HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Kyle Busch captured his second Cup championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, triumphing as his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates stumbled in the season finale.
The No. 18 Toyota driver ended a 21-race winless drought dating to June, scoring his fifth victory of the season.
Busch took the lead on a Lap 170 restart from teammate Denny Hamlin and commanded the final 97 laps as the race stayed green.
“We have a great race team and a great owner and the best sponsor in sports,” Busch told NBC. “Thank you to everyone for this opportunity. I may be the one who hoists the trophy or to have a championship, but it wouldn’t be possible without (crew chief) Adam Stevens, (owner) coach Joe Gibbs, J.D. Gibbs, Coy Gibbs, the whole family. … This (Toyota Racing Development) engine was awesome tonight. It’s been awesome all year, we had one issue. It’s so much fun to work with these guys and this group. Everybody that puts it all together for me. There’s alway your doubters, there’s always your haters. But you know what? This one’s for Rowdy Nation, ’cause you guys are the best.”
As for the other Championship 4 drivers, Martin Truex Jr. finished second, while Kevin Harvick was fourth, and Hamlin wound up 10th. Joe Gibbs Racing actually placed all four of its drivers in the top 10, as teammate Erik Jones finished third to make it a 1-2-3 JGR finish.
Hamlin encountered major trouble after his team applied too much tape to the front grille of the No. 11 Toyota on a Lap 209 pit stop under green. He was forced to pit again, dooming his title bid.
Truex controlled Stage 1, moving into first after Harvick led the first 20 laps.
Truex led 59 of the next 60 laps, often building a lead of more than seven seconds. By the end of the stage, 27 of the 40 cars had fallen a lap down because of the No. 19 Toyota’s blistering speed.
Truex led 39 of the next 40 laps to start Stage 2 before disaster struck. During a Lap 120 pit stop under green, his crew mixed up the left- and right-side front tires. That necessitated another stop under green for Truex, who re-emerged a lap down in 13th.
After restarting in 13th, Truex zoomed back into the top five within 10 laps. When the second stage ended, Truex was in fourth behind Busch, Harvick and Kyle Larson and just ahead of Hamlin.
Truex and Hamlin each picked up a spot during pit stops under the stage-ending yellow, and the Championship 4 restarted as the top four with 101 laps remaining.
Stage 1 winner: Martin Truex Jr.
Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch
Who else had a good race: The win by Kyle Busch was the 19th of the season for JGR, setting a new modern day (since 1972) record for most Cup wins by an organization in a single season, breaking Hendrick Motorsports’ old mark of 18 set in 2007. … Last year’s champion, Joey Logano, who fell short of reaching Homestead last week in the race at Phoenix, finished fifth.
Who had a bad race: Kyle Larson was running in the top five but suffered engine issues on Lap 209 that forced him out of the race and relegated him to a last-place finish in the 40-car field.
For Truex, Busch and Harvick, they have a chance to join Jimmie Johnson as the only active drivers with multiple titles. One of them would become the 16th Cup driver to win multiple championships.
For Hamlin, he could finally lose his title of the winningest active driver without a championship on his record.
This will be the last scheduled championship weekend in Miami after it has hosted the event since 2002. Next year it will move to ISM Raceway near Phoenix.
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Here’s a guide to the final weekend of the NASCAR season:
FUN WITH NUMBERS
The Championship 4 is three against one on multiple levels.
As mentioned, it will feature three past champions going against Hamlin, who will try to win his first title in his 14th year of full-time Cup competition. In his only other Championship 4 appearance in 2014, Hamlin finished third.
Three Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing will be pitted against one Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 driven by Harvick.
“(We need to) beat three Gibbs cars. Go faster than them,” Harvick said. “We’re going to do everything just like we’ve done all year.”
Three drivers in their 30s – Busch (34 years old), Truex (39) and Hamlin (38) – are going against Harvick, whose 43.
Speaking of ages….
Like everyone else, Hamlin’s birthday falls on the same date every year – Nov. 18.
This year it falls on the day after Hamlin could claim his first title.
“Homestead is always my birthday weekend,” Hamlin said. “I want to have two reasons to celebrate, not just one.”
Hamlin recalled the last time he came this close to a title.
“In 2010 I shut everyone out,” Hamlin said. “Like I didn’t do any of the birthday stuff. I didn’t hang out with anyone. I really didn’t respond to calls or texts or anything like that. But I’m not going to be that way I don’t think this time around because I just am not going to change who I am.”
Should he win the championship by winning Sunday’s race, he’d earn his 38th Cup Series victory on his last day of being 38 years old.
Also, a win Sunday would be Hamlin’s seventh of the season. That would make him the winningest Daytona 500 winner in a season since Jeff Gordon had seven victories in 1999.
RACE WINNER = CHAMPION
This weekend marks the sixth edition of the Cup championship race under the elimination playoff format.
While the championship is simply awarded to the highest-finishing driver out of the Championship 4, each year the champion has won the race.
2014 – Kevin Harvick (led final eight laps)
2015 – Kyle Busch (led eight of final 10 laps)
2016 – Jimmie Johnson (only led final three laps as part of an overtime finish)
2017 – Martin Truex Jr. (led final 51 laps)
2018 – Joey Logano (led final 12 laps after passing Truex)
Should Busch win on Sunday, he would end a 21-race winless streak.
“It’s obviously a great opportunity to be able to go race for a championship, and that’s what this format is,” Busch said. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. There are four of us who go for winner-take-all at Homestead. … It’s what your whole season comes down to.”
ONE LAST MONSTER MASH
Sunday’s race will be the last that Monster Energy serves as the title sponsor for the Cup Series.
Starting in 2020, the Cup Series will movie to a tiered sponsor system with no title sponsor.
The Cup Series has had a title sponsor since 1971 when Winston entered the role it held until 2003.
Nextel owned the naming rights from 2004-07. Sprint then held the rights through 2016 with Monster taking over in 2017.
RUNNING OUT OF TIME
Three drivers who won races in 2018 have a last shot to earn their first victory of this season.
Both have said they plan to continue racing but suggest it could be in other forms beyond Cup.
Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, will make his 471st Cup start Sunday. While he did not have as much success as others, he’ll be remembered for his quiet demeanor, abstinence from social media and devoted fan base.
Ragan, who won at Daytona in 2011 and Talladega in 2013, will make his 470th Cup start Sunday.
Both began running full-time in 2007 in a rookie class that included Juan Pablo Montoya and AJ Allmendinger. Montoya won rookie of the year honors.
Ragan said he’s looked at schedules for ARCA and some Late Model races across the country. He also said there are plans for him to drive the Next Gen car next year in some testing.
“Ford Motor Company has been a really good partner of mine and a supporter of my career since day one, and so I’m working with those guys on how I can help the big picture from Ford Performance and how we can work on next year and the Next Generation car as it rolls out,” Ragan said.
Ragan will be driving a throwback paint scheme on his No. 38 Ford. It will look like the car Ragan won with at Talladega with Front Row Motorsports.
This weekend will be the last for a handful of drivers in their current rides before they transition to a new team, while others are still without announced plans for beyond Sunday.
Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto will replace Menard in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford.
Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell will succeed DiBenedetto in LFR’s No. 95 Toyota.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez has not announced his plans for next season. The 2016 Xfinity champion will end his third Cup season on Sunday.
JTG Daugherty Racing and Roush Fenway Racing will be swapping drivers after the Miami race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. go from driving Roush’s No. 17 Ford to JTG Daugherty to replace Chris Buescher. Meanwhile, Buescher will return to Roush after five years away to drive the No. 17.
All three national series will compete on a new tire set-up compared to what was used at this track last year.
This is the same combination of left and right-side tires each series ran at Chicagoland and those in the Cup and Xfinity Series ran at Darlington this season.
This left and right-side tire features construction updates to align with what is run at other speedways, while this right-side tire takes teams from a multi-zone tread tire to a single zone tire and will increase grip.
“The compounds we will be running provide plenty of grip, but also offer the endurance needed on Homestead’s track surface,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, in a press release. “These high wear tracks put on some of our best races, and the past several years at Homestead have proven that. Tire fall-off creates more ‘comers’ and ‘goers’ over the course of a long run, which means more passing and tire management being an important element of the race.”
TWO OTHER CHAMPIONSHIPS AT STAKE
The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series also will crown their champions this weekend.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver, who is in a must-win situation in Sunday’s penultimate Cup playoff race if he hopes to advance to next week’s championship race in Miami, proved something in Friday’s final practice of the weekend:
His Chevrolet Camaro has speed — and lots of it.
Elliott was the only driver to exceed 138 mph, clocking a field-best speed of 138.627 mph in the last practice, more than 1 mph faster than second-fastest Ryan Blaney (137.208 mph).
Seven of the eight remaining championship contenders were in the top 10 speed-wise in the final session.