After the dust cleared at Phoenix, it will be Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski duking it out for the championship at Homestead. Who takes home the trophy?
Amy Henderson: Truex is ready to close it out and has the car to do it. And if anyone else does win it, all that will do is fuel the fire against the current playoff system, because it’s pretty hard to argue that anyone other than Martin Truex Jr. deserves to be called this year’s champion.
Mark Howell: My heart says Truex should win the championship. My head, however, says that the title will go to another Toyota driver, Busch. Few have the will-to-win like Busch, especially when the pressure and stakes are both high. While I have the utmost respect for all the final four Cup drivers, I can’t help but think that Kyle Busch will be hoisting the 2017 MENCS trophy… albeit with some help, because that thing weighs a ton!
Bryan Gable: I picked Busch at the beginning of the year, and I see no reason to change course now. Busch is the last bullet left in the Joe Gibbs Racing gun, and the No. 18 team’s intermediate track setups remain among the strongest in the field. Busch won a much more improbable championship two years ago, and the stars will align for him once more in 2017.
Christian Koelle: Brad Keselowski will win his second title of his career on Sunday. It’ll come down to all four at the end, but as it said in Cars 3, it’s not always the driver who’s faster, it’s about who can outsmart the other driver. Keselowski can do that and has done that a few times this year, and he’ll do it again at Homestead.
Phoenix also featured some payback as Chase Elliott gave Denny Hamlin a shove which ultimately cut a tire on the No. 11 and ended his title hopes. Was Elliott’s move the right one?
Wesley Coburn: As Harry Hyde told Cole Trickle, “He didn’t slam into you, he didn’t bump you, he didn’t nudge you. He rubbed you. And rubbin’, son, is racin’.” Elliott got his payback, but he did it classily – that contact happens all the time on the racetrack. Also, yeah, they were both racing for a title. Didn’t Ryan Newman’s move on Kyle Larson pretty much OK that anything goes in a cutoff race?
Michael Massie: I supported Denny Hamlin’s move on Elliott, and I equally support Elliott’s retaliation. He executed it wonderfully. However, I do not think that Phoenix was the appropriate time for that. Elliott needed to win that race. His car was good on short runs, as seen when he pulled out to a lead over Kenseth before Kenseth tracked him back down. Instead of taking advantage of when his car was fast, Elliott wasted time toying with Hamlin. And you have to believe that there was damage to the No. 24 from their contact that hindered Elliott late in the race. If he had quickly passed Hamlin without the contact, maybe he could have broken out to a large enough lead late in the race for Kenseth to not reel him in. Save your payback for when you are racing for the win or once you have been eliminated.
Henderson: While the result was the same—the end of a title bid—there was a world of difference between Elliott’s move and Hamlin’s. Elliott moved Hamlin and took the spot, after giving ample warning that he could and would. The cut tire was an unfortunate side effect. Hamlin, on the other hand—you don’t pick a driver’s rear tires up off the ground and drive him into a corner with any intent but to put them in the wall. And title or no title, that’s a dirty move.
Vito Pugliese: I fail to see how Elliott did anything remotely wrong. He chased down the leader and passed him, squeezing him a bit in the process of doing so coming out of Turn 4. If you’re Hamlin, and you know that the guy who is alongside of you is the same one you intentionally wrecked the week before, denying him his first career win and a championship appearance…that’s on you. If anything it make Hamlin’s move at Martinsville (starting a wreck on the straightaway, squared up on Elliott’s bumper, wrecking him through the entry into Turn 3 — then claiming somebody was pushing him to cause it) look that much more egregious. The fact that Hamlin had several laps to pit to address the tire rub is confirmation that it was not remotely the same as Hamlin’s antics and well within the rules and etiquette.
Homestead will be the final race for both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. What will you remember the most about these two drivers?
Pugliese: I will remember Earnhardt for the way he handled everything from the time he was forced to become the face of the sport following his father’s untimely passing in 2001, through his maturation into a championship contender in 2004, to how he carried himself after having his birthright ripped from him and his siblings as DEI dissolved a few years later, to how he weathered the onslaught of criticism during the lean years of 2008 – 2011 at Hendrick Motorsports. He’s had the weight of the world on his shoulders in one way or another for over 15 years and despite having every reason to act like a jackass, was always the polar opposite. Kenseth I will remember his subdued nature, a guy who talked as fast as he drove during interviews and that Nextel Kenseth robot commercial in 2004. I’ll also remember being present for his 2012 Daytona 500 win in prime-time, as I took my dad as a Christmas present. It was the 20th anniversary of the first time we went together to Daytona in 1992. It was a bit of an extended trip given the circumstances of a Sunday rain-out and the infamous Juan Pablo Montoya jet dryer explosion. Coincidentally, the second place finisher for the 2012 race was Earnhardt.
Howell: My fondest memory of Earnhardt will be the youthful exuberance he brought to NASCAR. I remember talking with Todd Bodine on the starting grid before the start of a race at Pocono in 2001. Bodine was facing me and, as we chatted, Earnhardt approached Bodine from behind. Earnhardt made eye contact with me and raised his eyebrows, giving his head a bit of a nod. Next thing I know, Earnhardt had his hands on Bodine’s shoulders, shaking Bodine and peering around into his face. The two men laughed, gave each other a bit of a hug, and wished each other good luck. Earnhardt went off in search of another driver, and I recorded a memory celebrating the fact that NASCAR, at its core, is about community. Earnhardt’s good humor and friendly nature has made him a wonderful ambassador for our sport.
Massie: The thing I’ll remember most about Earnhardt is his love and respect for the history of the sport. It was awesome to see how excited he was when he finally won at Martinsville Speedway. You could tell his fondness for the historical track. Ironically, when he won at Daytona in the first race there since his father died will go down as one of the greatest moments in NASCAR history. If that special moment didn’t make you tear up then you need to get in touch with your emotions.
As for Kenseth, he is the face of consistency. He was running at the finish for more than 90 percent of his races. Save for a few seasons, Kenseth was never the guy to go out and win a ton of races, but he would consistently get top fives and top 10s. Kenseth won his lone championship by winning one race and nickel and diming the rest of the way. How many other drivers have stunk up a championship battle so badly that NASCAR completely changed the format the following year? That is a very small list and it shows just how iconic of a driver Kenseth is.
Gable: I will remember Earnhardt’s move to Hendrick Motorsports and the personal transformation it caused. Leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the struggles of his initial seasons in the No. 88 forced Earnhardt to emerge from his father’s shadow and accept himself as an individual. He essentially went from being Dale Earnhardt’s son to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even through all the wins and triumphs, the most satisfying thing about Earnhardt’s career has been seeing him embrace a leadership role in the sport on his own terms. As for Kenseth, I will remember him as a champion on and off the track. He has always remained true to himself: a son of the Midwest who leads by example and offers unwavering support to the people around him. With wit and wisdom, Kenseth has earned the respect of his peers and has been a consistently-strong competitor. Much like he did at Phoenix last week, Kenseth finds ways to win in seemingly impossible situations, but is always the first to express gratitude to his team. That is how I’ll remember Matt Kenseth, excellence in racing and character in life.
For all the non-contending teams, Homestead is the last opportunity to make a statement. Who needs to make one the most this weekend?
Howell: While it’d be redeeming to see a driver like Kenseth win once more — just to accentuate the fact that he’s being put out to pasture — it’s essential that Elliott finally drive his way into Victory Lane. The Homestead race is a major event, and to see Elliott score his first career MENCS win there would be a welcome, if not also bittersweet, way to end the 2017 season. A win by Earnhardt would also be wildly significant, but then the folks at Homestead would be faced with having to rebuild the grandstands before next year.
Coburn: It might be significant for Joey Logano to run well; since Richmond in the spring he’s been outrun most of the time by Ryan Blaney, and with Blaney moving to full Penske equipment next season, there might be a battle for second place in the pecking order. Mentally, it would help Elliott a ton to finally win, as well as giving Hendrick as an organization more energy and motivation going into the offseason. It won’t happen, but I would love to see Patrick or Earnhardt to win their final race.
Massie: One year ago, Joey Logano came a spotter’s “car on the inside” call away from winning a championship. This season, with the exception of winning the Clash and Richmond Raceway, Logano has been horrendous. He needs a win to get his team back on the track that it once was. Another driver needing a win is Kurt Busch as he still is not signed for next year. Winning helps with everything, and bookending the season with wins would help Busch in his negotiations.
Koelle: Anyone without a ride currently. Drivers like Patrick, Landon Cassill, etc., will all need to dress to impress this weekend when it comes to the show in all three series. It’s almost a try-out if you will for those remaining open spots.
Henderson: Right about now, Hendrick Motorsports needs to put a driver—any driver—in Victory Lane. The organization has fallen behind, and it’s been painfully obvious for most of this season. Elliott needs to put all those second-place finishes behind him and prove he can win. Earnhardt riding into the sunset with a win would be the stuff of legends. Kasey Kahne winning would validate Leavine Family Racing’s move to add him as an upgrade. Jimmie Johnson looks to prove he’s not past his prime. Any of them winning would be a shot in the arm for HMS.