After ten months the slow, methodical grind known as the NASCAR season reaches its climax in Miami, Florida at Homestead Speedway. After thirty-five races, the Monster Energy Series Championship will be settled among the foursome of Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Junior. Meanwhile, on the Xfinity side, the title will be settled between the two rookies Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, and the two veterans Cole Custer, Daniel Hemric. The venue for these showdowns is the aforementioned Homestead Speedway, a unique mile and a half track that features the length of other intermediate tracks, is shaped like the paper-clipesque Martinsville, but features the banking (20 degrees) of a Darlington. Homestead was built in the era of big cookie cutter tracks, however, the owners or at least the engineers had the good sense to not build an intermediate track exactly like Kansas, Texas, Kentucky, and Chicagoland who were all taking their cues from Atlanta. Thus, when your friend complains about NASCAR ending their season at another 1.5-mile venue hit em with a slice of knowledge because the only thing similar about this place and Kansas is the distance of the course. Besides, Homestead offers the very things that we as fans want that also caters to NBC and NASCAR; warm weather (although there is oddly a new “invest” forming in the Caribbean as we speak headed towards Florida), a finish under the lights, and multiple grooves of racing thanks to that high banking. Besides, before Homestead was built, Atlanta Motor Speedway was generally where the Series finale was always held. If that was still the case we may as well just hand over the trophy to Kevin Harvick before a single lap is run. Regardless, there exists a contingency that would like to see the season finale held at different tracks on a rotating circuit sort of like what we see in both professional and collegiate football but the only problem with that is the Series would be limited to just a handful of tracks where weather, lighting, and racing could meet the same demands that Homestead already fulfills on a yearly basis.
One other thing that draws the ire of NASCAR fans is the playoffs format. Don’t say that NASCAR hasn’t been willing to adjust the rules to make the playoffs more interesting because ever since the first “Chase” year in 2004, the Series has been very open to evolving its format system. While I doubt that NASCAR would admit to such things, the majority of these changes were innovations they thought would help handicap Jimmie Johnson against the field and in reality those changes didn’t start manifesting until the past few seasons but you could also argue that the rest of the field caught up to JJ while the 48 team has been on a slow digression. The current format of awarding playoff points throughout the regular season, and guaranteed entry into the playoffs via a win provided you’re top thirty in driver’s points, makes sense and the elimination format from 16-12-8-4 also adds a layer of intrigue that definitely didn’t exist when I was a child watching the sport. Provided it does mean that a few hiccups in consecutive races can eliminate one of the series best regular season drivers (i.e. Justin Allgaier in the Xfinity series), but this is, by all means, better than the first editions of the Chase that saw Jimmie Johnson win the title by 141 points or what I witnessed in the 90’s when the final race(s) of the season could be absolutely meaningless because the series leaders points total was so large like in the 1994 season when Dale Earnhardt Sr won his 7th and final title by 444 points. Meaningless series finales are not what broadcasters or track owners want and it’s not what we should want as fans either. Let the Europeans award titles based on a body of work achievements. Here in America, we award titles based on how you perform linearly in the playoffs. MERICA!
Enough about Homestead and the playoffs system because you will never make the Traditionalists in this sport happy, they’re the same guys writing letters to the MLB office to get rid of the DH in the American League. Thus, let’s talk about what to expect this Saturday and Sunday as both Xfinity and Monster Energy conclude their season. Sidenote – these weekly previews are usually only used to highlight the Cup races because that’s obviously where the majority of my readers are getting their action in, but since this is the Championship weekend for both series why not highlight both. Perhaps Draftkings will up the prize pools on both slates to mark the occasion but I have my doubts.
On Saturday the talk will consist of one driver and one driver only – Cole Custer. The running gag all year in the Xfinity Series was to watch out for Custer based on his dominating performance at Homestead in the conclusion of the 2017 season, a race in which he led 188 of 200 laps. The gag being that Custer couldn’t win anywhere else on the circuit but man alive if he somehow made his way to Miami as part of the final four he would be a force to reckon with. Fast forward, Custer makes his way into the playoffs via points and the same way into the round of eight before sneaking away from Texas with a win after a slew of wreck fueled cautions took out race leaders like Christopher Bell and Daniel Hemric. Now one of the largest, most over-utilized talking points of the Xfinity series has come to life as Custer appears to ascend the throne at Miami presumably ready to put on another dominating performance. However, should we just put Custer’s name on the trophy or is this talking point just hot air? Well, from a year to date scenario, Christopher Bell has been better by a wide margin than Custer while Daniel Hemric has been just as good if not better.
If anyone deserves anointing it should be Bell who has shown his superior talent at whatever venue the Xfinity series races at, save for road courses and even then he’s shown a lot of improvement versus what we saw last year. Custer’s 2017 perfect storm consisted of starting on the front next to an inexperienced Tyler Reddick with a fast car (79 fast laps) while the Championship four of Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, William Byron, Daniel Hemric were battling for the Championship behind him especially towards the end of the race. It was a scenario he should have capitalized on and to his effort he did. However, was his 188 laps led that big of a deal? In the 2016 season finale, we saw series champion Daniel Suarez lead 133 laps from the pole position, in 2015 118 laps were led by Kyle Larson (remember that name) after Kyle Busch led 64 laps from the pole, and in 2014 Kyle Larson led 111 laps from the 2nd starting position. So perhaps, the trick isn’t just being fast or knowing how to navigate the turns but starting out front. Never underestimate clean air. Of course, if Custer qualifies on the pole it’s going to make roster construction decisions harder but should either of Hemric or Bell start in front of Custer don’t just assume the #00 will slide right by them because of what happened last year. The forgotten name in this ruffling of statistics has been Tyler Reddick, affectionately known as Tyler Wrecked-It in the Awesemo NASCAR slack chat channel due to his propensity to spin himself or fellow competitors out. However, to his credit, he has managed to do the unlikely and be the beacon of consistency with no finish worse than 14th in the six playoff races marked by three straight top-six finishes in the round of eight. I don’t want to diminish Tyler’s run of late but let’s be honest that his seat in Miami exists only because he managed to somehow not get caught up in the havoc at Kansas and Texas with better finishes than either of Matt Tifft or Elliott Sadler. Could Reddick pull off the upset and win the title? Sure, and it’s not because of his talent or car but because of his crew chief. Seated in his pit box will be Dave Elenz, the same man who celebrated an Xfinity title last year with William Byron.
On the Cup side, the same cliche talking points about Custer (that actually came to fruition) are recycled with Kyle Larson as the focal point and for good reason. We’ve already seen how well he has run at Homestead in the Xfinity series (229 combined laps led in his last two starts) but over the past two seasons, Larson has carried that over to the Cup side with finishes of 2nd and 3rd with laps led totals of 145 and 132 in consecutive years. While I have my doubts with Cole, I truly do think that this track suits Larson so much that if he and his team could ever conquer their playoff hurdles and make it to Miami that Larson would be the odds-on favorite. It’s easy to question the validity of that with no wins to back up these performances, however, in these races, Larson has chosen the high road of not racing the championship contenders towards the end of the race. Call it sportsmanship, racing like how he would want to be raced, or whatever… Larson seems to have a bigger picture in mind when the laps are waning down and a driver with title aspirations is closing in.
So, beyond Larson being on the top of our leaderboards as prospective Hogs pre-practice, what else should we expect? Late cautions and lead changes, and when you consider the stakes it makes all the sense in the world that this race would be full to the brim with both. As far as cautions, last year was a bit of an outlier as the final caution was thrown at lap 229 with Kurt Busch had an accident in turn four, but in the three previous Homestead races, the final yellow flag flew with seven or fewer laps remaining. Only once was that late caution induced by a wreck, rewatch the end of the 2016 race and you’ll get a slight hint of why Carl Edwards may have retired early, but predicting who or what brings the caution out and when is a fool’s errand. Thus, just know that it’s possible, but for the sake of your fantasy lineups hope it’s more phantom debris caused then multi-car pileup inspired.
In regards to lead changes, they’re like voters from Chicago in the mid-1930’s – they come early and late, but most importantly often. The fewest lead changes Homestead has seen in nearly twenty years has been twelve (2002) and when you throw out last year’s race as an outlier once again (just 13 lead changes), the lead changes have gone 18, 22, 26, 19, 22, 18, 18, and 20 in consecutive years since 2009. However, that’s not what matters because the very thing we’re concerned about (who leads the most laps) is a bit of an odd story. In four straight races at Homestead, the driver who leads the most laps was not part of the Championship contention while the eventual winner was in the fight for the title. If you think my ability to read a box score is bad then check it out for yourself in 14, 15, 16, and 17. It’s a story that writes itself, a driver with no title hopes end up leading the majority of the race before a late caution reshuffles the field and one of the title contenders assumes the lead and goes on to win the event. And the crazy thing is that this story keeps playing itself out and I think we safely assume that this pattern shows up once again which makes roster construction pre-qualifying and practice a little easier. Assume Larson joy rides his way around Miami again as the main Hog on your rosters and add one of the final four as a secondary “dominator”. However, which of Logano, Busch, Harvick, and Truex deserves preferential nods over one another?
First, let’s look in this terms of track history at Homestead since the Gen 6 car was first raced here. If all you wanted to know who has the best short-term track history it’s Kevin Harvick going away. Whether he’s racing for a title or not, Harvick races his way towards the front and competes for the win. Interestingly enough, it’s a bit of a toss up between Kyle and Joey for who’s been the second-best among these four.
|Driver||Finish/ Avg||ARP||Wins||Top-5’s||Top-10’s||Laps Led/ Avg|
|Martin Truex Jr||14||10.2||1||2||2||16.2|
Next, let’s investigate year to date performance at intermediate tracks over the past nine races. When you consider the drivers through this lens it looks like a two horse race with Harvick and Busch lengths in front of Truex and Logano. Harvick has been better in terms of wins and laps led at these 1.5-mile ovals but Kyle has been far more consistent, however, if consistency is what you yearn for then Truex deserves the nod. Remember, all a driver from this four has to do is just finish ahead of the other three and that would lend itself to Martin who owns top-five finishes in eight of the past nine intermediate track races. On the other hand, should our pattern of a final four contestant winning the race continue for the fifth year running then our attention should turn back to Harvick and Kyle who collectively own seven out of the ten wins at 1.5-mile ovals this season.
|Driver||Finish/ Avg||ARP||Wins||Top-5’s||Top-10’s||Laps Led/ Avg|
|Martin Truex Jr||3.9||6.8||1||8||9||32.11|
Just for kicks and grins, I think it’s efficacious if we also consider the year to date performance at steeply banked tracks (Dover, Darlington, Las Vegas, Bristol) for obvious reasons. This bag is a bit more mixed up as Kevin owns 2 wins but Joey Logano has been by far the more consistent driver of the lot.
|Martin Truex Jr||13.9||11.1||0||3||3|
Finally, it would be a disservice if we didn’t consider current form. Starting at the first race of the playoffs, Las Vegas, through this past Sunday’s race at ISM while excluding the Roval and Talladega, we see that Rowdy has been the far better driver over the playoff run. It is a little surprising to see Kevin with just three top-five finishes over this seven-race span as well as his only win coming via an illegal spoiler he probably didn’t need but I don’t think its worth making a mountain out of a molehill over.
|Martin Truex Jr||7.4||7.7||0||4||5|
In lieu of all of this, I believe it’s pretty clear that Kevin and Kyle should be at the top of everyone’s boards with Joey Logano as option 3 and Truex in a close fourth. As things stand, the difference between Happy and Rowdy is negligible and I think we’ll only get a clear picture between the two based on the three practice sessions this weekend. The margins are small and every single one of these competitors has a legitimate chance to walk out of Homestead with the Cup in hand and perhaps the best thing is that none of these four feel like a runaway favorite either which should lead to a great race paying off a week full of anticipation and intrigue.
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