NASCAR Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Which 3 Will Get the Best of 4?

Who Caps Off 2016 with the Sprint Cup Title?

One thing’s for sure: This year’s Championship 4 certainly isn’t lacking storylines.

First, there’s Jimmie Johnson, a six-time champion eyeing his seventh and a chance to tie legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in the record books.

Next? Kyle Busch, 2015’s Cinderella story who’s trying to match his miraculous feat one year ago to become the first repeat champion in the modern Chase.

Lastly, throw in Joey Logano and Carl Edwards, two of NASCAR’s best who are each searching for their own redemption stories. For Logano’s team, this weekend’s a chance to overcome a pit road mistake in 2014 and the infamous run-in with Matt Kenseth in 2015. Edwards, on the other hand, is out to redeem the lone tie in Chase history, earning his first Cup championship in the final race for the driver that beat him in 2011, Tony Stewart.

No matter which driver wins, NASCAR will be guaranteed a marketable champion that can lead the sport into a 2017 that’ll see a new series sponsor and the return of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Still, we all want to know: which driver will it be? Well, the honest answer is that this race is a toss-up.

Two of the four drivers in the Championship 4 (Edwards and Johnson) rank in the top 10 in terms of average finish at the Homestead, Fla., facility. The other two –Busch and Logano– don’t rank as high, but Busch is the defending winner, and Logano has been the winningest driver in the field over the past three seasons.

This season’s Chase field was the strongest in the series’ history, and that level of quality has continued to the final race of the playoffs. No one will be surprised if any of the four drivers hoist the Sprint Cup on Sunday evening.

If you need to pick a favorite, Edwards is your man. Cousin Carl’s 9.2 average finish is second only to Kevin Harvick (7.2) at Homestead. Edwards will be driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, an organization with a series-best 12 wins in the season to date, and he was the winner at the most recent race on a 1.5-mile track.

Should Edwards falter, lean on the six-time champ. Johnson’s never won at Homestead — six times he hasn’t needed to win, after all — but the Hendrick Motorsports driver already has two victories on intermediate tracks this season.

Who Wins XFINITY: JGR or JRM?

(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)
Daniel Suarez and Elliott Sadler enter Homestead as championship favorites. (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

The tale of the 2016 XFINITY Series title comes down to two teams: Joe Gibbs Racing and JR Motorsports.

Toyota vs. Chevrolet. Youth vs. Experience.

It’ll be two sets of teammates competing for 300 miles to earn a championship on Saturday. The first group, JGR, enters as the presumptive favorite after a dominant 2016 campaign.

Despite holding two of the youngest stars in the sport, JGR has combined to take 18 of the season’s 32 races thus far. In fairness, the majority of those wins (10) have come from Busch. However, rookie Erik Jones and sophomore Daniel Suarez also combined to score six victories.

Going into the Chase, Jones seemed to be the favorite to score a championship. After moving to the NXS following a 2015 Camping World Truck Series championship tour, Jones led all series regulars with four victories before the Chase.

However, while Jones appeared to be the top dog entering the postseason, it’s his teammate who’s stepped up with everything on the line.

While he entered the Chase with only one victory, Suarez was near-flawless during the playoff’s first two rounds. The Mexico native finished no worse than fifth through the Chase’s first six races, even earning his second-career victory at Dover International Speedway.

Jones, meanwhile, enters Homestead amid a rocky Chase, having to overcome finishes of 28th, 16th and 15th in three of the opening six races. Still, he can’t be forgotten. His four victories still lead the way in the NXS, and his early struggles matter not in a one-race playoff.

On the other end of the spectrum, JRM enters with two veterans hoping to turn around their careers with a 2016 title.

If previous performance is any indication, then the team’s best odds rest with Elliott Sadler. Now in his sixth season since returning to the NXS from the NSCS, Sadler has followed a career-worst season in 2015 with a career best in 2016. The Virginian’s average finish has risen nearly five positions, from 11.6 to 6.9.

Sadler has enjoyed his first multi-win season since 2012, with three victories including triumphs at crown jewel tracks Talladega Superspeedway and Darlington Raceway. One more trophy and Sadler could finally earn the championship he’s searched for since 2011.

If there’s any dark horse for the championship, it’s Sadler’s teammate, Justin Allgaier. In his first season since returning to the NXS from a two-year stint in Cup with HScott Motorsports, Allgaier has been good, but often struggled to be great. Statistically, 2016 has been the best season in Allgaier’s NXS career. He’s finished outside of the top 15 just three times and has ended the day inside of the top 5 in a shade over 40 percent of his starts.

Sadly, that’s where the good news ends for the Illinois native. Despite three runner-up results, Allgaier has failed to tally his first win with JRM, and he’s finished better than fifth just once in his last 10 starts (third at Dover). Because of that, Allgaier’s the lone one whose championship on Saturday would be a surprise.

Between the other three, picking a champ’s essentially a coin flip. Sadler and Suarez have been dead even atop the standings for the entirety of the Chase, and Jones has shown the best ability to get to Victory Lane in the races where he’s avoided disaster.

If you have to pick a favorite, lean toward Suarez. He’s been running stronger than ever lately, is with arguably the best team in the garage and has shown more consistency than Jones.

Will it Be Bell or a Veteran Taking the Truck Series Crown?

The Championship 4 headlines for the Camping World Truck Series don’t read like much of a surprise: three series veterans battling a rookie for the title.

However, the rookie that’s still alive isn’t the one that most predicted.

William Byron was the favorite to claim the NCWTS trophy through the first round of the Chase due to his series-best six wins. However, when he fell by the wayside with a blown motor at Phoenix International Raceway, it was Kyle Busch Motorsports teammate Christopher Bell who surged into the Championship 4.

Bell admittedly wasn’t on the shortlist of championship contenders for most analysts and fans going into the Chase. Issues with inconsistency trapped the rookie as far back as 21st in the standings during the regular season, and he entered the playoff with just one win on a paved oval back at Gateway Motorsports Park in July.

Still, courtesy of newfound consistency in the Chase, Bell managed to stay inside of the top 5 throughout the first two rounds, setting himself up for a surprising surge into the title race at the expense of his teammate.

While Bell’s surprising Chase has elevated him into the role of a contender, he has to be considered a dark horse candidate due to the group of veterans surrounding him.

The other three Championship 4 contenders — Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter and Timothy Peters — have combined for 36 wins, 227 top 5s and 362 top 10s in NCWTS competition. Crafton also enters as a two-time champion, competing for his third title in four years.

Given recent performance, Sauter seems poised to give GMS Racing its first championship. The Wisconsin native has racked up three victories this season and dominated the Round of 6 to the tune of two victories and a runner-up result.

Still, don’t sleep on Crafton or Peters. Crafton has endured his share of struggles this season, but he’s still a two-time NCWTS champion and he wrapped up the penultimate round with finishes of second and third.

Peters, on the other hand, will read as the ultimate underdog, driving a largely unsponsored No. 17 Toyota for Red Horse Racing while trying to extend his streak of seasons with an NCWTS win to eight. Peters isn’t likely to bring home the victory, but he’s certainly not one to discredit given his penchant for overachieving.

Will Smoke Go Out with a Sizzle, or With a Bang?

Much like we all thought for Jeff Gordon in 2015, the 2016 finale is set to be the end of an era for one of NASCAR’s top stars.

Tony Stewart — or Smoke, as most know him — is prepared to ride in the Sprint Cup Series for the final time in his 18-year career at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Stewart is set to roll for 400 more miles in NASCAR competition, and he’ll do it with a sharp looking livery, too.

Sunday’s bound to be an emotional day for Smoke and his followers, but here’s the question on everyone’s mind: Will he run well?

2016 proved to be a redemptive year for the Hoosier, though it started on a bleak note. Stewart overcame an early lower-back injury that caused him to miss the season’s opening eight races, earning his first victory since 2013 at Sonoma Raceway and, by virtue of a medical waiver from NASCAR, soaring into his first (and only) appearance in the modern version of the Chase.

Unfortunately for Stewart and his faithful legion of fans, that’s where the good stories end. Stewart faded down the stretch, backing into the postseason after causing two crashes at Darlington Speedway and Richmond International Raceway that seemed intentional.

Stewart’s lone experience in the Chase was short-lived, too. The three-time NSCS champion was eliminated in the Round of 16 after struggling to finishes of 16th, 23rd and 13th. The following six races didn’t go much better, with a lone bright spot in the form of a ninth-place run at Charlotte Motor Speedway amid a string of poor performances.

So, with everything heading in the wrong direction, can Stewart reverse the trend to give his fans one last special moment? Given the track, it’s certainly a possibility.

Stewart became the first driver to claim an NSCS win at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway when he triumphed in the track’s inaugural Cup race in 1999, a feat he backed up with another victory in 2000. Throw in the improbable victory in 2011, and Stewart finds himself tied with Greg Biffle for the most wins (3) at the Florida track.

Stewart ranks 10th among all drivers at Homestead with an average finish of 14.9, so his odds of success appear strong. However, much like with this season, Stewart will have to reverse the trend seen recent history to ride off into the sunset with a victory.

Since his 2011 triumph, Stewart has tallied finishes of 17th, 43rd and 29th in consecutive starts from 2012-2015 (Stewart missed 2013 with injury). Stewart’s failed to lead a single lap during that span and has qualified no better than 28th.

He has shown promise at times this season, and a 50th-career victory is there for the taking if he can provide one final piece of magic. Still, given the precedent set by recent starts, I advise fans to spend more of their time and effort celebrating Stewart’s career than banking on a walk-off victory.

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