The fat lady is warming up, the sun is beginning to set and the curtain is about to close on the 2007 Nextel Cup season. After 35 races, it all comes down to two drivers – Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon – who’ll battle for the rights to the title. The rest of the field is racing for pride, 13th place in the standings or to secure a starting spot in 2008 by finishing in the Top 35 in owner points. With the clock ticking and the end close at hand, expect the action to be wide open everywhere on the track. Many drivers will be going all out; some will be in their last ride for their organization while others will be auditioning for new jobs.
Of course, if you’re reading this now, your team is likely among the Johnsons and Gordons of the world, racing into the weekend with a chance at championship glory. This is your last opportunity to put your best foot forward; are you ready to take home the league trophy? You will be – after reading the expert advice contained in this week’s edition of Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Cami’s Race Rewind
While Johnson stole the show by winning his first Nextel Cup championship, Greg Biffle once again laid claim to his title of King of Miami. For the third straight year, Biffle ended the season with a victory at Homestead; however, this one didn’t come easy. After Casey Mears had his engine let go on lap 261, a green-white-checkered finish ensued, leaving Martin Truex Jr. in perfect position to claim his first career victory. But Biffle – who led 45 laps during the race – proved to be too tough for Truex, holding off the challenge and forcing the youngster to settle for second. Rookie Denny Hamlin came back from 33rd place to finish third, with polesitter Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick rounding out the top five. Newly crowned champion Johnson finished the race in ninth to clinch the title; he won the championship by 56 over Matt Kenseth.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Homestead is another 1.5-mile intermediate track on the NASCAR circuit, but progressive banking sets it apart from the others. That slight twist of innovation offers multiple racing grooves and different options in how to set up the cars. It has been a few years since the track was repaved, and the aged surface also makes for better racing. All in all, it’s a fine facility in which track position isn’t as key as fine-tuning your handling and finding the perfect line.
Always consistent on intermediate tracks, look for the Roush Fenway Racing teams to make some noise this weekend. But this could be a hidden gem; three of the top-nine average finishers at Homestead drive for Richard Childress Racing.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Carl Edwards has had an up and down season, but the last couple of races have really been some tough pills to swallow. Last week may have been the worst one yet; Edwards led at Phoenix until a faulty engine did him in. But he does have two wins this season and has run well at Homestead in the past; in fact, his average finish is a strong ninth place. If Edwards can shake off some of the poor luck he has had, he will most likely come home with a solid top-five finish on Sunday – if not the win itself.
Tony Stewart has not done exceptionally well at Homestead since they reconfigured the track. Because of that, this is more of a gut pick – but when you hear a driver openly talking about how he’s not that good at a track even though he has won there before, something should go off in your head to say watch out for him this week. Stewart has had some bad luck and poor runs during the Chase, but has still finished well most of the time, and seems to be on the road to recovery after a fourth-place finish at Phoenix. Look for Stewart to have a strong run in the last race driving a Chevy Monte Carlo for Joe Gibbs.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Jamie McMurray has had some decent runs this year, but not very many as of late. He has just one finish higher than 23rd in the last seven races, a slump which dropped him well out of the running for 13th in the final standings. Add to that the fact he has an average finish at Homestead of 18.2, and things are not looking promising for the No. 26. McMurray is still not living up to his potential, and it appears as though it might be starting to wear on his team. It is best to leave him on the bench this weekend.
All together now: Elliott Sadler can’t catch a break. Yes, for the final time this year, I’m bringing out the whipping boy and sitting Sadler down. Elliott simply hasn’t had any magic this year, and his history at Homestead is far from glowing – one finish higher than 18th and an average finish of 25.6 is not the stuff to let your fantasy team rely on. Sorry to say it, but for the last time this season, put Sadler on the pine and wait until next year… when hopefully GEM will have their act back together.
Roll the Dice:
Mears should have a win at Homestead, but an untimely caution flag did him in back in 2005. That flash of brilliance is the only top-five finish he has here in four career starts; in fact, it’s his only one better than 26th place. But with Gordon and Johnson grabbing all of the headlines this week, don’t be surprised to see Mears flying as the wingman for them as they battle it out for the championship.
Crank ‘Em Up:
There is a big hill to climb for Gordon on Sunday, but it’s not mission impossible. In case you haven’t heard, Gordon is faced with the task of having to outscore Johnson by 87 points to claim his fifth championship. While he’s winless at Homestead, he does hold a slight statistical edge over Johnson, and you know there won’t be any quit in this team. At Homestead, Gordon has six top 10s in eight starts and has finished no lower than 11th in the Chase. With the title on the line, there is merely mission ahead for Gordon – look for him to give it all he’s got and be running up front.
While winning the title has been out of the question for weeks now, Harvick has turned things around late in the season, running well over the past month; in fact, he’s scored four top 10s in the last five races. At Homestead, he is tied for the best average finish – a respectable 8.7 – and he’s snagged five top 10s in six career starts. With momentum on his side, what better way to end the year for Harvick than by claiming the win, allowing him to both begin and end the ’07 season on top.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Things could be shaky for Kyle Busch in his final start for Hendrick Motorsports this weekend in Miami. He has been strong in recent weeks, but problems on pit road have cost him wins and even better finishes. While I’m sure he’d like to end his tenure at HMS with a victory, looking at his track record at Homestead doesn’t give me faith that’s going to happen. In his two starts at the track, he has finished 41st and 38th; and with a pit crew who may not be giving 100%, he might likely find another poor finish in his future.
Juan Pablo Montoya had a fiery introduction into NASCAR when he made his debut at Homestead last year, as contact with Ryan Newman sent his car bursting into flames. It’s not fair to judge him based on that one start alone – Montoya finished 34th – but after a good start to his rookie season, the Colombian has slipped in the final stages. In the last seven races, he has just one top-10 finish, a slump that’s left him 21st in Nextel Cup points. Whether the long, grueling season has taken its toll, or the team as a whole is falling off in performance, the result is a struggling Montoya as the season ends.
Roll the Dice:
Move over, Dan Marino, there is a new Mr. Miami in town, Biffle. After starting out with finishes of 25th and 35th at Homestead, Biffle has scored victories in the last three season finales for Nextel Cup. He’s had his share of troubles in the last part of the season, but the Roush Fenway driver has a win at Kansas and top 10s in two of the last four races, including a runner-up finish at Phoenix last week. Yes, Biffle hasn’t been the typical star he’s been in the past; but with his track record at Homestead, it’s hard to count him out.
Cami: I noticed you had both ends of the standings covered last week at Phoenix. Johnson scored another win for you, but your Roll the Dice pick went bust with Dale Earnhardt Jr..
Mike: No kidding. I really thought Junior was going to break the dry spell; at least it wasn’t an engine failure this time. He’s only got one race left under the DEI banner, now, and I really don’t picture him getting it done at Homestead. Too bad; in the meantime, are you thinking that Gordon is going to put forth the maximum effort this weekend and make Johnson finish at least 18th?
Cami: I don’t think Gordon can control what happens with Johnson, or he would have done that a couple races back – but I think he’s going to give it a good shot to do what he has to if Johnson should happen to find trouble. Plus, he’s pretty decent at Homestead.
Mike: I think Gordon’s going to give it a real go, but I think Johnson is going to take it easy and just do what he has to do. That’s why I sure wasn’t going to pick him this weekend. Harvick, on the other hand, could be interesting. The No. 29 team is so hot and cold, you could hit a home run or strike out with that one.
Cami: I’ve got my fingers crossed for a homer. Other than one 20th-place finish, Harvick’s been money at Homestead. Plus, it would be a neat little bit of trivia for him to win the first and last race of the year. But speaking of possible strikeouts, Tony hasn’t been all that at Homestead since they put that banking in. Even he admitted it last week after the race.
Mike: Oh, I know; but even when he hasn’t been all that, he still comes home in the top 15. I think Zippy and the boys are going to have a little better piece this time, and I think Tony is going to have a real shot at bringing home the hardware in the last “Car of Today” race. As for his future teammate… I was surprised you were dissing on Kyle. I think he’s got a real chance to go out on top at Hendrick in his last race.
Cami: Did you see his average finish at Homestead, or did you not scroll down to the very bottom of the stat sheet? It’s 38th. I think his crew has kinda given up on him, too, and he won’t be able to overcome it this week. And speaking of teams giving up… I see you’re ending the year dissing your two favorite punching bags.
Mike: Yes, I am. I just thought I had to do that since it is the last time for three months that I can bash on them. I like Elliott – he’s just not had the luck this year. MAC, on the other hand, I still think is the most overrated driver in the sport, and I won’t be surprised to see him end up 35th or worse this weekend. Finally, you beat me to the Biffle pick. Pretty hard not to roll with the dude who’s won three straight at the track.
Cami: Sorry about your luck with Biffle – I couldn’t resist it. That guy is Mr. Miami… he’s like the Sonny Crockett of NASCAR. He’s also got better stats than your pick Mr. Mears.
Mike: Wow, I just had a great visual of Biffle in a pastel blazer. And he does have better stats – but Mears has run well at Homestead. He’s just had some misfortune… I guess we’ll just have to see how it all pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up – 13.7
Sit ‘Em Down – 21.5
Roll The Dice – 19.4
Crank ‘Em Up – 13.2
Sit ‘Em Down – 22.2
Roll The Dice – 18.6