For the fifth year, the NASCAR playoffs will conclude with a championship race, the third that it will happen across all three national touring series. The rules of a championship race are fairly straight forward: the highest finishing driver among the final four playoff drivers will end the night as champion of their respective series. Let’s look at all three:
Who Will Come Out on Top in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series?
Just a few years ago, it seemed like Brett Moffitt may never get a fair shot at a NASCAR career. Now, he’s coming off his fifth Truck win of the season last week en route to competing for a championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Justin Haley‘s win at Texas Motor Speedway a couple weeks ago locked him into the Championship 4 after a break-out season. The GMS Racing driver has won three races this season and has had some great runs this season on 1.5-mile tracks somewhat similar to Homestead. His GMS teammate Johnny Sauter also advanced through the playoffs and is hunting for his second series championship.
Noah Gragson has had a bit of an enigma of a season. He’s been fast and could easily have had six or seven wins by now, but, partially due to bad luck and partially due to beating himself, he has just one victory this year. Still, outside of Sauter, nobody has had a better average finish in Trucks this year than Gragson.
This is an interesting playoff battle. The safe bet is Sauter, but his teammate Hayley has definitely stood his ground this year. Moffitt is playing with house money — not a lot of people expected Hattori Racing Enterprises to even make the playoffs this season, let alone win five races and make it to the championship round. But I think ultimately that Gragson is in the driver’s seat here. The question isn’t if Gragson can win the championship, the question is will he?
This race is probably going to play out like it has for many races this season. Gragson jumps out front and wins the first two stages, and then either he steps up and gets the job done or he’s too aggressive or bad luck strikes and he ends up being the bridesmaid at best.
Who Will Step up in the NASCAR XFINITY Series?
Perhaps no one has timed their first win of the season better than Cole Custer. The second year driver has been very consistent this season but wasn’t able to actually win until Texas. Because of that, Custer was able to get into the championship round over such strong drivers as Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier.
If you count Kyle Busch Motorsports as Joe Gibbs Racing’s Truck team (which it basically is), this organization is the only one with representatives in all three championship races. The team’s XFINITY driver is Christopher Bell, who has now set the record for most wins by a rookie driver in series history. After starting his career racing in the shadow of his standout teammate Erik Jones, Bell now finds himself aiming to win his first XFINITY championship just a year after winning his first Truck championship.
Not to take anything away from Tyler Reddick, but him making it to this round just speaks volumes on how bad his teammates Sadler and Allgaier did. His average finish of 13.2 is nearly five whole spots behind Sadler’s. But a top five at Kansas Speedway, a second at Texas and a sixth ISM Raceway at Phoenix was all he needed to get into this final round.
And then there’s Daniel Hemric. Hemric has been fast everywhere, but it just seems like one or two things go wrong that cost him the win. He doesn’t take himself out of races like Gragson does, but at least Gragson has won a race this season.
Honestly, I can see two scenarios to this race. One is that Allgaier or Sadler have a revenge race and whip the field en route to winning the final race of the season. The other is Bell dominates and Hemric stays with him all day. I really don’t think Custer or Reddick will be factors, but stranger things have happened.
Who will Be Crowned the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion?
And then there was the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The final race of the season features the four all-around best drivers of the season.
Joey Logano is the only driver in the final four who has not won a championship before. Logano has gained a lot of speed over the past couple of months along with his Team Penske teammates, but has only been able to put it all together at Martinsville Speedway. And even then, it took a bump and run on Martin Truex Jr to win and get in.
Speaking of Truex, this will be the final week for Furniture Row Racing. Owner Barney Visser is trying to accomplish something only Carl Kiekhafer has accomplished: win two straight championships, then leave the sport. Truex hasn’t won since Kentucky Speedway in July, but he has still shown speed in the second half of this year.
Arguably the best two drivers this season in Cup have been Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Harvick has one more top five and top 10 than Busch, but Busch has a slightly better average finish. Both have the same number of wins, and both are coming into this race with differing momentum. Busch just won at Phoenix and looks as strong as he has been all season, while Harvick will be without famed crew chief Rodney Childers after a penalty following their win at Texas.
As it usually is the case with the Cup race, expect all four drivers to lead at some point on Sunday, but the race has almost always came down to two drivers. And unlike with XFINITY, the best four drivers this year are in the Championship 4, so there should be less of a chance that an outsider ends up winning.
Honestly, it’s probably going to come down to Logano and Busch. Harvick is going to lose a step without Childers, and I’ve never really bought Truex as being able to win a championship on a lame-duck team. And if it does come down to Logano and Busch, which would be great for NBC (former teammates, mentor versus student… I can hear Rick Allen now), at the end of the day, I’m going with Logano. He wants that championship, and Martinsville showed that he’s not afraid to push the envelope to get it.
Who Will Have the Fondest Farewell?
Homestead is not just a race for championships. As the final race of the season, it has become a gala event for retiring drivers and expiring partnerships.
For the first time in a while, no full-time Cup legend will be retiring at Homestead. Matt Kenseth plans for it to be his final Cup race, but Kenseth already kind of said goodbye last year.
This will be the final race weekend that Lowes’ will be on the hood of the No. 48 Chevrolet. The company’s partnership with Jimmie Johnson has been by far the most successful between any one sponsor and driver in recent years, with all 83 of Johnson’s Cup wins and all seven championships being won with Lowes’ (or their in-house tool brand Kobalt). Johnson will be racing his rookie paint scheme this weekend, complete with the matching firesuit.
This will be the last race for Furniture Row Racing. Last year’s champions will be getting together for one more race before most of the crew follows driver Truex over to Joe Gibbs Racing next year. Other national series drivers who have stated that 2018 will be their final season includes Kasey Kahne (who already ran his final race), Cole Whitt, Spencer Gallagher, Cody Coughlin, Wendell Chavous and Sadler.
But the biggest goodbye of the season happened on Monday night (Nov. 12), when Hall of Fame driver David Pearson passed away at age 83. Pearson was, by all accounts, one of the greatest to ever drive a race car. Richard Petty has said on multiple occasions that Pearson was the best he ever raced against, which says something considering Petty raced in Cup for 35 seasons.
The Silver Fox only ran four full-time seasons, but won three championships. His move to Wood Brothers Racing in the 1970s changed everything in Cup — in 1973 alone, the pairing won 11 races out of the 18 they competed in. If Pearson had the same schedule like Petty had and ran for a championship in the ’70s, it’s extremely unlikely that Petty would have seven championships or that Cale Yarborough would have three.
Pearson didn’t have the impact on the sport others of the era such as what Petty or Bobby Allison had. There would have been a NASCAR without David Pearson. He wasn’t as active in the sport after his retirement as all the other big names he raced against. And yet, while others like Petty will be remembered as technically being more successful, Pearson will always be remembered by those who knew or saw him, not as the most successful, but as the best. And I don’t think he’d want it any other way.