Four drivers. One will be crowned the champion. It’s going to be an intense 400-mile race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the southern edge of “The Sunshine State.”
After 35 races, 13 drivers have won at least one event in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Only two drivers have finished every race. Dreams were crushed. Some were made. Two young men won their first career race in astonishing fashion. But when it is all said and done, only one driver will be crowned the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion.
With that being said, here is what you should watch for the in Ford EcoBoost 400:
-Jeff Gordon starts on pole for the 200th time in Hendrick Motorsports history. After being eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup after a runner-up finish at Phoenix. He’s going to be gunning for his 93rd career victory.
-Each of the four championship-eligible drivers have never won a Sprint Cup Series title. Harvick has won championships in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in the past, yet neither one of his competitors have held a championship trophy.
-Kevin Harvick is looking to win his first title after 14 years in NASCAR’s top division. It would be the first time that Stewart-Haas Racing has won a championship since team owner Tony Stewart captured it in 2011. He has been the quickest of the Chase drivers throughout the weekend. The No. 4 team will start fifth on Sunday afternoon, but he was just behind Hamlin during the Saturday practice sessions in terms of 10 consecutive laps run.
-Ryan Newman is the only one of the four drivers without a victory this year. He came in clutch when he needed to, and now he is set to win Richard Childress Racing their first championship since Dale Earnhardt did so in 1994. Although he has just four top-fives this year, the driver of the No. 31 car has an average finish of 13th, and he has five top-10s throughout the Chase. He’s going to be starting 21st at Homestead, which is the worst of the Chase drivers. However, he was 12th in each of Saturday’s practices as he looks to capture his first title in his 13th full-time season in the sport’s top division.
-Denny Hamlin came close to winning the title in 2010, but he came short after finishing 14th at Homestead. Last year, his only win of the season came at the 1.5-mile track. However, Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled at the intermediate tracks this year and he has an average finish of 14.5, which is the worst of the Chase drivers. But Hamlin came on strong in the last round, and now he is set to win Joe Gibbs Racing their first championship since Tony Stewart captured the 2005 title when the team was with General Motors. Winning it all would also give Toyota their first championship in the Cup Series.
-Joey Logano joined Team Penske after underperforming at JGR. With high expectations and too much pressure to contend for wins with his teammates, Logano opted to move over to Team Penske. The decision paid off and he has been victorious five times in the No. 22 Ford this year. Two of his victories came at intermediate tracks, and the 24-year-old is determined to win the title. The pressure might be on his shoulders once again as he is hoping to give Penske their second championship of the weekend after winning the owner’s title in the Nationwide Series. However, with an average finish of 11.2 this year and 16 top-fives, the extremely consistent driver could come out on top.
-Marcos Ambrose is running his final race for Richard Petty Motorsports in the No. 9 car this weekend. He’ll be replaced by Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2015, but Ambrose could return to run the road course events since he does have off weekends in the Australian V8 Supercar Series. But he’s going to be with Penske, which means he could run a third car for them just like Juan Pablo Montoya did in 2014. Over 226 career starts, Ambrose has two victories with 18 top-fives and 46 top-10s. This year has been a struggle for him, but coming off of a top-10 finish at Phoenix – Ambrose might end his full-time NASCAR career on a high note.
-Carl Edwards is running his final race for Roush Fenway Racing this weekend. He’s starting 15th in the No. 99 Ford, but he was 18th of 30 cars to run 10 straight laps in final practice. Edwards is on the move to a fourth car at Joe Gibbs Racing, and he’s going to be working with a new crew chief as well. Homestead will be the final race on the top of a pit box for veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Since joining Roush in 1997 with Mark Martin, he has won 38 races and the first Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format with Kurt Busch in 2004. The pair has struggled with the new ride height package this year, and that was a key for Edwards when he made the decision to leave the team.
-Trevor Bayne is running his last race for the Wood Brothers. He’s going to be replacing Edwards, but they’re rebranding the No. 99 team back to the legendary No. 6 Ford. Bayne has been with Roush since he left Michael Waltrip Racing’s developmental team in 2010. The 2011 Daytona 500 champion finished sixth in the Nationwide Series standings over the past two seasons, but he failed to score a victory in 2014.
-Kyle Larson is set to win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title over Austin Dillon. The No. 42 team has been extremely impressive this year with eight top-fives and 17 top-10s for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. With an average finish of 14.2, he is arguably the best rookie since Hamlin in 2006.
-This is ESPN’s final race broadcasting the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – for now. For the next decade, the worldwide leader in sports won’t be telecasting NASCAR events. Instead, they have signed multiple on-air talents to continue coverage of the sport as NBC Sports will take over starting in 2015. It has been a long journey with ESPN, and they have helped the sport get noticed with long segments on their flagship show “SportsCenter.” Hopefully, they will continue their NASCAR coverage in 2015 and beyond in great ways like they have over the years.
Kevin Harvick Dominates at Phoenix to Advance to Championship in Wild Eliminator Race
The level of intensity at Phoenix International Raceway was higher than the clouds. Coming down to the final lap, the four drivers that will be fighting for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway now know that they are safe.
In dominating fashion, Kevin Harvick locked himself into the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a victory on Sunday afternoon during the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500. Leading 264 of 312 laps at Phoenix, Harvick separated himself from the field to take his third-straight win at the 1-mile speedway.
“I could tell that we were probably going to have to win because everybody was running up in the front of the pack that we were racing against,” Harvick said following the race. “That was our goal coming in here and that’s really the goal every time you come to Phoenix. This place has just been phenomenal for me personally and for this team this year.”
With the triumph, Stewart-Haas Racing now has a shot to win their second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Harvick now has four victories through the 2014 season and had he not won at Phoenix – likely would not have advanced to the final round of the Chase.
Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman were able to advance to the final round of the Chase. Hamlin had a flat tire during a caution period early in the race. Subsequently, the No. 11 car went a lap down during that green-flag run. However, he rallied back on the lead lap, albeit he proceeded to get lapped once again just after the halfway mark. But with approximately 100 laps remaining in the race, the soon to be 34-year-old received the free pass to get back on the lead lap. Hamlin drove his Toyota into the top-five late in the race and solidified his spot in the championship round.
For Logano, he had a penalty for dragging equipment out of his pit stop after winning the race off of pit road during the second caution of the day. Like Hamlin, the No. 22 Ford was lapped by Harvick, yet he got the lucky dog to get his lap back. He finished sixth on Sunday at Phoenix, which helped ease his way into the final four as he had a nine-point cushion over Jeff Gordon, who narrowly missed the cutoff.
"When the 4 car laps you, you don’t know how the race is gonna play out," said Logano following his comeback on Sunday. "You don’t know if there are gonna be enough cautions to get the lucky dog or will you get the lucky dog. When you go down a lap it’s not a day-ender, but it makes your day a lot harder. We missed the lucky dog by one that time, and we had a decent car but when you’re trying to work your way through the field and race really hard you burn your stuff up too much and you get in trouble. We were able to adjust our car to that and then worked our way back up there slowly but surely.”
Then, there is Newman. For a moment, he seemed to be like the Newman from Seinfeld. After struggling through the first 100 laps, the No. 31 team entered the top-10. However, he fell outside of the top-15 late in the going and opted to use strategy to get up front. On the final restart of the day, Newman’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was in fifth-place. But on old tires – multiple cars roared right past him. On the final lap, he was set to be just one position out of the Chase in a tie with Gordon. Gordon would have won the tie-breaker since he had a better top finish in the Eliminator Round. Yet with a bold move in Turn 3, Newman drove it in hard and got into the side of rookie Kyle Larson – putting him in the wall and giving Childress a shot at winning his first Cup Series championship since 1994.
"That was about as clean as I could race," said Newman. "I wasn't proud of it."
Gordon was notably disappointed after finishing second at Phoenix. Had he not been involved in an on-track incident with Brad Keselowski at Texas, the four-time champion likely would have advanced to Homestead. Matt Kenseth also fell short on Sunday. After finishing third, he was just three points behind Newman for third in points. Keselowski finished fourth, and came up eight points behind Newman with Carl Edwards finishing 15th – 15 points behind the No. 31 team.
“It makes last week that much even tougher to swallow, but that's all right,” said Gordon. “We put in a great effort at Martinsville, great effort here, and it just wasn't enough. Some things are out of our control, and I felt like we did a great job putting all the effort into the things that we could control.”
The race had a record 12 cautions on the day – surpassing the previous track record of 11. With eight lead changes during Sunday’s 312-mile spectacle, it was the fewest amount of passes for the lead at the track since 1998.
Going into Homestead, there will be a first-time Sprint Cup Series champion. This will be the first time someone will take home their first title since 2006, when Jimmie Johnson captured his first of six crowns.
Joseph Wolkin can be found on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.
After winning two races early in the year, Kevin Harvick has been on a winless streak for over six month. On Saturday evening, the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet drove back into Victory Lane at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Bank of America 500.
Leading a race-high 162 laps, Harvick was able to hold off Jeff Gordon on a restart with just a pair of laps remaining in the race to score his third victory of the season. With the triumph, he has now clinched his way into the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“Everybody on our team has just continued to build better race cars and we know that we’ve had the cars to run up front and lead laps and do the things that we need to do,” said Harvick on his win. “Things just haven’t gone right and we’ve made some mistakes; things haven’t gone right ore than not. Oh, we came here and tested thinking that this was going to be the hardest round to get through because of Talladega. There’s so much that you can’t control there. We wanted to try to control the things that we could control. We felt like Kansas and here (Charlotte) were playing to our strengths; and just see where it fell after that once we get to the next round.”
Following the race, Brad Keselowski had an on-track altercation with Denny Hamlin on the cool down lap. The No. 2 car finished 16th, and was racing tightly with Hamlin through the final laps. However, Hamlin brake checked Keselowski on the cool down lap. Simultaneously, he spun Hamlin in Turn 3 and then hit Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet as he was waiting in line to go into the garage on pit road.
“Through the whole sequence of events – I think the 20 car got in back of me on one of the restarts, it was just a racing deal and I wasn’t mad at him,” said Keselowski following the incident. But when the last yellow came out he got the wave around and when he came by he swung at my car and tore the whole right-front off of it. That gave us a big Chase hurt, which is unfortunate, and then for some reason after the race the 11 stopped in front of me and tried to pick a fight. I don’t know what that was all about and he swung and hit at my car, so I figured if we’re gonna play car wars under yellow and after the race I’ll join too.”
“I rubbed into the 20 and I think he gassed up and ran into Tony, and don’t think Tony knew what was going on so he’s probably upset and he has every right to be,” he continued. “His car got tore up, but there was a whole lot of other stuff going on and I’m sure when he sees the whole situation he’ll understand.”
Following a confrontation with Hamlin, Keselowski was walking back to his hauler when Matt Kenseth jumped on his back. The No. 20 and No. 2 crews began to have a brawl, but they were separated within a few seconds. However, several drivers are calling for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion to have a fine for what they believe was a dangerous move in the garage area.
Jimmie Johnson was running inside of the top-10 after struggling early on in the 500-mile race. The No. 48 team finished 17th after pitting during the final caution. Leading up to Talladega, he unofficially sits 12th in points; 26 markers behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne for the final position to advance to the Eliminator Round. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished 20th after going a lap down with a shifter knob issue during the race. He was never able to get back on the lead lap and is tied with Johnson in the standings.
Kyle Larson was battling Harvick for the lead prior to the final round of green flag pit stops, but slipped back to the sixth position. The No. 42 Chevrolet led six laps prior to sliding into the wall, which made him drop back a few spots. Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates teammate Jamie McMurray came home in the third position after taking two tires on a late-race pit stop to gain track position and was able to contend for the win
Both Michael Waltrip Racing vehicles experienced engine issues on Saturday evening. Clint Bowyer’s engine let go on Lap 95 following a top-15 run. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers’ engine blew up with seven laps remaining in the race.
There were eight cautions that lasted 39 laps during the 334-lap event. During the race, there were 32 lead changes.
Heading into Talladega, Joey Logano and Harvick are automatically locked into the next round of the Chase with victories. However, there are 10 other drivers vying for six remaining spots. Kyle Busch is the highest ranked driver without a victory, but is just 26 points ahead of Kenseth, who is the first driver on the outside looking in. Keselowski, Johnson and Earnhardt, Jr. are the four drivers that are currently outside of the top-eight.
In a wreck-filled Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Joey Logano was able to come out on top for the fourth time in the 2014 season for Team Penske. The Connecticut-native, who won his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Loudon, has now locked himself into the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
During the Sylvania 300, there were 15 cautions as nine of the 16 drivers in the Chase were involved in incidents. However, Logano was able to survive after taking four tires during his final pit stop as his No. 22 Ford worked through traffic as five yellow flags were thrown within the final 50 laps. The victory marks the seventh in 211 career starts for the 24-year-old. Combined with his teammate Brad Keselowski, the Team Penske organization now has eight wins on the year; the first time they have amassed that many triumphs since Ryan Newman won eight races in 2003.
"This is my home race track, the coolest place to win for me," Logano said. "I could never pick a better race track to win. I watched my first Cup race here when I was five and I won that other Cup race here, but I just felt like I had to win one the right way here, and this means so much. I’ve got to thank all the boys at Team Penske. We’re doing what we’ve got to do to win this thing right now – both teams are – and I’m proud of that. This is my home track so it means so much to me.”
Keselowski had the fastest car throughout the race, and led the first 37 laps after starting from the pole. However, during the competition caution period, crew chief Paul Wolfe and he elected to take four tires – contrary to what everyone else did inside of the top 15. Keselowski dropped to 15th on the restart, and fell as far back as 22nd. With a drop more than 100 laps remaining, Matt Kenseth and he got together. Keselowski spun, but didn’t sustain any damage to his car. On Lap 228, the No. 2 Ford was back out front until Lap 268, but wasn’t able to hold onto the lead with a hard-charging Kevin Harvick taking over for a few laps until Logano set sail as he led the final 29 laps.
Jeff Gordon, who was in position to lock himself into Round 2 of the Chase, blew a tire with nine laps remaining in the race. The orange-soaked No. 24 Chevrolet raced inside of the top five throughout the 300-lap event, but finished the day with a 26th-place result. He now sits seventh in points, but is ahead of 12th-place driver Kasey Kahne by 15 markers.
Denny Hamlin finished 37th in the No. 11 Toyota after a wild day for Joe Gibbs Racing. His car was experiencing trouble getting his fuel tank full. During the caution flag on Lap 104, he brought his car down pit road to get the issue fixed. With a lack of comprehension for what was occurring, Hamlin began to scream at his crew chief Darian Grubb. He ended up getting collected in a multi-car wreck on Lap 179, which collected Cole Whitt, Martin Truex Jr. and David Ragan.
Kyle Larson finished in the runner-up position for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. He came on strong late in the race after running outside of the top 20 during the first half of the event. Larson recorded his seventh top-five finish of 2014. His teammate Jamie McMurray had a strong showing at Loudon. The No. 1 car was inside of the top five for the duration of the Sylvania 300. Although he was not able to lead a lap, McMurray was the strongest non-Chase driver in the race. Larson currently holds a 39-point advantage over McMurray for the 17th position in the standings, which is the highest a driver can finish if they did not make the Chase.
Aric Almirola closed the gap to 12th-place in points with a sixth-place result in the No. 43 Ford. He is just 10 points behind Kahne, and is within four markers of the three drivers in front of him. Kurt Busch fell to 15th in the standings as he blew a tire on Lap 221. The finish dropped him back from ninth in points and is now behind Hamlin and Greg Biffle, who finished 16th after being multiple laps down on Sunday afternoon.
Five of the 16 drivers in the Chase finished outside of the top 20. Harvick is now locked into Round 2 of the Chase after finishing in third-place. He is 45 points ahead of Kahne, which is more than a full race advantage.
What to Watch for in the Gobowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Pocono Raceway for the second of a pair of trips this year. In the midst of the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania, the track has been infamous for its history of having rain within the area on a frequent basis.
This year, it is 50/50 on whether or not the poor weather will show up for Sunday’s Gobowling.com 400. For the second straight year, the company is the title sponsor of the event, and they also have their colors on Aric Almirola’s No. 43 Ford. During Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, the rain was able to hold off, and the Sun came out for a large portion of the 150-mile spectacle. The forecast is similar for Sunday’s race as 43 Sprint Cup Series teams are prepared to race at the ‘Tricky Triangle’ for 400-miles.
Kyle Larson, the newly turned 22-year-old, set a new track record on Friday afternoon during qualifying for the Gobowling.com 400 at Pocono. Larson led the field to the green flag at Richmond International Raceway, but that was due to qualifying being rained out and set on practice speeds. The pole locked him into the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway for next year as it was his first career pole.
After winning the first race at Pocono this year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking to take out the broom stick. Earnhardt Jr. is second in points behind last weekend’s winner Jeff Gordon. After struggling to begin the weekend, the No. 88 team has picked up speed as they were fifth quickest in final practice. With 14 top-10s this year, he will be a factor in Sunday’s event. However, with Gordon coming off of his 90th career victory – he is expected to be strong once again this weekend. He will start fifth in his No. 24 car, but he has been one of the top-three fastest cars over the course of the weekend.
Brad Keselowski was extremely close to winning the June race at the triangular-shaped speedway. But with debris on his grille – Keselowski had to drop back behind Earnhardt Jr. with a handful of laps remaining in the race. On Saturday evening, the former Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series champion captured his 30th career race in NASCAR’s second-tier division. He dominated the race at Iowa Speedway – leading 146 of the 250 laps as he held off a hard-charging Michael McDowell after a late-race caution to score the victory. Keselowski flew back to Pocono as he will pull off the double for possibly the final time with Ryan Blaney possibly moving up to that ride in 2015.
Denny Hamlin will be racing without his crew chief Darian Grubb this weekend. Grubb was suspended for six events due to multiple rear firewall covers having issues following a third-place finish at Indianapolis. Hamlin’s replacement crew chief will be Mike Wheeler, whom of which has worked as the No. 11 team’s car chief since 2006. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota won his first pair of races at NASCAR’s highest level at Pocono back in 2006, and has been quick all weekend. Hamlin will start the Gobowling.com 400 from the 13th position, but was ninth in Happy Hour and 15th in Saturday’s first practice session.
Stewart Haas Racing was strong in the June Pocono race. However, none of their four drivers were able to close the deal. Team co-owner Tony Stewart was leading the race, but had a pit road speeding penalty which dropped him back to the 13th position after pacing the field for 24 laps. Kurt Busch was the lone driver from the organization to finish inside of the top-10 after leading five laps in the 160-lap event.
Michael Waltrip Racing is looking for their first win of 2014. Clint Bowyer sits 10th in points and hasn’t finished outside of the top-15 at Pocono since the August race in 2012. His teammate Brian Vickers made his return to Pocono in June – finishing 19th. Moreover, he sits 17th in points and needs a solid run this weekend.
The green flag will take place at 1:05 p.m. ET as NASCAR moved up the start time by 13 minutes due to the pending weather.