Championship 4

Cup Championship 4 profile: Martin Truex Jr.

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For more than half the season,  Martin Truex Jr. has been the driver everyone else chased.

That’s how often the Furniture Row Racing driver has been atop the series standings, beginning after his third-place finish in the Coke 600 in May.

The 37-year-old driver has put together the best season of his full-time Cup career, which began in 2006. He has scored seven wins, six of them at 1.5-mile tracks. Those wins bring his career total to 14.

Three years ago when he and crew chief Cole Pearn joined the Denver-based FRR, Truex had two wins in eight seasons.

A year after Truex finished 24th in the standings with one top five and five tops 10 in 2014, Truex went to his first Championship 4 and finished fourth. He gets his second shot at a title this weekend.

MARTIN TRUEX JR.
Crew chief: Cole Pearn
2017 wins: 7,  (Las Vegas, Kansas I & II, Charlotte II, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland, Kentucky)
2017 top 10s: 25
Laps Led: 2,175 (first in series)
Championship 4 history: Made it in 2015, finished fourth.
Memorable race: Truex survived two restarts in the final 10 laps at Charlotte in October to advance to the Round of 8.
Playoff march: Won the opener at Chicagoland to advance for the second year in a row; Won at Charlotte in Round of 12 to advance; Clinched spot in championship race based on points after Texas race in Round of 8..
Why Truex will win the title: Been the dominant car on 1.5-mile tracks all season and he has finished outside the top five in the playoffs just once (Talladega).
Why Truex won’t win the title: Something unexpected, like a broken part or miscues on pit road, are Truex’s biggest concern.
What Nate Ryan says: “If you look at almost every mile-and-a-half victory they’ve had this year, they’ve overcome some adversity. … They rebound constantly, whether they go a lap down or whatever, they always find a way to use that speed, that just pure, raw, blinding speed that the No. 78 has had all year. That can be a great absolver of any sins the team commits in terms of execution. I think that’s their savior.”

Cup Championship 4 profile: Kyle Busch

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Following a devastating wreck in the 2015 Xfinity Series opener at Daytona International Speedway, Kyle Busch came back to win his first Cup championship that season.

Busch missed the first 11 races recovering from his injuries but made up for lost time by earning a career-best five wins that season (he also has five this season), including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway that clinched the Cup title for him.

But Busch has carried somewhat of an asterisk next to his name in that championship season in the eyes of some fans, who feel he won the title without a full 36-race, season-long effort.

Now, the younger Busch brother has a chance to finally put those criticisms to rest by winning the championship Sunday.

KYLE BUSCH

Crew chief: Adam Stevens

2017 wins: 5 (Pocono II, Bristol II, Loudon II, Dover II, Martinsville II)

2017 Top 10s: 21

Laps Led: 1,980 (second in series)

Championship 4 history: Won it in 2015; Made it in 2016, finished third.

Memorable race: Passed Martin Truex Jr. with 33 laps to go to cap off a dominating performance in second playoff race at Loudon, leading 187 of 300 laps. He then doubled up by also winning the following week at Dover.

Playoff march: Started slow with 15th-place finish at Chicagoland, but then won at Loudon to earn automatic berth in Round of 12, then won at Dover. He struggled in Round of 12: 29th at Charlotte and 27th at Talladega, but 10th place at Kansas was enough to advance to Round of 8. Martinsville win put him into championship race.

Why Busch will win the title: Capped off 2015 championship run with win at Homestead. Now, with more attention focused on Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, that’s exactly the best position for Busch to be in, as he thrives in situations like this. Also, Adam Stevens is one of the best crew chiefs in the game. If the race is decided on strategy, it’ll be because of Stevens.

Why Busch won’t win the title: Homestead hasn’t exactly been friendly to Busch. In 12 starts, he has one win, two top fives and only five top 10s.

What Dale Jarrett says (on if there’s a driver better at handling pressure than the younger Busch brother: “No, not really. You can say Kevin Harvick might be one, but Kyle Busch has proven that he knows exactly what to do. He’s had his back up against the wall, he’s come back from adversity, he’s got a great team and understands exactly what has to happen in this situation. I think the way he deals with pressure is with just tremendous talent. He believes in what he can do in a race car that others can’t do and that’ll get him by any pressures that might beat him.”

Cup Championship 4 profile: Kevin Harvick

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Kevin Harvick was the first driver to win the championship under the current Cup playoff elimination format in 2014.

He’s reached the championship round in three of its four years.

Now he looks to become the first multi-time winner under the new format.

It has been a season more of consistency than spectacular outings for Harvick. He comes to Miami with two wins, fewest of the four championship contenders, but is second to only Martin Truex Jr. in top-10 finishes (25 to 22).

Also of note, Harvick’s two wins are his fewest since 2012, when he won only one race. While he hasn’t lived up to his nickname of “The Closer” as much as in past seasons, it has still been a good season for the driver of the No. 4.

That Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing are in the championship round in their first year after transitioning from Chevrolet to Ford power is a testament to the team’s ability to make changes and its versatility.

It also means a lot to Ford, which has two entries in the championship round, as does Toyota, but can claim bragging rights over Chevrolet, which has no cars vying for the championship.

KEVIN HARVICK

Crew chief: Rodney Childers

2017 wins: 2 (Sonoma, Texas II)

2017 Top 10s: 22

Laps Led: 850 (fourth in series)

Championship 4 history: Won it in 2014; Made it in 2015, finished third.

Memorable race: Passed Martin Truex Jr. with 10 laps to go nearly two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway and continued to the checkered flag. It was Harvick’s first career Cup win at TMS.

Playoff march: Started march to Miami with third-place finish at Chicagoland; had five top-five finishes – including win at Texas – in first nine races. Win at Texas in Round of 8 punched his ticket to Miami.

Why Harvick will win the title: Homestead-Miami Speedway is one of his favorite and more successful tracks. Has finished first (2014), second (2015) and third (2016) in last three races there and has 14 top-10 finishes in 16 starts there. Also, Childers is one of the top crew chiefs in the sport.

Why Harvick won’t win the title: Ford was dominant early in the season, winning five of the first 10 races, including the Daytona 500. But since, Toyota has won 14 races since (15 overall), including seven of the first nine playoff races. Truex and Busch will have to be taken out or suffer mechanical failure for Harvick to have a chance at the title.

What Steve Letarte says: “Kevin Harvick is my favorite. … The 4 of Kevin Harvick, Rodney Childers on the pit box, has really been magical since being put together at Stewart-Haas Racing years back. They’ve already won one championship and I really think they’ve been off the radar purely because of the transition to Ford. … I don’t think there’s a driver more mentally savvy, mentally tough than Kevin Harvick when it comes to Miami.”

NASCAR America: Dale Jarrett sits down with Championship 4 drivers

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Five days before the Cup Series’ championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR America’s Dale Jarrett sat down with all four championship drivers.

The NASCAR Hall of Famer spoke with Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick about various topics, including how difficult it is to make it to the championship race in the current format and what they would consider crossing the line in trying to win the title on Sunday.

Here’s how Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick responded to the latter question.

Busch: “I’ll just answer like this. I think in my personal taste and my opinion, I don’t try to go out there and dirty race anybody or wreck somebody in order to go for a win. This is a rare circumstance, and we got to do what we need to do for our team in all instances. That track is pretty wide, so there should be opportunity to race each other with class and like champions.”

Harvick: “You look at the last two weeks (with Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott), that took those guys totally out of championship contention. That’s where you don’t want to be right now. You don’t want to have somebody that’s just looking for you on the race track and you don’t want to have the circumstance that (Hamlin) and (Elliott) were in. You want to go out and race hard and earn it the right way.”

Among the four drivers, Truex is the only one who doesn’t have a Cup title. He came close in 2015 when he finished fourth.

Jarrett asked Truex how that serves as motivation for the Furniture Row Racing driver.

“I feel like we left there (Miami in 2015) and it was just a lost opportunity,” Truex said. “Ever since that day we’ve been working to get back there, to get another chance. I think we’re ready for it. I think we have the right mindset. I think for us honestly, we just really need to do what we’ve done all year. We’ve literally gone to every race this year and said, ‘we need to win this race. This is like Homestead.'”

Keselowski said a championship under the current elimination format would mean more to him, simply because it’s in a different format.

“Championships are about legacies,” Keselowski said. “The three of us here (Busch and Harvick) have a chance to join that club, 15, that have won multiple championships in NASCAR (Cup Series). … That’s quite a club to be in. Of course Martin has a chance to add to his own legacy and be one of the (31) champions that there are in the sport. I think it’s an interesting position to be in and it’s one we all want to make the most of.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

Can Brad Keselowski go from Miami underdog to top dog of 2017?

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Brad Keselowski doesn’t have delusions of grandeur. He knows he managed to reach the Championship 4 race in not exactly the way he would have wanted to.

Keselowski made it on points, not third-round wins. Had the driver of the No. 2 Ford won Sunday at Phoenix instead of Matt Kenseth, he might have entered Miami with a bit higher standing.

Martin Truex Jr. has a series-leading seven wins this season, including six on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead-Miami, so it’s fair to say he’s the likely favorite there next Sunday.

Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch won in the Round of 8 and are also strongly considered as potential champs.

But because he reached the Miami showdown on points in the last race possible, Keselowski is essentially the underdog heading there.

On one hand, that’s a lot of pressure for Keselowski to outperform his other three championship contenders.

But at the same time, even without a win, the highest-finishing driver points-wise leaves Miami as champion.

While a win would clinch it for Keselowski, just finishing higher than the other three is the key motivation for the 2012 champion.

And that’s one key thing in Keselowski’s 2017 title bid. He IS a past NASCAR Cup champion. But so, too, are Harvick (2014) and Busch (2015). Only Truex has yet to win a Cup title.

But Keselowski will have to do much better at Homestead than the 16th-place showing he had at Phoenix. It was by fate and happenstance that he hung on with enough points to advance to the final round of the playoffs — and Keselowski will be the first to admit it.

“We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today,” Keselowski said after Sunday’s race. “I am glad I don’t have to relive this day, that is for sure.

“I am just looking forward to going to Homestead. This feels a little bit like Christmas. Sometimes you need a little luck on your side. Today, we had that. It wasn’t by any means where we wanted to run. We wanted to run up front and have a shot for the win. That wasn’t in the cards. We tried to run the smartest race we could and survive and it ended up paying off in the end.”

Because Homestead is the end-all and be-all of 2017, Keselowski understands his focus only has to be on getting to the front — or at least ahead of his three Championship 4 peers — and staying there.

The big problem — and which has plagued both Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano, who failed to make the playoffs — is speed. Or in their case, lack thereof.

Somehow, some way, Keselowski’s team needs to find more horsepower in the next seven days if he hopes to leave Miami with the championship. Right now, it would appear his other three counterparts have more speed than he does — and that’s job No. 1 for the No. 2 team. 

“Homestead is a lot different than Phoenix,” Keselowski said. “Hopefully, we can find what we need to run up front there and catch some breaks and win it.

“I am very hopeful for that. I am proud of the whole team. We had a solid day of not making any mistakes and that put us in position here. It was a great team effort.”

Added crew chief Paul Wolfe, “That (qualifying for Homestead) is the key takeaway for me. We have been strong in these playoffs and scored a lot of points and bonus points and that is ultimately what put us in a great position to be off a little today and still have an opportunity.”

An interesting side note is that Chevrolet will not have a representative in Championship 4. It will be two Toyotas vs. two Fords.

“It is great (and) exciting to have the two Fords in there,” Wolfe said. “The 4 (Harvick) has been really good and come on strong and I feel like we have put in a good effort here over the last few weeks to make sure we had a little more speed in our cars going to Homestead.

“We get in these types of situations and I think Brad will be able to find a little more and we just need to go down there and do what we do all year, give it our best. I think we will have a shot at this.”

Speaking of Fords, here’s some interesting stats heading into Miami that could potentially involve Keselowski and Harvick:

  • A Ford driver has not won the NASCAR Cup championship since Kurt Busch in 2004.
  • Ford has sponsored the season-ending NASCAR Cup race since 2002. Even though Busch is the only driver to win the championship in a Ford during that time, a Ford driver has won the season-ending race seven times since 2002: Kurt Busch (2002), Greg Biffle (2004-2006), Matt Kenseth (2007) and Carl Edwards (2008, 2010).
  • Technically, Edwards also tied for the championship in 2011, tying Tony Stewart, who was awarded the title by virtue of the tie-breaker: more season wins (Stewart had five, Edwards just one).