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.
It is going to be a busy few weeks for executives at Richard Petty Motorsports.
On Saturday afternoon, the organization announced that the No. 9 Ford Fusion is vacant for the 2015 season. Driving for the team since 2011, Marcos Ambrose is opting to leave RPM to take his family back to his home in Australia. In lieu of this decision, the team now has the task of finding a new driver. But that might not be the team’s greatest challenge.
While Ambrose is departing a team that he has won a pair of races with, his sponsor is doing the same. Black and Decker is reportedly joining forces with Joe Gibbs Racing, according to Motorsport.com’s Lee Spencer. Just weeks ago, JGR announced that ARRIS will be sponsoring Carl Edwards’ No. 19 Toyota in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for 17 events. It is apparent that Stanley will sponsor Edwards, but Dewalt will sponsor Matt Kenseth after they backed him from his days in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with Robbie Reiser in 1999 until 2009.
With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the possible candidates that could be Aric Almirola’s teammate at the team that bars Richard Petty’s name on its logo.
- Sam Hornish Jr.: It appears that Hornish is the top choice for the organization. Although he is racing on a part-time basis for a Toyota team in the Nationwide Series, he had plenty of success with Team Penske and Ford in 2013. With Ford having a clear presence in this decision, they will want someone that has a good relationship with them. However, Hornish has not run a full season in the Cup Series since 2010. Now, he is clearly a better driver. It is obvious that he is going to entertain this offer – if he gets it. But he will need to find at least some sponsorship, and that has been an immense struggle for a former Indianapolis 500 winner when it truly shouldn’t be.
- David Ragan: Ragan has driven for Ford throughout his career. Besides that, he even owns a Ford dealership. He lost his ride at Roush Fenway Racing because UPS opted to sponsor Carl Edwards instead of him and he couldn’t find another company willing to back him, even after showing that he can get into Victory Lane. Since then, it has been nearly three years of immense struggles for Ragan as he is racing for Front Row Motorsports. FRM has a minor alliance with Roush, but it isn’t enough to help him contend for top 20s on a weekly basis. Moving over to RPM would give him a chance to go back to consistently racing inside of the top 15. He has been able to bring plenty of new companies into the sport with his underfunded team. The past three years have been tough, but a job with RPM could have him back in the spotlight and contending for a spot in the Chase with Almirola.
- Parker Kligerman: Kligerman was left without a ride when Swan Racing shut down a few months ago. Even though he recently tested an Indy Lights car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, he would certainly jump at what would arguably be the best opportunity of his racing career. Clearly a talented driver, RPM could help develop him like they did with Almirola. Given the opportunity, Kligerman could race inside of the top 20 in his first year with the team. Albeit he hasn’t been able to find much funding over the course of his career, he has run well when given opportunities in top equipment. If the team can’t sign Ragan or Hornish, he would certainly be a perfect fit for them.
- Elliott Sadler: It appears that Sadler won’t be staying at JGR in the Nationwide Series next year. He has said over and over again that he wants to be back in the Cup Series. Last year, he had a minor stint with Michael Waltrip Racing; improving each race he ran for them. If One Main Financial would back him, there is a possibility that he could rejoin the team he once raced for. He has had some success in the Nationwide Series with three different teams, yet the money from the sponsor could help him get back to the Cup Series.
- David Gilliland: Like Ragan, Gilliland has been racing on one-year deals for FRM. When I spoke with him at Dover at the end of May, he stated that he is working on a contract extension. However, he would also be a good fit at RPM. He has also helped bring in new sponsors into the sport, such as Love’s Travel Stops, and there is the slight chance that they would move over to RPM with him if they are willing to spend more money. He has never proven that he can win races in NASCAR’s highest division, but in a sport where money means everything – Gilliland could join this team in a highly unlikely scenario.
- Ryan Truex: RPM signed Truex to a developmental deal last year. It is clear that racing with BK Racing is not the best of situations for him. However, Petty told me that they are still working to make a package for him – at least in the Nationwide Series. Getting all of this bad luck out of the way this year might not be the worst of ideas. If he can get some sponsorship, we might see RPM put him in the No. 9 car.
- Michael McDowell: Throughout his career, McDowell never really had a great shot at being competitive. However, he continuously proves that he is capable of running well when given the equipment to do so. If K-LOVE were to make the move with him, McDowell would finally have a chance at being a top 20 driver. Like Gilliland, it all depends on whether or not the team can put a package together for the other drivers. However, with someone as genuine as McDowell, there might not be a better guy off of the track to add to a team with a genuine owner.
- Brian Scott: Scott is backed by his family’s company, Shore Lodge. He has been racing well with Richard Childress Racing, and has made a few starts in the Cup Series. If RCR can’t find room for him since Ty Dillon should be moving to the Cup Series in 2016, he might have to find another organization to call home. Switching manufacturers should not be a factor for him since he raced for Toyota for a few years before he joined RCR. Moreover, he might want to stay with the team and fight for a title. But the funding should be there if he wants to make the jump and race for 20th-25th in Cup.
Marcos Ambrose needs a victory. There is no way around it. In order to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he must get rid of the egg in the win column, or he will need to move up a few spots in the standings.
This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits the road course in upstate New York. The only track where Ambrose has recorded victories in NASCAR’s top-tier division, Watkins Glen has by far been his top track. In six races at the Glen, Ambrose has five top-fives.
“We both know we have a chance to win this race to lock into the Chase and that is a big thing for our team and would make our year,” Ambrose said in a press conference on Friday morning. “It is an important weekend no doubt. You have to try to downplay that as best as you can coming in. We are excited. We had a good test up here last week and felt like the car was a repeat of last year and we had a fast car last year too. We have our fingers crossed that it comes off the truck here pretty quick and we can get back down to business and work on starting in the front.”
Arguably, this is going to be the most important weekend of the 37-year-old’s NASCAR career. With rumors circling around Roger Penske and Dick Johnson teaming up to form a V8 Supercar team in Ambrose’s home country of Australia, he might just be on the move. Although he claims to have not made a decision on his future, it appears as if he is leaning away from leaving NASCAR competition on a full-time basis unless his Richard Petty Motorsports team can find some consistency before the season concludes.
“It’s going to be up to Marcos. I don’t know if he’s made a complete decision as far as where he is going to be. I know he wants to run some, but I don’t know if he wants to run all the time or not. We ain’t got a clue yet,” said team co-owner Richard Petty. “It (the season) is a little bit better than it was last year. We got a long way to go. We have one car in the Chase, but we still have to run well. Just because you are in the Chase doesn’t mean much.”
If he opts not to return to full-time competition in NASCAR, Petty said the team might run him on a part-time basis. The V8 Supercar season starts around the same time that the NASCAR season does, but the season continues on until early December – leaving very few options for Ambrose if he wants to do both.
“You know what you need from the race car to get to victory lane and that inner confidence to do what you need to do,” Ambrose said. “My past history is no guarantee at the future. That is the way I look at it. Each weekend is unique to itself and this weekend in particular, already there are some different angles that we haven’t had to deal with before like the new ride height and downforce rules as well as fuel mileage and how that comes into play which will be different compared to last year.”
It might be a time for change. Marcos Ambrose appears to be leaning on leaving Richard Petty Motorsports for a deal in Australia with Team Penske in a partnership with Dick Johnson.
Prior to racing in NASCAR, Ambrose raced in the Australian V8 Supercar division, and was extremely successful in the process. However, a decision has not been made by the 37-year-old, and the team is set to prepare for the 2015 season.
“It’s going to be up to Marcos. I don’t know if he’s made a complete decision as far as where he is going to be. I know he wants to run some, but I don’t know if he wants to run all the time or not. We ain’t got a clue yet,” said team co-owner Richard Petty in the garage area on Friday afternoon.
With Aric Almirola's victory at Daytona International Speedway, the entire team has high expectations for both drivers. As they move forward, the team hopes to contend for a win. Possibly, his future might be determined based on how the No. 9 Ford races at Watkins Glen next weekend - Ambrose's best track.
“That was just a good deal for all of RPM. It helped the No. 9 car and the 43 team. We know we could do it. Winning breeds winning. Hopefully, this will get everybody up and going.”
This year, Ambrose has two top-fives and four top-10s. But he sits 19th in points with an average finish of 18.6, which ranks as his third best in that category since making the jump to full-time Sprint Cup Series racing in 2009.
Sunday Night’s Coke 600 had to be one of the most unusual races NASCAR has had in a very long time. The most bazaar incident came on lap 126 when a cable holding up the SkyCam broke and fell onto the track and into the stands. Before anyone knew what had happened, race leader Kyle Busch ran over it and sent it flying. He and many others ran over portions of the cable damaging their cars.
NASCAR red flagged the race and brought the cars down pit road. Dozens of NASCAR Officials surrounded the cars to assess the damage and counted a total of 19 of them that had visible damage from the flying cable; the worst being on the No18 of Busch, the No55 of Mark Martin and the No9 of Marcos Ambrose.
After assessing the damage and giving officials enough time to clean the cable up off of the track, NASCAR had the teams fire the engines and make a trip around the track and back to pit road. This time, they sent them to their pit boxes and did something very unprecedented for NASCAR. They gave the teams 15 minutes to work on their cars.
That gave teams like Martin, Ambrose and Busch, who had to replace the right front and side of his car, 15 minutes to do so and other teams with little or no damage 15 minutes of time to make changes. NASCAR officials surrounded each and every car on pit road and monitored each team. It was organized chaos.
After the 15 minutes were up, the grid was reset and no driver lost his or her spot from before the caution and the race was restarted. Teams, drivers and fans were still scratching their heads wondering, what in the world just happened here?
Did NASCAR handle this bazaar situation correctly? I believe they did. The damage to the race cars had nothing to do with an on-track incident and it would have been unfair to punish the drivers with significant damage by sending them to the back of the pack after making repairs or possibly to the garage.
NASCAR handled this odd situation the best they could and since we usually criticize them and their decisions, I think we should commend them on a job well done. Listening and reading to drivers comments after the race, many agree that NASCAR did it the right way.
“Put them back into position on the same tires, open pit road, and then go ahead and pit,” Matt Kenseth said. “It just turned into a free-for-all. There were some crews with 15 people around the cars, and there was no way an official could have possibly seen what they were working on. But that was nice that the guys got to fix their damage, because it was certainly no fault of their own."
“NASCAR did a great job of actually handling a crisis there because we were hard-done by and they gave us our laps back and we were able to stay in the race and duke it out,” Ambrose said after the race.
It wasn’t just cars that sustained damage. In a statement released, 10 fans were also treated for injuries from the cable falling, three of whom were taken to local hospitals. All were treated and released.
The use of the camera has been suspended indefinitely and an investigation into what caused the failure has begun.
So hats off to those NASCAR Officials who made the call after this bazaar incident and also those who oversaw the happening on pit road; you definitely made the best out of an unforeseen situation.