team and I know that they’re obviously excited that everything ended the way that it is currently.”
With four wins on the season, three of which have come on tracks 1.5-miles in length or longer, Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have been in this position before and should they come out on top Sunday, it would not be a shock to anyone.
“Championships are what we race for,” Harvick added. “You put a lot of effort into the season and week after week of trying to be competitive and I think the more championships you win, the more it solidifies everything that you do on a week to week basis.
“They’re hard to win. It’s hard to get here. I know that we have been able to do that five times now, but the Playoffs are difficult now. It’s difficult to go through all those eliminations and different racetracks and have everything work out. So, you just, this will be the fifth time here and we have only won once and so it’s definitely something that we would love to do again. This is what we race for.”
Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
And then there’s Truex, who came in-house at JGR this season after racing for Furniture Row Racing for the previous five seasons until the team shut down at the end of the 2018 campaign.
With crew chief Cole Pearn atop the pit box after making the move, the duo hasn’t missed a beat and has rivaled their stats from their 2017 championship season, putting up seven wins on the board ahead of Sunday’s season finale.
“It’s been amazing. Honestly the biggest thing that surprised me was how damn hard (Joe Gibbs) works. I mean, he just does not stop. He doesn’t have a dealership, he doesn’t golf, hunt or fish. He races. If he’s not in that shop, he’s on a plane going somewhere to meet with a sponsor, doing something for the race team. That’s all he does.
“The guy is relentless. Leading by that example, that’s what the team is built around. You can win, they’re still working to get better. You’re never good enough, always working to get better. Honestly, that’s why we’re so successful this year. It’s that mentality.
“Of course, our guys from Denver fit right into that, that’s Cole to the T, right? He’s relentless, he’s not going to stop, work until he can’t work any more, think some more and try to do something else. It’s never good enough. You can always be better. How do we do it?
“It’s been a good fit for our guys. Just been amazing to work with all those people this year. Top to bottom, just first class.”
Of the four championship drivers, Truex has certainly had the biggest rollercoaster of a ride in his career, moving from Dale Earnhardt, Inc. to Michael Waltrip Racing to Furniture Row, and now to JGR. Truex said as much during Championship 4 Media Day, noting that he is extremely appreciative of the opportunity he has now and doesn’t take anything for granted in his career.
“Every single win for me is still huge because you never know when the next one is going to be,” Truex said. “I’ve been on the other side of it. You never know what’s going to happen.
“I definitely don’t take this for granted. I love this opportunity. Having the time of my life with this team. Love working with these guys, driving their cars. It’s just been amazing this whole season. I just want to try to keep it going, not get ahead of myself, race one week at a time.
“It’s amazing to be here having another opportunity at a championship. I still have a hard time believing I’ve already got one, let alone here we are with a really, really good chance I feel like at a second. I can’t imagine the names of the list I would be on with those others. Still blows my mind. I’m pretty jacked up about it. Hopefully we can get it done.”