Matt Stallknecht · Friday November 15, 2013
Well ladies and gents, we’re finally here. The infamously long NASCAR season has once again reached its final chapter, and with it comes a litany of storylines. Jimmie Johnson roundly whipped Matt Kenseth last weekend in Phoenix and now finds himself with a 28 point lead in the standings heading into the final race of the season at Homestead. But it was Kevin Harvick, not Jimmie Johnson, who took the checkered flag last weekend in the desert, and with it he kept his title hopes alive. With three teams still mathematically eligible to win the championship, the book that is the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season remains unfinished. In just three short days, a champion will be crowned, and deciphering who that individual will be is just one of many burning questions facing the NASCAR world heading into this weekend’s season finale.
1. Who is taking home the title?
A 28 point lead is a pretty big margin, and thus it is understandable that most observers of the sport are pretty much handing Jimmie Johnson the title given that he has such a large lead. And truthfully, those observers are probably going to be correct in their prediction come Sunday. Johnson has been too good for too long this season, and it seems unfathomable to think they would just give the title away in their final act.
That being said, the No. 48 team has by no means locked this thing up. For starters, Johnson’s track record at Homestead is anything but sterling. He has yet to record a win at the facility, and his results here have been somewhat pedestrian compared to those of other tracks. It is entirely possible that Johnson’s team could play too conservative, get caught in an accident, or have some sort of mechanical issue that relegates them to a finish in the high to mid 30s. That would open things up for Kenseth or Harvick to swoop in and steal the title.
Now, realistically, it would be unwise to pick against Johnson this weekend. But if anything happens to Johnson, even something as miniscule as a pit road speeding penalty, the title could be blown wide open once more.
2. Will Homestead retain it’s raciness with the Gen 6?
Often lost in the yearly hype surrounding the championship battle is the raciness of Homestead-Miami Speedway. Put simply, Homestead is arguably the raciest and most exciting 1.5 mile track on the circuit right now. The combination of high-banked, true-oval shaped corners with a nicely aged surface makes for a perfect recipe of side-by-side racing.
Also remember that the Gen 6 car has performed very well this season on tracks with aged surfaces. Auto Club, Atlanta, and Chicagoland all delivered some of their best races in years with the Gen 6 car, leading many observers to believe that Homestead could offer similarly solid racing. Homestead ought to be the best of the bunch, as the track has three distinct grooves that all are equally effective depending on how the car is set up. It is the ideal “driver’s track”.
Be on the look out for increased passing, a fair amount of tire falloff, and side by side racing throughout Sunday afternoon’s event, much more so than you’d see at a typical 1.5 miler event. The racing may get lost to the championship battle, but it will be there nonetheless
3. Could this be the last race for a group of veterans?
Mark Martin. Jeff Burton. Bobby Labonte. Ten years ago, these drivers were all on the top of their game and in the prime of their careers. But alas, success can not last forever, and the aging process affects all of us no matter how much we try to fight it. Sadly, these three legendary drivers are facing these very facts this weekend, and for at least two of them, may be racing the final Cup race of their NASCAR careers.
It’s certainly a sign of the times to see so many older drivers on the cusp of exiting the sport all at once. With drivers like 17 year old Erik Jones stepping into the Truck Series and competing for wins off the back, its not hard to see that the pendulum is beginning to swing into the favor of the youth in the NASCAR garage. Every few years the sport sees a youth movement that is precipitated by a few veterans ending their careers. It’s the circle of life in this sport.
Nonetheless, the prospect of a Cup Series without these three drivers seems strange to say the least. One has to expect that all three will be giving it their all on Sunday to salvage one last good run in their career, or perhaps even a win. It will certainly be a fun, while simultaneously saddening story to watch during the race for sure. A win by any of these drivers would be a big deal.
4. What about Trevor Bayne?
Speaking of sad news in the sport, it’s impossible not to touch upon the story that came out this week about Trevor Bayne. Bayne revealed this week that he has been diagnosed with a currently asymptomatic form of multiple sclerosis. It seems patently unfair and unjust that such a well-mannered, talented, and all around great person has developed such a potentially debilitating disorder, but sadly such things are a reality in this life. Bayne claims that he is asymptomatic for now, but there is no telling how his MS will affect his career. Should he develop serious symptoms, his career could end at the drop of a hat.
As for how this all relates to this weekend, its simple: this could potentially be one of Bayne’s last chances in a Cup Series ride. There is no telling how Bayne’s diagnosis will affect his ability to get sponsors, gain the trust of owners who may be skeptical of his health, and simply be able to drive in the future. With this in mind, Bayne will have to be one to watch on Sunday, for a variety of reasons. Why is this? Well, if Bayne were to win, it would be major news given how much coverage the news of his diagnosis garnered this week.
But even more importantly, Bayne will be out to prove that his MS is not going to affect him on the race track. This is important, because in the world of sports, if an owner or sports even suspects that you are a health risk, it becomes increasingly difficult to get a job. It certainly is not fair that that is the case, but it is the unfortunate reality.
All told, Bayne will be one to watch this weekend, in both the Nationwide and Cup race. A good run or a win by him would be a major story, and could be crucial to the future of the young man’s career.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 Ford EcoBoost 400:
Kevin Harvick has some solid momentum going into the weekend and has nothing to lose. He also has a great track record at Homestead. Johnson will likely be in title defense mode on Sunday, so pencil Harvick in as the favorite to take the checkers, while Johnson takes home the title.
1. 29-Kevin Harvick
2. 99-Carl Edwards
3. 24-Jeff Gordon
4. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
5. 18-Kyle Busch
6. 48-Jimmie Johnson
7. 20-Matt Kenseth
8. 11-Denny Hamlin
9. 5-Kasey Kahne
10. 2-Brad Keselowski
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