It all comes down to this: after nine months and thousands of miles of hard fought competition, the Nextel Cup title comes down to just one race for all the marbles. Five drivers are mathematically eligible for the championship, but only two drivers have a realistic expectation to win the title this weekend. One driver will hold destiny in his hands: after 400 miles Sunday afternoon, we’ll know exactly who that is. Four other drivers will be left to ponder what if, just like the rest of the teams in your fantasy league who couldn’t get the job done this year.
Taking a look at things from that perspective this week, the field you can choose from is a little more open than just those teams battling for the title. The top 10 in points is filled with most of the best teams in the series, and they are going to be trying for the best finish possible regardless of their title chances because of the money on the line for every spot they gain in points. Keep the Chasers high on your list of potential drivers to use, but don’t be afraid to take chances, either, if you’re in a spot where you need a big day to bring home your own title trophy.
How can you put the finishing titles on your own fantasy title… or just finish out the year with pride? Read ahead in this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out the right drivers to choose for Homestead.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Homestead is another one of those typical mile-and-a-half tracks. It does employ graduated banking, but still utilizes the same characteristics in a car and team that the other cookie-cutter tracks require. Look for teams that excelled at Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas to have another solid run in the Sunshine state.
Momentum also always plays a role in this sport, especially at the end of the season, so keep an eye on those teams with all their ducks in a row over the past month. For example, Jimmie Johnson is on a roll and Tony Stewart has been on fire on the 1.5-mile tracks lately… but someone like Kasey Kahne may not be a stellar choice despite his stats sheet.
Cami’s Instant Replay
Last year’s Ford 400 showcased the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. All eyes were on the four drivers that came into the season finale with a shot at winning the title; while it wasn’t pretty, Stewart’s 15th-place finish was good enough to give him his second NASCAR championship by 35 points over Biffle and Edwards. While Stewart won the war, Roush Racing dominated the race. Biffle battled alongside teammate Mark Martin for the win in the closing laps; the two ended up side-by-side for the win, with Biffle just edging out his teammate. Fellow Roushketeers Matt Kenseth and Edwards finished third and fourth.
While Stewart and the Roush camp were celebrating, things weren’t so great in the Lowe’s garage. Johnson once again had a shot at the championship heading into the final race, but his title hopes were crushed when a blown tire sent him into the wall on lap 125. His race and title chances were both over for the year.
Casey Mears rounded out the top-five finishers in the race.
Crank ‘Em Up
Stewart has a new favorite car. It took him to victory at Kansas, Atlanta and Texas… and they are bringing it down to Homestead, too. Of anyone who has run more than two races at the track outside of Miami, Stewart has the best average finish at 9.3. It’s a safe bet that Stewart wants to finish the season tied for most wins on the circuit, helping perpetuate the argument that wins should be worth more points in the standings. A two-time winner at this facility, I wouldn’t bet against him making that happen.
Kevin Harvick has momentum on his side. He is coming off both a victory in Phoenix and third place at Texas that moved him up to within 90 points of Johnson. He still has an outside shot at winning the title should his closest challengers stumble, so expect Harvick to lay it all on the line to try and score maximum points at Homestead.
Sit ‘Em Down
Jamie McMurray has had a forgettable season; he hasn’t had a top-15 finish since Watkins Glen. Finally in a position to change that at Phoenix, he was accidentally taken out by Stewart at the worst possible time. The organization just announced that they are going to switch his crew chief for 2007, and McMurray’s average finish at Homestead is 14th. Need I say more here? MACMurray is simply looking forward to two months off and just wants the season to come to an end. Don’t look for anything spectacular out of him this weekend.
Brian Vickers is in his final race in Hendrick equipment. He has already achieved his goal of winning a race before he left the organization, so the pressure is off the youngster to go out with a bang. He likely won’t; in three races at Homestead, he has averaged a 32nd-place finish. The last hurrah for Vickers is not going to be much of a hurrah at all.
Roll the Dice
Bobby Labonte has fared quite well when the Cup Series has traveled to southern Florida. Labonte has a win at the track, thanks to some unfortunate luck for Bill Elliott back in 2003. He also has an average finish of 12.9, reasonable enough for you to take a look. Don’t forget about momentum; we talked about it earlier, and Labonte has it, running rather well at the 1.5-mile tracks as of late. Look for him to finish off the season with a bang for Petty Enterprises.
Crank ‘Em Up
Jeff Gordon may be out of the title fight, but he still has plenty to race for at Homestead. If he can get his third win of the season, he will knock Homestead off the list of tracks he has yet to win at. His six top 10s lead all drivers here, and he is riding a current streak of four top 10s since falling out of title contention. Don’t underestimate Gordon’s desire to compete hard Sunday; if he can ride up front, he could help play the role of blocker for teammate Johnson as he goes for his first championship, which would be Gordon’s first as a car owner.
Hoping to play the role of spoiler is Edwards. Edwards led the most laps in last year’s race at Homestead before having to settle for a fourth-place finish. He has finished in the top 15 in the past eight races, six of them being top-10 finishes. Winless this season, a trip to victory lane would be a great way for Edwards and his new/old crew chief to take momentum into 2007.
Sit ‘Em Down
Nursing a bum hand, Dale Jarrett enters his final race with Robert Yates Racing this weekend before making the move to Toyota next year. DJ and Yates have had several successful seasons during their years together, but this hasn’t been one of them. With only one top five and four top 10s this year, to describe the season as frustrating is an understatement. To make matters worse, Jarrett hasn’t cracked the top 10 at Homestead since 1999; don’t look for a big performance this weekend as a sendoff.
After Elliott Sadler made the move to Evernham Motorsports from Yates, his results started to improve. But that newness has worn off, and the team’s performance has dropped back to where it was before in recent weeks. It’s been eight weeks since Sadler finished in the top 10, and four of those finishes have been 30th or worse. His track record at Homestead doesn’t give much hope that will change this week. In his seven starts at the track, he has just one top 10 and a lowly average finish of 24.1.
Roll the Dice
Speaking of disappointing seasons, nobody’s has been more of a surprise than Biffle. Many considered him a preseason favorite for the championship, but 2006 has turned out to be anything but a championship-type year. He’s mired back 13th in points, with the possibility of moving down as far as 16th if Sunday’s race doesn’t go well. But despite all of that, I look for good things from Biffle this weekend. He’s won this race the past two years and should end the year on a high note.
Mike: So, you’re buying into the Edwards crew chief swap Kool-aid huh?
Cami: He’s been running well even before that change was made. He hasn’t finished outside the top 15 in the last eight races. Plus, he doesn’t want to go winless this year; he’ll be tough this Sunday.
Mike: It will be tough for him to overcome Stewart’s new favorite car. That thing has been unbelievable.
Cami: Yeah, it has been good. You’re going to need it to stay that way if you want to catch me in the final week. Hopefully he doesn’t block too hard for Hamlin and ruin that favorite car.
Mike: No way. He wants to tie for the most wins and add fuel to that fire. Meanwhile, do you think the honeymoon hangover is done for Gordon, and can he have a good run to finish the season?
Cami: He didn’t seem to have much of a problem last week. He wants to cross Homestead off his list of winless tracks. You know, I see we both stayed away from Johnson.
Mike: Yeah, I don’t think either won of us want to take that shot. His average finish at Homestead isn’t very good, and everyone is waiting for him to figure out how to lose it this year.
Cami: True. I’m not quite sure how it will go. He’s definitely been hot lately, but has he already burned up all his good karma just to get here? I see you sat your pal McMurray yet again. That could finally bite you this week.
Mike: Yes, I did. I am a big MAC hater. Until he proves me otherwise, I don’t have a problem sitting him. He hasn’t had a top 15 in 13 races.
Cami: I’m not saying it’s a bad call, just wondering how many times you’re going to dip into that well.
Mike: Until it runs dry, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Cami: Well, I only have a three-point lead on you, but I’ll be pulling for him to get that top 15.
Mike: I hope you are wrong on your Jarrett pick. I’d like to see him close out his RYR career on a good note.
Cami: On a personal note, I would like to be wrong on that too. But this is business… you can’t play with your heart. So, if Johnson blows it again, do you think your boy Harvick will pull the double?
Mike: I still think it is a long shot. Kenseth will have to finish back in the pack, too, and I just think they are too strong of a team even if Matt isn’t sure about them.
Cami: I debated long and hard about sitting Kenseth, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Mike: Remember, play with your head, not your heart.
Cami: I know, I know. Robbie didn’t sound too excited about how they’ve been running lately… but things can turn quickly in the last race.
Mike: Yes, they can. I guess we’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Standings after Week 9
|Crank Em Up||Kahne-9th||5||Johnson-2nd||10|
|Sit Em Down||Sadler-17th||-1||Mears-26th||1|
|Roll the Dice||Schrader-24th||0||Stewart-14th||5|
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