Last year’s championship finale was as predictable as any NASCAR race can be.
Seven of the top-10 finishers qualified among the top 10. Eight of them finished among the top 10 in both stages and only one – Ryan Newman in 10th – failed to finish that well at the two breaks.
The top-three finishers all led significant portions of the race with Martin Truex Jr. pacing the field four times for 78 laps, Kyle Busch leading four times for 43 laps and Kyle Larson up front four times for 145 laps.
For the most part, these were the same drivers who were fast in practice, so this week’s NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster should be heavily influenced by the drivers with the best 10-lap averages.
Qualifying will also be important, but there is no reason to automatically discount a driver who starts outside the top 10. Last year, Chase Elliott advance to fifth from 18th on the grid while Joey Logano finished sixth after starting 19th.
1. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 3.00) Playoff
Harvick has been as close to perfect as possible at Miami. Since the track went to its current configuration in 2003, Harvick has missed the top 10 only once (2007). In the 10 races since then, he has seven top fives, including the last four. He won the championship on the strength of his 2014 victory and is one of the best bets to do so again.
1. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 3.00) Playoff
There are many signs pointing to this week being a two-man battle between Harvick and Busch. Las Vegas odds makers have had them as co-favorites most of the week at 2/1, they’ve dominated the 1.5-mile tracks with Harvick winning four times and Busch three. Their three-year average at Homestead are identical. Unless something happens to slow one of them down, the race and championship will come down to these two.
3. Kyle Larson (three-year average: 3.33) Non-Playoff
It is unfortunate that Larson failed to make the Championship 4 because he will be part of the battle for the win this weekend. He enters with three consecutive top fives including a second in 2016 and a third last year. In four years of NASCAR’s current knockout format, a non-playoff driver has never won this race, so history could be made this week.
4. Joey Logano (three-year average: 4.67) Playoff
Logano is this week’s dark horse to win the championship. He has not been nearly as dominant on 1.5-milers as Harvick, Busch or Truex but he does have a couple of things in his favor. 1) He has had the luxury of preparing for Miami for three weeks since winning at Martinsville and 2) he has not finished worse than sixth in his last three starts at Miami.
5. Matt Kenseth (three-year average: 7.33) Non-Playoff
It has been easy to disregard Kenseth’s statistics in 2018. His most recent runs on a given track were with Joe Gibbs Racing and the No. 6 at Roush Fenway Racing has struggled with both him and Trevor Bayne behind the wheel. Last week’s seventh-place finish at Phoenix changed that. Now that he knows how to get to the top 10, his Miami record of five consecutive results of eighth or better is suddenly meaningful.
6. Chase Elliott (three-year average: 8.00 in two starts) Non-Playoff
There is a old adage in racing that states drivers must first lose races in order to win them. The same is true of championships – and under NASCAR’s current rules, that also applies to simply making the Championship 4. Elliott has been eliminated in the Round of 8 in the past two seasons. Elliott knows he has been one of the strongest performers during the playoffs and if not for the poor start that Chevrolet endured at the beginning of the season, he might be one of the challengers if he had started winning earlier in the year.
7. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 9.33) Non-Playoff
Hamlin will be on most fantasy radars because of his five race top-10 streak at Miami. He has not earned a top five there since 2013, but that year he won his second race on this track. His first came in 2009, so there is still some hope that he will keep his streak of winning every year since he was a rookie in 2006 alive.
8. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 10.33) Non-Playoff
McMurray is another driver who would like to close the season on a high note. He has not announced his plans for 2019, but he knows he will not be with Chip Ganassi Racing next year and with most of the major rides spoken for, he may not have another opportunity to win. Two of his last four attempts on this track ended in fifth-place finishes. The other two were a pair of 13ths.
9. Austin Dillon (three-year average: 12.33) Non-Playoff
Dillon has come on strong in the last two weeks. His 10th at Texas and eighth at Phoenix is the first time this year that he has earned back-to-back top 10s. At Miami, he has a current streak of three top 15s without a top 10. With a little luck and some track position, he could close out the year with three consecutive strong runs.
9. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 12.33) Non-Playoff
Johnson has already shown what he will do for a win. It didn’t matter that he might miss the playoffs when he sailed into the final chicane at the Charlotte Roval and it won’t matter that the Championship 4 are battling for the Cup this week. If Johnson can sniff the lead, he is going to do everything he can to get to the checkers first.
14. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 16.33) Playoff
Truex may have won last year, but he has not been overly impressive at Miami in recent years. That was his only top 10 in the past four seasons, which suggests he has his work cut out for him this week if he wants to beat Harvick and Busch.
Pole Winner: Hamlin has won two of the last three poles at Miami. He will not be front-of-mind for most fantasy players this week and that could be a blessing in disguise. While most of the competition makes a safe pick like Harvick, Kyle Busch or Truex, someone willing to take a little risk could reap a huge benefit.
Segment Winners: Last year, the top-four finishers each swept the top five at the end of the stages. Meanwhile, there were only two drivers who earned stage points before falling out of the top 10 at the checkers (Clint Bowyer was 10th in Stage 1 before finishing 12th; Kurt Busch was seventh in Stage 1 and sixth in Stage 2 before losing two laps in the final segment and finishing 22nd). That suggests this week’s stage winners will come from among the drivers who impress the analysts most in practice.