Homestead: Who will become a first-time Sprint Cup champion?

Homestead, FL ( – One thing is for sure, NASCAR will have a
new champion in its premier series when Sunday’s season-ending race has
concluded at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Who that champion will be is anyone’s guess.

Four drivers — Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman —
enter the last race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the Championship Round,
with 5,000 points each. They are the final four in the first year of NASCAR’s
new playoff format for the Sprint Cup Series.

Prior to the start of this season, NASCAR radically changed the Chase format
by expanding the field of drivers to 16 and including a series of elimination
rounds to determine its champion.

Following last weekend’s elimination race in the Eliminator Round, held at
Phoenix, Hamlin, Harvick, Logano and Newman clinched the final four spots for
the Championship Round.

Harvick had been last in the eight-driver Chase point standings for the
Eliminator Round, but his victory at Phoenix automatically advanced him into
the Championship Round.

The highest finisher among these four drivers in Sunday’s 400-mile race at
Homestead will win his first Sprint Cup championship. Bonus points for laps
led will not apply in this event, so the official finishing position alone
will decide the title.

“I think the biggest key for this whole scenario is you’re not behind,”
Harvick said. “You’re on even footing with the other three guys. So for us, I
think we’ve had a great year. We’ve led a bunch of laps and won races and done
what we’ve needed to do, and all in all, it’s just been a great year. Looking
forward to Sunday afternoon.”

Harvick, in his first season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, has four wins,
including two in the Chase, and 19 top-10 finishes in 2014. His total of 2,083
laps led this year is more than any other driver. Harvick has also finished
higher than Hamlin, Logano and Newman in 11 races, which is the most of the
final four.

Logano was the highest finisher of the four in 10 races. Hamlin did it in
eight events, and Newman in six.

If Harvick wins the championship, he would join Bobby Labonte and Brad
Keselowski as the only drivers who have claimed titles in both the Sprint Cup
and Nationwide Series. He would also give SHR its second Sprint Cup
championship in the organization’s six-year history. Tony Stewart delivered
SHR’s first title in 2011.

In the first nine Chase races this season, Logano has the best average finish
— 5.3. Two of his five wins this year have occurred in the playoffs. But
Logano has the worst previous statistics of the four title contenders at
Homestead, finishing in the top-10 here only once in five starts. His eighth-
place run at this 1.5-mile track last year came in his first season driving
for Team Penske.

Of the 10 Sprint Cup races contested on mile and a halfs this season, Logano
has recorded two wins (Texas in April and Kansas in October), six top-five
finishes and seven top-10s.

“Just go race,” Logano said. “Our team motto all year has been ‘Do What You
Do.’ What we have done is go out there and raced our guts out and gotten the
best finish we can no matter what the race deals us. We have been able to do

“We have fought hard, and last week (at Phoenix), we had a little mishap and
were able to overcome that. I finished sixth after all that. This week, we
can’t make mistakes, but if we do, we do whatever we can to overcome them. We
take whatever the race will throw at us and find a way to make it happen. That
is the same thing we have been doing all year. We won’t change a thing.”

If Logano wins the championship, at age 24 years, 5 months and 23 days old, he
would become the third youngest driver to do so. Bill Rexford set the record
in 1950 when he won his first title at the age of 23 years, 7 months, and 15
days. Jeff Gordon is next in line, claiming his 1995 championship when he was
24 years, 3 months, and 8 days old.

Hamlin is the only one of the four that has won a Sprint Cup race at Homestead
in the past. His first victory here occurred in 2009. Winless in the first 35
races last year, Hamlin took the checkered flag at this track to salvage his
streak of winning at least one race in each of his eight full seasons in the
series. He has been with Joe Gibbs Racing since his Cup career began.

In 2010, Hamlin entered the season-finale at Homestead with the points lead.
But he started 37th and spun out in the early going, which led to a 14th-place
finish. Jimmie Johnson placed second in that race and clinched his record-
extending fifth straight championship.

“It’s about execution and not making mistakes, and all these teams (in the
Championship Round) have made some kind of mistake throughout this Chase,”
Hamlin said. “Of the four of us, your winner is probably going to be the one
that doesn’t make any mistakes. It’s a fully-executed race from pit stops to
pit lane to restarts and obviously green-flag speed, so hopefully all the
pieces of the puzzle of that are put together.”

Unable to compete in Fontana, California in March due to an injury caused by a
piece of metal lodged into the back of his eye, Hamlin can become the first
driver in NASCAR’s top series to miss a race and still win the championship.
Richard Petty missed two races but captured the title in 1971.

Hamlin can also deliver Toyota its first Sprint Cup championship.

His lone victory this season happened in May at Talladega.

In his first season with Richard Childress Racing, Newman has yet to win a
race this year but consistency has got him to this point in the championship

During the final lap at Phoenix, Newman was on the verge of being eliminated
from the Chase, but he bumped into rookie Kyle Larson while the two were
battling for position, causing Larson to make contact with the wall in turn 4.
Newman went on to finish 11th, allowing him to advance into the Championship
Round by only one point over Gordon.

Newman has been an underdog throughout the Chase. He squeaked into the
playoffs, clinching the 16th and final spot following his ninth-place run in
the regular-season-ending race at Richmond in September.

“We’ve gone into every race with the intention of winning it and leading the
most laps and winning the pole and everything else that goes along with it,”
Newman said. “We just haven’t been as successful as some of these other guys.
But our consistency has been there, so we just have to be there at the end.”

If Newman were to win the championship, he would be the only driver other than
Dale Earnhardt to claim a title for RCR in the series. Earnhardt won six of
his seven championships with RCR. Earnhardt’s last title with the team
occurred in 1994.

No matter where Newman finishes at Homestead, he will achieve his career-best
finish in points. His previous high in points was sixth — a feat he achieved
three times (2002, ’03 and ’06).

Forty-three teams are on the entry list for the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Nov. 16. Race: Ford EcoBoost 400.
Site: Homestead-Miami Speedway. Track: 1.5-mile oval. Start time: 3 p.m. ET.
Laps: 267. Miles: 400.5. 2013 Winner: Denny Hamlin. Television: ESPN. Radio:
Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.