Whether fans and competitors like it or loathe it, NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup format has narrowed a field for 16 drivers down to four. Now it comes down to one race, with those four drivers all racing for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. After the elimination races the four drivers now face the task of that one single race. Those four drivers met with the media Thursday in South Florida as they arrived to prepare for Sundays Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Each driver has his own agenda and each has a story that will make for some great headlines when it’s all over. The winner of Sundays race might not be the biggest story. That will come from the Chase driver who finishes ahead of the other three and comes away with this year’s title.
Kevin Harvick is the favorite of many. He won the race at Homestead and the title last year by one point. With his win here last season and experience winning a title, if Harvick can avoid trouble, he will be the driver to beat. He said Thursday that he embraces the role of favorite.
“It makes you feel good about the way that the team has run and the things that we have done,” Harvick said. “We’re a confident group amongst ourselves, but you also have to be respectful because you definitely don’t want to get run over by the karma train by spouting too many things off. It’s definitely — it’s flattering, but in the end, it’s still got to run the race, and there’s other teams that have run well, and I think as you look at the situation, obviously there’s a lot of things that we’ve been a part of and done well in the past, but now you’ve got to do them again.”
Jeff Gordon has four titles. None of those have come under the Chase format however. Gordon has perhaps more motivation than others though. Homestead will mark his last race as a full time competitor. The legendary driver will hang up his helmet at the end of this season, but to go out as a champion will put icing on the cake. Gordon said Thursday that winning a title in his final year would rank among some of the best accomplishments in a long and illustrious career. However, winning a fifth title would be a little different.
“You know, I didn’t think anything could top the Brickyard 400 in 1994, that win, until Martinsville,” Gordon said. “ I didn’t think anything could top that 1998 championship where we won 13 races — I’ve always had a tough time trying to balance out which one is the most meaningful, because ’95 was the first one. It was going against Earnhardt; that was huge. ’98 was big because of the wins, the 13-win season and how we dominated that season. But ’01 was extremely personally gratifying to me, to do it with Robby Loomis, and again, I got a lot of respect in the garage area by doing it with someone other than Ray.”
“But this one is so much different because my final year, my final race, Ingrid and the kids,” he added. “Kids motivate you in a whole new way, and no matter what we’re going to go out and be happy and celebrate, but to do it as a champion, oh, my gosh, I just can’t imagine anything that would be more emotional and more exciting and more gratifying than to look at my wife in the eyes and see that reaction from her when that race is over if we win it.”
No one thought Kyle Busch would be among the final four when the season started. Busch suffered horrific injures in the season opening Xfinity race at Daytona and missed the first 11 races of the season. Busch returned at Charlotte in May and did everything NASCAR asked of him when the sanctioning body granted him a waiver to make this year’s Chase. He won four races and has been competitive enough to find himself deeper into the Chase than he has ever been. Busch said Thursday that sitting in a hospital bed nine months ago made it hard for him to imagine that he would be in the position he is now, eligible to win the title.
“You know, we were trying to figure out whether or not I was going to be eligible when I was able to return and whether or not I could make up enough points to get myself in contention to be Chase eligible come Richmond,” Busch said. “Once everything kind of started going, you know, after Michigan, when I crashed out there and finished dead last, we were like, okay, we’ve got to reboot here and figure out what we’re going to do to make the Chase. But things went well. We won Sonoma. We won four out of five weeks, and man, it just turned around and put us where we needed to be for this Chase.
“We’ve done what we needed to do within the Chase to keep moving on,” he added. “We may have been the last guy moving on each time, but it doesn’t matter if you’re first or last, you know. I’m talking against Ricky Bobby right there.”
“It only matters right now in the last round and making sure that you’re the No. 1 guy,” Busch said.
Martin Truex Jr. comes to Homestead as the underdog. He races for a single car team that is based far outside the NASCAR hotbed of North Carolina. Truex has been relatively quiet this season, winning at Pocono in June to become Chase eligible, avoiding trouble and doing just what he’s needed to do to have a shot at winning it all.
“We want this more than anything right now,” Truex said Thursday. “It’s all or nothing. I mean, this is the only thing that matters. You know, I don’t know if, based on past history, just the things that I’ve been through, you never know when you’re going to get on opportunity like this again.”
“ Hopefully we can make it happen,” he added. “There’s no guarantees. It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be tough. But I’m telling you, we want it as bad as anyone out there. It’s ours to go get.”
Four drivers, one race, one champion. No matter the outcome Sunday, it would seem to many that any one of the four drivers will make a great NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
“Between those four, I think all of them are a great story one way or the other,” Joe Gibbs who owns the team that Busch will race on Sunday said. “I would say the betting public would probably be going with Kevin, but I think any of the four would have a good chance in one race.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway will get the green flag just after 3:00 p.m. ET Sunday with live coverage on NBC. Rain is forecast for Sunday in the area, so like it did last Sunday in Phoenix, rain could shorten the final race of the season. Given that it’s the final race of the Chase many are wondering in the rules regarding rain shortened races ( the race is official at the halfway point) when they are in the Chase should be addressed.
“How do you change it, though?” Tony Stewart who owns Harvick’s team said Thursday. “That’s the hard part. But that’s the way it’s always been, and I think everybody knows that. It’s not a new rule. It’s not something different. Is it ideal, no. Is it okay, yes. I mean, we don’t have a choice. We can’t control the weather.”
“It’s not ideal by any means,” Stewart said. “I don’t think anybody wants to have that scenario and have to race in that scenario, but as well, at the same time, we’ve all raced under those circumstances, and if it has to end that way, that’s the way it’ll end.”