Are People Ready for Double-Departure from Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
Postrace Sunday could be a busy, hectic time for reporters, fans and even emotions. Not only could we have a champion and a race winner each celebrating, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth could also be two separate stories needing a follow-up. You could even include Danica Patrick in this category, as she has no Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series plans for 2018.
For this weekend, all three of these drivers will or could make their final starts on Sunday. Earnhardt’s departure fully official, but uncertain futures for Patrick came in the summer while Kenseth’s hit the airwaves last week when he announced he has no ride for 2018.
Homestead has been in the lucky position of holding drivers’ final planned races, especially of late. Though Jeff Gordon returned the following year, the four-time champion made his final start in his usual car, the No. 24, racing for the championship in 2015.
Meanwhile, Tony Stewart waved good-bye one year ago while drivers like Mark Martin, Greg Biffle and others made their final career starts at the Miami circuit.
But this year, there are three hallmark names possibly going out at once. No cushion in between, no ways to delay it, barely any time to soak it up.
Kenseth will go out a winner after his emotional win last week at Phoenix International Raceway. His exit, short-known as it is, has been met with respect and loads of tributes for the 2003 champion, who will run his rookie paint scheme from 2000.
For Earnhardt, who will also sport his rookie scheme from the same year, it’s going to be an obvious, unavoidable frown for the sport when he makes his final lap Sunday — at least for a little while, as young men Alex Bowman, William Byron, Darrell Wallace Jr. and others will need to first gel with the stardom of the Cup Series ranks.
But unlike Kenseth, the final season has been one of struggle for Patrick and Earnhardt. Only one top-10 finish has put Patrick 27th in points entering the weekend. For Earnhardt, his first Talladega Superspeedway pole from October, top-five finish at Texas Motor Speedway in the spring and his weekly donations to charity in the position of track gifts and ponies have made the rounds as his best 2017 moments.
But even if Earnhardt doesn’t win, the 2017 year has ended with a hit of momentum for what it’s worth. Of his eight top 10s on the season, half of them have come in the last seven races.
Will Past Statistics Spell Out Cup Champion on Sunday?
Though Martin Truex Jr. has earned the lion’s share of attention and hype for this weekend’s Cup championship finale, statistics have proved to even out the Championship 4 for Sunday afternoon.
Once again taking place at Homestead, the once-a-year hit has produced seven straight different winners and countless mega-moments to cap off each Cup season. When you turn the focus to the Championship 4 drivers, more surprises arise.
Seven-time race winner in 2017 Truex must be the one with the most pull for this weekend. His six mile-and-a-half wins this year is most in series history, and he’s earned more stage points this year while maintaining the season’s best average start (6.9) and finish (9.7) nearly all season.
But in terms of Homestead, the southern Florida track has bit the non-champion a few times before, sending his No. 78 into a ball of flames in the Carl Edwards accident in last year’s race. Previously, Truex left Homestead with finishes of 12th and 17th, decent results that likely won’t do the job Sunday.
Similar marks can be given to Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, two of Truex’s competitors for the Cup title. Busch’s Homestead career started lackluster, earning only one top 10 in his first seven starts. Since then, however, a win toward the championship in 2015 is sandwiched between a boost in performance, earning four top 10s in the last five Homestead races.
For Keselowski, it’s been a similar push-and-pull. The past champion suffered a huge blow in the Edwards accident in 2016, finishing 35th, but had the momentum of back-to-back thirds in 2015 and ’14. Additionally, of the Championship 4, Keselowski has the best average start at Homestead — and with the champion two of the last three years coming from the front of the quartet, it could be important.
But these are all fun numbers compared to those of Kevin Harvick, one of the race’s underdogs behind the dominant Toyotas of Busch and Truex. The 2014 champ has scored track records: most top-five finishes, most top 10s, best average finish and most consecutive top 10s.
The latter stat may continue Sunday, as Harvick has managed to earn nine straight dating back to 2008. In this span, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has a win, two runner-up finishes and a pole in 2016.
Mixed with a current uptick in mile-and-a-half pace in the playoffs, you may be missing out if you leave Harvick out of your championship pick.
Will Daniel Hemric Beat Out JRM for XFINITY Championship?
As the majority of 2017 has shown us, the Championship 4 for the XFINITY Series is dominated by JR Motorsports.
The series’ hallmark organization, which has scored six of the eight wins for the series regulars this year, maintained the top three in points all the way to the final lap of Phoenix last weekend, where Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and rookie William Byron secured the three spots in the Championship 4.
The outsider? Daniel Hemric, who wowed the sport with a hard, clean race with Cole Custer in the final laps of Phoenix to earn the fourth and final spot at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Will Hemric upset the JRM boys for the XFINITY title? A quick look at the numbers, it would be considered a wild victory for the darkhorses.
Through his first season with Richard Childress Racing, Hemric has stuck around on the 1.5-milers, road courses and plate tracks, but has blossomed on the short tracks, earning three top fives. The solid season made it possible to race for this title, but his competitors have out-performed the North Carolina native straight up.
Hemric has less top fives, top 10s, laps led, playoffs points and the worst average finish of the Championship 4. His only advantage is in qualifying, where he leads the series with an 8.2 average start.
So a championship for Hemric against the series’ best team would be a massive upset by the rookie and the RCR crew, which has failed to win a race thus far in 2017 across all cars.
Is There An All-Out Atmosphere for the Truck Championship?
The XFINITY title run may look straightforward, but the Camping World Truck Series is nowhere near it.
With champions Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton combating young sensation Christopher Bell and rookie Austin Cindric, there has been a rising level of angst from one driver to the next.
It all hit another peak last week at Phoenix when Ben Rhodes’ Championship 4 hopes hit the inside wall off the front bumper of Cindric. Met with mixed reactions, the accident saw frustration from Rhodes and the No. 27 Thorsport crew, anger from Crafton — who was taken out in the wreck — and a reassurance from one of Cindric’s best pals in Kaz Grala, who met similar fate at Mosport.
Cindric confirmed Thursday during Championship 4 media day that this rising controversy of contact and chaos won’t have an effect come race time Friday at Homestead. Is it the same for his competitors?
Heck, from the sounds of it, Crafton, Sauter and Bell may not be afraid to do similar acts this Friday. With a championship just a few hundred yards away, there may be nothing they won’t do to get it done.
That has been the vibe from the Truck Series in 2017. Good or bad, negative or positive, the year has reeked of an all-out atmosphere for the third-tier series. Dive-bombs moves are seen weekly, over-unders are met with failure or success and we even saw six-wide racing at one point last Friday at Phoenix.
Homestead is famous for its multiple grooves of racing, reach from the apron on the bottom of the corners to the outside wall, inches away from one of the longest wall scrubs you could see all year.
But options don’t seem to affect the series much. You give them one lane, they fight for it to the end. You give them six grooves, they use every one. But when a title is only 200 miles away, the Truck Series has proven to be the question mark of the triple-header weekend at Homestead.