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.
Hard work and dedication has paid off for the son of the Buckeye Bullet.
Ryan Blaney, a developmental driver for Team Penske since 2012, will be joining Wood Brothers Racing for the 2015 season. Replacing Trevor Bayne in the iconic No. 21 Ford, Blaney will be running at least 12 events next year. With Bayne heading over to the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway Racing in 2015, the Wood Brothers were sent searching for a new driver to take the seat in the cockpit of their vehicle.
In addition to racing for the Wood Brothers, the soon to be 21-year-old will be racing for Team Penske in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. This season, he has run seven races for Penske in NASCAR’s second-tier division – tallying up six top-10s; highlighted by a runner-up finish at Iowa Speedway. Although the team did not announce how many races Blaney will race in the Nationwide Series, they said it could be around the same amount that he is scheduled to run this year.
Team Penske has also created an alliance with the Wood Brothers, whom of which previously had a partnership with Roush Fenway Racing.
“Working with an organization that has been so successful at Daytona and the bigger tracks and the success that we have had has been there, but not to the extent that these guys have had,” Tim Cindric, President of Team Penske said. “This is something that we can learn from, but with a third car out there – running the same specifications and equipment that we are with our two cars can only continue to help grow our program in a faster way. With the rule changes that they are looking at for next year – we will have more cars out there to learn quicker. We would love to run three or four cars like some of these teams do, but I think the fact that we run two cars with the group that we have – this is just a good move for us.”
The move enables Blaney to move up the ranks after racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series on a full-time basis for Brad Keselowski Racing. Currently, he leads the championship standings with an average finish of 7.4 halfway into the 2014 season. Besides
“I don’t think it will be incredibly difficult,” Blaney said on running both schedules next year. “We have a great team with the alliance with the Wood Brothers and Team Penske. I think we have a great chance. I will need a little bit of time just because all three series drive so differently, but hopefully in time – running these races will definitely help that. It is really big for me getting ready for next season.
This weekend at the Michigan International Speedway, Blaney will turn his first laps in the No. 21 Ford. With Bayne racing in the Nationwide Series event at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the newest driver to race for the organization will practice and qualify the car. Earlier this year, he made his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut with Team Penske at Kansas Speedway in the No. 12 car – finishing 27th after running inside of the top 15 throughout the race.
It started out as an abysmal season for one of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidates in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. However, Chris Buescher has learned from mistakes made early in the season, and now he is inside of the top-10 in Nationwide Series points.
Buescher, 21, is racing for Roush-Fenway Racing this year, but there is an open seat available in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. His teammate, Trevor Bayne, has been racing full-time on the Nationwide Series circuit for RFR while running part-time at NASCAR’s highest level for the Wood Brothers for the past several seasons. Now, Bayne is taking his Advocare sponsorship to the Sprint Cup Series with RFR in the No. 6 Ford – leaving an open seat available with the Wood Brothers.
Rumors have been swirling around the NASCAR garage area that although Sam Hornish Jr. is the leading candidate for the ride, Buescher also has a strong chance to drive the famous No. 21 car.
“There have been no discussions as far as that goes,” Buescher said. “They are still focusing on the rest of this season and getting Trevor some more good runs in for the rest of the year.”
However, even though he has not started to talk to the Wood Brothers, Buescher has not completely closed the door on the possibility of racing for them in 2015.
“I’m sure we’ll start talking to them about where they are headed next year, but there is not a whole lot to talk about at the moment.”
Even if he races with the Wood Brothers next year on a part-time basis, Buescher will continue to pilot a car for Roush on a full-time basis in the Nationwide Series – similar to the process which the team had to develop Stenhouse.
Since 2011, the No. 21 car has not been on the track at more than 16 events in a single season. Besides their Daytona 500 victory, Bayne and the Wood Brothers have seen limited success with just two top-10s after that race (both of which came in 2012). However, the team has a strong relationship with RFR, whom of which influenced the team to sign Bayne to replace Bill Elliott after the 2010 season.
“Trevor is very helpful with us every weekend, but it is not like he’s going to be far away. He’s going to be right next door in the Cup Series garage. Any help we can get from him is always appreciated as well as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It is tough going to some of these places for the first time,” Buescher said on what his perspective would be after Bayne leaves RFR.
Buescher missed the season-opener at Daytona when qualifying rained out after the first session. Since then, he has six straight finishes of 13th or better. The 2012 ARCA Series champion is looking to record his second top-five finish of his rookie season as he sits eighth in the Nationwide Series points standings.
“We’ve been coming on pretty strong here lately. Our Roush-Fenway Racing cars are getting better as we go through the season. We ran really well at Michigan. We’re definitely making progress and I’m looking forward to where we are headed,” he said.
Kyle Busch is two for two this weekend at the Dover International Speedway. After dominating the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event on Friday afternoon, Busch scored his 66th career win in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and now has a total of 134victories in NASCAR’s top-three divisions.
Busch led 124 of the 200 laps in the Buckle Up 200, providing the eighth win at Dover for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series. He restated his dominance, especially on restarts as he was able to pull out front within the first two laps of each restart, providing the No. 54 car with a comfortable lead for the long green flag runs. Entering this weekend’s events at Dover, no driver had previously won both the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series events at the Monster Mile. Busch will be looking to complete the Dover triple on Sunday afternoon during the FedEx 400.
Late in the race, Trevor Bayne was able to get around Joey Logano, who had won four straight Nationwide Series contests at Dover prior to this weekend. Logano led 59 laps on Saturday’s spectacle, but just didn’t have a car capable of keeping up with Busch who was setting a staggering pace after the second round of pit stops.
"This team has made some really big gains this week. We have been eighth to 10th every week and it kind of stinks to be that close. I will never complain about a second place finish, but when you can get that close, you want to keep going," Bayne said.
After being more than two seconds behind Busch, Bayne close the gap to less than half of a second with 15 laps to go. However, Bayne just could not keep up with Busch who showed signs of getting stronger within the concluding 10 markers. This marks Bayne’s second top-five of the year, and now sits fourth in points.
Regan Smith leaves Dover with a four point lead over Elliott Sadler as the two were battling for the ninth position late in the race. After leading the race early, Chase Elliott ended up finishing fifth, and is now 22 points behind his teammate, Smith, for the points lead.
Cale Conley was running 18th, just trying to earn experience when James Buescher got loose off of Turn Four, and slid into Ryan Reed. Reed tried to save it, but slammed into Conley, tossing his No. 33 Chevrolet into the outside wall in Turn One.
Dylan Kwasniewski had a track bar issue late in the race, sending his No. 31 Chevrolet to pit road where he went 12 laps down.
Standalone events provide an abundance of opportunities for Nationwide Series drivers. Men such as David Gilliland, Trevor Bayne, Jason Keller, Elliott Sadler, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and other Nationwide Series regulars in the past and present, have been able to lock up race wins during standalone events.
This weekend, the NASCAR Nationwide Series will hit the 7/8-mile track in Newton, Iowa – the Iowa Speedway. Since holding its first Nationwide Series event in 2009, the Iowa Speedway has had five different winners in eight events. Stenhouse Jr. dominated the speedway in 2011 and 2012, winning three straight races. However, there are only two drivers who have won a Nationwide Series race at Iowa that are entered in this weekend’s spectacle. Ryan Blaney and James Buescher also have won Camping World Truck Series events at Iowa, and Chase Elliott scored a K&N Pro Series East victory once at Iowa.
Elliott Sadler, coming off of his first win with Joe Gibbs Racing after joining the organization in 2013, is looking to use his momentum to the No. 11 team’s advantage. Sadler scored a victory at Iowa in 2012, and has been a contender for the win in all six events he has run at the track. He was inside of the top-five in the first two practice sessions to begin the weekend, but was eighth in the third practice and 16th in Saturday’s final practice.
Chase Elliott currently leads the Nationwide Series points standings after nine events. Elliott, 18, participated in his high school graduation ceremony on Saturday morning, causing him to miss final practice. However, he ran a total of 144 laps in the first three practices, and paced two of those three sessions. Elliott’s time of 23.236 seconds during the third practice was the fastest lap recorded throughout the weekend, and might be poised to win his third event of the year.
Brian Scott is still looking for his first career win. With an opportunity weekend, Scott might be able to lock up the victory at Iowa. Scott was quickest in second practice, yet he has finished 6th or worse in seven Iowa starts without any laps led.
Dylan Kwasniewski swapped over to the No. 42 car for Turner Scott Motorsports as Kyle Larson is in Charlotte where he ran the Sprint Showdown on Friday evening. Kwasniewski will be in the car Larson usually pilots during each of the Nationwide Series standalone events. Moreover, Kwasniewski will be paired up with Larson’s crew chief, Scott Zipadelli, rather than his usual crew chief, Pat Tryson. The pair was able to pace final practice with a time of 23.320 seconds. Kwasniewski has just one top-10 finish to start his rookie year in NASCAR’s second-tier division, and a weekend without the Cup Series regulars could lead him to a solid finish.
Sam Hornish Jr. is looking to get his first win for JGR this weekend. Hornish made his debut for the No. 54 team at Talladega, scoring the pole award in his first Nationwide Series race since Homestead at the end of the 2013 season. Hornish has been consistently inside of the top-13 throughout the weekend, and had the fastest 10 consecutive laps average in final practice at 130.371 mph.
Here are some notables for the Get to Know Newton 250 at Iowa:
- Chad Boat returns in his family-owned No. 84 car. Boat was outside of the top-15 in each of the first three practices, but was fifth in final practice.
- AustinTheriault is making his Nationwide Series debut this weekend driving the No. 5 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports. He was 18th or worse in each of the first three practices, but ended the final session in the third position.
- Ryan Ellis is driving the No. 46 car for The Motorsports Group after running the Camping World Truck Series event for FDNY Racing on Friday evening.
- Matt DiBenedetto, who usually drives the No. 46 car, has moved over to the No. 40 Chevrolet since Josh Wise is in Charlotte after making the Sprint All-Star Race due to winning the fan vote.
- Hal Martin is making his season debut for TriStar Motorsports in the No. 44 car. Martin ran the first 10 races for the team last year, but sat out all but two races after that.
- Caleb Roark is making his Nationwide Series debut for SS Green Light Racing in the No. 55 Chevrolet in conjunction with Viva Motorsports. Roark has five previous starts in the Camping World Truck Series with a best finish of 19th at Martinsville in 2011.
- Ryan Gifford is making his first of two scheduled starts for Biagi-DenBeste Racing. He has been inside of the top-20 in each of the four practice sessions as he prepares to start his second Nationwide Series event.
- Cale Conley returns to the Richard Childress Racing No. 33 Chevrolet for his fourth start of the season. Conley has two top-15 finishes this year, and has had a respectable weekend – running inside of the top-20 in each practice session.
The Get to Know Newton 250 can be seen on ESPN on Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. ET.