The highest finisher at Homestead will win his first Sprint Cup championship.
By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
The 2014 NASCAR season concludes this weekend in South Florida, as all three national touring series compete at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Four drivers will battle for the Sprint Cup Series championship in Sunday's race.
Sprint Cup Series
Ford EcoBoost 400 - Homestead-Miami Speedway - Homestead, Florida
One thing is for sure, NASCAR will have a new champion in its premier series when Sunday's season-ending race has concluded at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Who that champion will be is anyone's guess.
Four drivers -- Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman -- enter the last race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the Championship Round, with 5,000 points each. They are the final four in the first year of NASCAR's new playoff format for the Sprint Cup Series.
Prior to the start of this season, NASCAR radically changed the Chase format by expanding the field of drivers to 16 and including a series of elimination rounds to determine its champion.
Following last weekend's elimination race in the Eliminator Round, held at Phoenix, Hamlin, Harvick, Logano and Newman clinched the final four spots for the Championship Round.
Harvick had been last in the eight-driver Chase point standings for the Eliminator Round, but his victory at Phoenix automatically advanced him into the Championship Round.
The highest finisher among these four drivers in Sunday's 400-mile race at Homestead will win his first Sprint Cup championship. Bonus points for laps led will not apply in this event, so the official finishing position alone will decide the title.
"I think the biggest key for this whole scenario is you're not behind," Harvick said. "You're on even footing with the other three guys. So for us, I think we've had a great year. We've led a bunch of laps and won races and done what we've needed to do, and all in all, it's just been a great year. Looking forward to Sunday afternoon."
Harvick, in his first season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, has four wins, including two in the Chase, and 19 top-10 finishes in 2014. His total of 2,083 laps led this year is more than any other driver. Harvick has also finished higher than Hamlin, Logano and Newman in 11 races, which is the most of the final four.
Logano was the highest finisher of the four in 10 races. Hamlin did it in eight events, and Newman in six.
If Harvick wins the championship, he would join Bobby Labonte and Brad Keselowski as the only drivers who have claimed titles in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series. He would also give SHR its second Sprint Cup championship in the organization's six-year history. Tony Stewart delivered SHR's first title in 2011.
In the first nine Chase races this season, Logano has the best average finish -- 5.3. Two of his five wins this year have occurred in the playoffs. But Logano has the worst previous statistics of the four title contenders at Homestead, finishing in the top-10 here only once in five starts. His eighth- place run at this 1.5-mile track last year came in his first season driving for Team Penske.
Of the 10 Sprint Cup races contested on mile and a halfs this season, Logano has recorded two wins (Texas in April and Kansas in October), six top-five finishes and seven top-10s.
"Just go race," Logano said. "Our team motto all year has been 'Do What You Do.' What we have done is go out there and raced our guts out and gotten the best finish we can no matter what the race deals us. We have been able to do that.
"We have fought hard, and last week (at Phoenix), we had a little mishap and were able to overcome that. I finished sixth after all that. This week, we can't make mistakes, but if we do, we do whatever we can to overcome them. We take whatever the race will throw at us and find a way to make it happen. That is the same thing we have been doing all year. We won't change a thing."
If Logano wins the championship, at age 24 years, 5 months and 23 days old, he would become the third youngest driver to do so. Bill Rexford set the record in 1950 when he won his first title at the age of 23 years, 7 months, and 15 days. Jeff Gordon is next in line, claiming his 1995 championship when he was 24 years, 3 months, and 8 days old.
Hamlin is the only one of the four that has won a Sprint Cup race at Homestead in the past. His first victory here occurred in 2009. Winless in the first 35 races last year, Hamlin took the checkered flag at this track to salvage his streak of winning at least one race in each of his eight full seasons in the series. He has been with Joe Gibbs Racing since his Cup career began.
In 2010, Hamlin entered the season-finale at Homestead with the points lead. But he started 37th and spun out in the early going, which led to a 14th-place finish. Jimmie Johnson placed second in that race and clinched his record- extending fifth straight championship.
"It's about execution and not making mistakes, and all these teams (in the Championship Round) have made some kind of mistake throughout this Chase," Hamlin said. "Of the four of us, your winner is probably going to be the one that doesn't make any mistakes. It's a fully-executed race from pit stops to pit lane to restarts and obviously green-flag speed, so hopefully all the pieces of the puzzle of that are put together."
Unable to compete in Fontana, California in March due to an injury caused by a piece of metal lodged into the back of his eye, Hamlin can become the first driver in NASCAR's top series to miss a race and still win the championship. Richard Petty missed two races but captured the title in 1971.
Hamlin can also deliver Toyota its first Sprint Cup championship.
His lone victory this season happened in May at Talladega.
In his first season with Richard Childress Racing, Newman has yet to win a race this year but consistency has got him to this point in the championship battle.
During the final lap at Phoenix, Newman was on the verge of being eliminated from the Chase, but he bumped into rookie Kyle Larson while the two were battling for position, causing Larson to make contact with the wall in turn 4. Newman went on to finish 11th, allowing him to advance into the Championship Round by only one point over Gordon.
Newman has been an underdog throughout the Chase. He squeaked into the playoffs, clinching the 16th and final spot following his ninth-place run in the regular-season-ending race at Richmond in September.
"We've gone into every race with the intention of winning it and leading the most laps and winning the pole and everything else that goes along with it," Newman said. "We just haven't been as successful as some of these other guys. But our consistency has been there, so we just have to be there at the end."
If Newman were to win the championship, he would be the only driver other than Dale Earnhardt to claim a title for RCR in the series. Earnhardt won six of his seven championships with RCR. Earnhardt's last title with the team occurred in 1994.
No matter where Newman finishes at Homestead, he will achieve his career-best finish in points. His previous high in points was sixth -- a feat he achieved three times (2002, '03 and '06).
Forty-three teams are on the entry list for the Ford EcoBoost 400.
Ford EcoBoost 300 - Homestead-Miami Speedway - Homestead, Florida
While Chase Elliott has already clinched the 2014 Nationwide Series drivers' championship, the owners' title will be decided in Saturday's season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Elliott, at 18 years old, became the youngest champion in the history of NASCAR's second-tier series. He clinched the title with a fifth-place finish in last Saturday's race at Phoenix.
Heading into the last race of the season, Elliott holds a 52-point advantage over second-place and JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith. Elliott will officially be crowned as the series champion when the race at Homestead has concluded.
"It's really not official until Saturday night," Elliott said. "So we'll kind of let it sink in then, and certainly we'll enjoy it this offseason and just enjoy the weekend."
As for the owners' title, Team Penske's No. 22 team holds a 29-point lead over Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 54 team. At Phoenix, Brad Keselowski drove the No. 22 car to victory lane, while Busch placed second in the No. 54 car.
Joey Logano had originally been scheduled to drive the No. 22 at Homestead, but earlier this week, Penske replaced him with Keselowski, allowing Logano to focus on his Sprint Cup Series efforts. He is one of the four drivers battling for the Sprint Cup championship in Sunday's 400-mile race here.
Keselowski has scored five Nationwide wins in 2014, and he has finished no worse than fourth in his 10 starts in the series this season. Keselowski has also won the Nationwide race at Homestead in two of the previous three years. He did not compete in the 2012 event, as he focused on his Sprint Cup championship efforts at the time.
"This is one of those deals where the team knew going into the weekend that we would have to be flexible, and the way it worked out, I get a chance to win another race and, ideally, sew up Team Penske's second Nationwide Series Owners' title," Keselowski said. "We've been strong every time I've been in the car, and they have been solid all year long. I am looking forward to this race. I was fortunate enough to win the last two Nationwide Series races that I've run here, and making it a three in a row is a perfect way to cap off the year."
Busch has driven the No. 54 in 25 Nationwide races this season and leads the series with seven victories, including a win two weeks ago at Texas, a 1.5- mile track similar to Homestead.
"Unfortunately, the chips haven't fallen in our favor in a few cases this year, which makes it tough when you're battling for that Owners' Championship, but we hold our heads up high and keep digging for one more win on Saturday," Busch said.
Busch won back-to-back Nationwide races at Homestead from 2009-10.
Penske's No. 22 team will clinch the owners' title if Keselowski finishes 24th or better, or 25th with at least one lap led, or 26th and the most laps led.
It will be the second straight title for the No. 22 in the series. The team won it last year by only a one-point margin over the No. 54.
Forty-five teams are on the entry list for the Ford EcoBoost 300.
Camping World Truck Series
Ford EcoBoost 200 - Homestead-Miami Speedway - Homestead, Florida
No driver has ever won back-to-back championships in the Camping World Truck Series since its inception in 1995.
That could change on Friday night, as the series concludes its season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Matt Crafton is in position to become the first driver to win consecutive titles in the series. If Crafton finishes 21st or better, or 22nd with at least one lap led, or 23rd and the most laps led, he will clinch the championship, regardless of any other driver's performance.
Crafton, the driver of the No. 88 Toyota for ThorSport Racing, enters the season-finale with a 25-point lead over second-place Ryan Blaney.
Last year, Crafton clinched his first truck championship by a 40-point margin over Ty Dillon, who is now a rookie in the Nationwide Series. Crafton won the title despite a 21st-place finish at Homestead. He came to this South Florida track with a 46-point advantage over Dillon, which meant he only needed to start the race to clinch.
Crafton will need to do more than just start this race to secure the championship, so how confident is he in his attempt to win a second straight title?
"It's something I haven't thought about, something I don't really put a lot of thought into," Crafton said. "If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it wasn't meant to be."
Crafton, a 38-year-old Tulare, California native, has scored two wins (Martinsville in March and Texas in June), 13 top-five finishes and 16 top-10s in 21 races this season. In 2013, he recorded only one victory (Kansas) but had 16 consecutive top-10 finishes to open the season. He also set a series record as the only driver who finished on the lead lap in each of the 22 races, completing all 3,391 laps run during the season.
"I feel a ton less pressure on me," Crafton said of contending for this year's championship compared to last year. "There is not one sleepless night that I've worried about if we're going to win this championship, how can we screw this thing up, how can we lose this thing. Last year, every two hours I would wake up from about mid-season on, but now, if it's meant to be it will be.
"It's all about having fast trucks, and we've had some very, very fast race trucks this year."
Crafton has finished outside the top-20 in just two races this season -- 23rd at Dover and 26th at Gateway. Both of those finishes were due to accidents. Last Friday, he placed second to Erik Jones at Phoenix.
Blaney, the 20-year-old son of NASCAR veteran Dave Blaney, is in his second full-season as driver of the No. 29 Ford for Brad Keselowski Racing. He has one win (Canada in August), 11 top-five finishes and 16 top-10s.
"If we don't win the championship, it's been a good year for us," Blaney said. "It's been great to be able to work with Brad Keselowski Racing again and even be in contention for it. For all (team owner) Brad (Keselowski) has done with me, the best thing I can do is to try to win a championship for him and (crew chief) Chad (Kendrick) and everyone at the race shop has done a great job putting us in the spots where hopefully we can even be in contention."
If Blaney were to win the title, he would become the youngest champion in series history.
Thirty-six teams are on the entry list for the Ford EcoBoost 200. Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are those Sprint Cup regulars scheduled to compete in this race. Busch won last year's event at Homestead.