Time to play an incredibly pointless but vaguely interesting game of ‘what if?’
Oh, good, already lost half of you. Whatever, it’s the end of the season. We’ll get through this.
So, entering this Sunday’s conclusion to the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, four drivers are vying for a chance at the title. Two — Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch — are past champions, one (Johnson’s six titles) more than the other (Busch’s one). The other two, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano, are looking for their first Cup championships.
And all they’ve gotta do is beat everyone else in that group of four.
That’s the way the Chase is nowadays. In the final race of the season, it could be any one of four emerging as the series champion, just as long as they out-duel the other three. It’s all about finishing order and bonus points, not whatever happened over the previous 35 races.
To that end, it’d be simple to look up each driver’s previous record at Homestead to crown a prospective champion based on, say, average finish. We’d take a gander, rank them based on that and call it a day. (For the record: Edwards has an average finish of 9.2 in 12 races, with two wins, leading the Championship 4 competitors in both categories.)
Instead, how about based on the last few races at the track? Who would have won each season?
2015: Busch (first), Logano (fourth), Johnson (ninth), Edwards (11th). Everyone but Johnson would have scored bonus points, too, but Busch would have wiped the floor with this roster. Next.
2014: Johnson (ninth), Logano (16th), Edwards (34th), Busch (39th). Picture, if you will, a season in which the series champion finishes ninth and wins pretty much by attrition, with half of the Chase field finishing multiple laps down. Seven spots separate Johnson from his next closest competitor, too. Good thing Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman were there instead to make this one actually interesting.
2013: Busch (seventh), Logano (eighth), Johnson (ninth), Edwards (12th). That’s more like it… kind of? I mean, you’re still looking at a champion who finishes seventh, but his competitors were one, two and five spots behind — not bad. Also, OK, that’s three straight years of Johnson finishing ninth at Homestead. Mr. Consistency, I’ll tell you.
2012: Busch (fourth), Edwards (12th), Logano (14th), Johnson (36th). Hey, look, Johnson finally finished somewhere other than ninth! Except… now he’s out of the race with a rear gear issue. Welp.
2011: Edwards (second), Logano (19th), Busch (23rd), Johnson (32nd). No contest for Edwards. Think that’s the slightest comfort for him after losing the actual championship this year because Tony Stewart finished first in the race? No? OK.
2010: Edwards (first), Johnson (second), Busch (32nd), Logano (39th). This could have been quite the battle… had, you know, Edwards not been well over 200 points behind Johnson coming into the final race.
2009: Johnson (fifth), Edwards (seventh), Busch (eighth), Logano (24th). Eh, it was Logano’s rookie season, cut him some slack for lagging behind.
2008: Haha, never mind, Logano wasn’t running full-time yet.
So, what does this reveal? Again, not a whole lot, but it does paint a bit of a portrait with regards to who you can count on in the pressure of the season-closing race. Busch has been comparatively great. Edwards has had his moments, too. Johnson’s been fairly consistent. Logano? Fairly absent.
But pre-2014, the game was different. Yeah, ever since all four drivers have been in the series together, the Chase has been around, but between 2009 and 2013, elimination-style playoffs weren’t part of the challenge. That’s changed since then, and that’s an important distinction to make, because it makes running at the front all the more important.
That’s what you’ve seen the past two years with Busch and Harvick, and that’s likely what will occur Sunday as well.
The question is, will all four be around at the finish to vie for that title? On paper, it seems like a yes, at least on everyone’s part but Logano. But even the young gun of the bunch is likely to have some tricks up his sleeve; after all, he’s won two of the last four races this season and has only more recently come into his own as a driver versus his iffy first few seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing. You’re looking at a guy who finished fourth last season, and he wasn’t even competing for the title anymore.
The positive of this Chase format is that there are more unknowns than sureties entering the final race than there ever has been before, and judging by most recent results, none of these drivers have a monkey on their back when it comes to racing at Homestead.
Is it too much to hope for a 1-2-3-4 finish from the Championship 4 this season? Maybe not.
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