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Final Four: Monster Energy Style

by Frank Santoroski      @seveng1967

The 2017 season in NASCAR has seen a number of firsts. It was the first season with stage racing, stage points, playoff points, encumbered finishes, weekly lug nut penalties and a regular-season champion. This weekend at Homestead will see another first as the series is set to crown its first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion.

While the myriad of stage points, playoff points, carryover points and deducted points have made the road to Homestead rather complicated and hard to follow, the championship structure for the finale is mind-numbingly simple. Four drivers are eligible for the title; the one that finishes highest wins it.

This format lends itself to the scenario that sees all four eligible drivers involved in a pile-up on the opening lap, and the car that grinds to a stop farthest up the track is declared the champion. That is, however, highly unlikely as the past three seasons with the Championship 4 format have seen the champion win at Homestead.

Rather than debate the format, let’s take a look at the four drivers who have made it to the dance: “Bad Brad” Keselowski, Kevin “The Closer” Harvick, Kyle “Rowdy” Busch, and Martin “Soul Patch” Truex Jr.

Brad Keselowski: Team Penske
2012 Cup Champion
Career Wins: 24
2017 Regular Season Ranking: 4th
2017 Regular Season Wins: 2
2017 Playoff wins: 1

The driver of the No. 2 Ford has had a solid season that has seen him near, but not at, the top of the points standings all season long.

Keselowski took a victory at Atlanta back in March after overcoming various pit-lane miscues to punch his ticket to the playoffs early in the season. Along the way to the playoffs Keselowski saw his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, suspended for three races after failing laser inspection in Phoenix. The regular season saw a total of 12 top-ten finishes and a win at Martinsville, the first for Keselowski. Late in the going, the team’s momentum appeared to fizzle out with five consecutive finishes outside of the top-ten heading into Chicago and the Round of 16.

As the playoffs began, three top-tens advanced Keselowski to the next round where a win at Talladega solidified his place in the Round of 8. Brad and team felt that the fall Martinsville race was a must-win in order to get to Homestead. He was within 10 laps of the checkers with an impressive lead until a late-race caution and subsequent restart shuffled him back. He recovered for fourth at the Virginia short-track and ran a solid race at Texas to fifth place. He narrowly escaped elimination in Phoenix when his rivals ran into trouble and Matt Kenseth, who had been previously eliminated, stole the win from Chase Elliot.

While a run to 16th place in Phoenix was not the result the team had wanted, it was just good enough to grab the final remaining spot in the Championship 4. On paper, Keselowski looks to be the long shot for the crown. However, the ‘any given Sunday’ mentality of the Playoff setup means anything can happen. Given the nature of the series of events that brought the Michigan native to the championship round, a second Cup for Keselowski would not be surprising.

Kyle Busch: Joe Gibbs Racing
2015 Cup Champion
Career Wins: 43
2017 Regular Season Ranking: 3rd
2017 Regular Season Wins: 2
2017 Playoff wins: 3

While Kyle Busch had strong runs from the early part of the season, he did not crack the winners circle until the 21st race weekend of 2017, in Pocono.

While Busch’s early season frustration was evident, most pundits agreed that it was only a matter of time until the No. 18 Toyota would become a contender for the title. He followed up the Pocono win with a victory in Bristol a few weeks later as he headed into the playoffs as one of the favorites.

In the round of 16, he came out swinging, taking consecutive wins at New Hampshire and Dover. He advanced on through to the round of 8 on points, and grabbed the first championship slot with a fortuitous win in Martinsville.

This is familiar territory for Kyle Busch who will be a part of the Championship 4 for the third consecutive year. He won the title in 2015, but came up short in 2016, and will be looking to take his second Cup.

Given the fact that Kyle Busch is one of the most versatile drivers on the circuit, and the overall strength of the Toyota program, putting your money on the M&M’s car is a solid bet. Solid, yes, but far from guaranteed.

Kevin Harvick: Stewart-Haas Racing 
2014 Cup Champion
Career Wins: 37
2017 Regular Season Ranking: 6th
2017 Regular Season Wins: 1
2017 Playoff wins: 1

Throughout the regular season, Kevin Harvick was pretty quiet, but at the same time consistent. The Stewart-Haas team had switched from Chevrolet to Ford during the off-season, although the learning curve did not seem to have a detrimental effect on the team. harvick’s teammate, Kurt Busch, had posted a win for the team at the season-opening Daytona 500, and all seemed well.

Harvick notched a win on the road course in Sonoma to guarantee a playoff berth, and a pair of third places at Chicagoland and Charlotte helped him advance through the rounds of 16 and 12 on points. Entering the Round of 8 as an outlier, Harvick found himself in a must-win situation. He delivered in grand fashion at Texas, wrestling the lead away from Martin Truex Jr. and holding on for the win.

The win at Texas has changed the complexion of Harvick’s entire season. He was precariously close to becoming an also-ran, but now finds himself as the odds-on favorite for the title, according to many in the media.

In sixteen prior races at Homestead, Harvick has 14 top-ten finishes including a 2014 win that gave him the Championship.  As a matter of fact, Harvick hasn’t finished outside of the top-ten at Homestead since 2007.

The ability to remain focused and cool in high-pressure situations has earned Harvick the nickname “the closer” and closing out at Homestead is exactly what he intends to do.

Martin Truex Jr.: Furniture Row Racing
Career Wins: 14
2017 Regular Season Ranking: 1st
2017 Regular Season Wins: 4
2017 Playoff wins: 3

Most racing purists will tell you that the driver with the most wins should be the champion. That is certainly true in this case. Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 78 Toyota has consistently been one of the fastest cars on race day week in and week out. He won four times in the regular season, took an astonishing 18 stage wins, and amassed 53 playoff points, 20 more than his closest rival. He has been hot in the playoffs as well, racking up another three wins making it hard to argue that there is another driver more deserving of the title.

However, the nature of the system won’t just hand it to him. The elimination format has already produced one champion that some don’t find deserving. Kyle Busch missed the first eleven races of the 2015 season, and took home the Cup. To Busch’s credit, his four regular season wins tied Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson for the most.

For his efforts, Truex was named the Regular Season Champion. But, let’s be honest here. If he comes up short at Homestead, that will seem like a half-assed, hollow consolation prize. It’s like bragging that you are the Conference Champion after losing the Super Bowl.

Truex still needs to win this thing, and it won’t be easy. The three guys gunning for him are all former Cup Champions, their teams all have larger budgets than Furniture Row, and they all want this just as badly.

While it looks like a lopsided battle, Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn, and the entire team have shown the determination, the grit, the mental toughness and the talent to bring this home. They have, after all, beaten all of the other teams on several occasions this season. They just need to stick to the game-plan that got them here and win one more.

 

 

 

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