Drivers set to battle for 2019 NASCAR Cup Series championship at Homestead

USA Today Sports 3 weeks ago

Denny Hamlin scoffs at any mention of extra focus for championship race weekend.

He played tennis with friends until 1 a.m., less than 12 hours prior to green flag last Sunday when he more or less had to win the elimination race for a shot at the title.

“I just am not going to change who I am,” Hamlin said after his victory at ISM Raceway near Phoenix. “If I want to go out for a late dinner, I'm going to go out for a late dinner. It's what I do every single week, and we won six races and had success.

“It's not going to make me do better if I go into the hotel room and lock myself in at 8. … I'm going to enjoy the moment.”

One driver will seriously enjoy the moment Sunday when NASCAR crowns its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC) at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Hamlin, with 37, ranks third in career wins among those without a Cup title and sits as the only 2019 finalist who hasn’t won a championship. Kevin Harvick (2014), Kyle Busch (2015) and Martin Truex Jr. (2017) seek their second. They won their titles in the current format, where the crown goes to the best Homestead finisher among the four finalists.

All four have won a Cup race at Homestead during their career, and they have combined for 21 wins this season – Truex seven, Hamlin six and Busch and Harvick four.

Hamlin enters with a rookie Cup crew chief in Chris Gabehart. The other three have paired with their crew chiefs for at least five years — Harvick has been with Rodney Childers since 2014 while the tandems of Busch-Adam Stevens and Truex-Cole Pearn have been together since 2015.

“I feel like we've proven ourselves to be one of the four best race teams this year,” Gabehart said. “For me, Homestead is one race. There's 40 race cars on the racetrack that have a million parts on them that could fail at any time. For us, winning the championship was making it to Homestead.”

Gibbs make history ... and decisions

If Gabehart needs advice, he could lean on his Joe Gibbs Racing colleagues Stevens and Pearn.

Then again, maybe he won’t as team owner Joe Gibbs said “there will be some division this week” in an expected wild week for JGR, the first team to field three of the four championship-eligible drivers at Homestead since the elimination format began in 2014.

“Every team will go their separate ways and do their own thing,” Truex said.

Former Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Steve Letarte said JGR must define lines of separation for its drivers and crew chiefs.

 “That (separation) can happen when they load up and go to Miami or on Sunday morning,” Letarte said. “There will be a separation.

“I don’t believe that you’re going to be sharing pit strategies, air pressure, chassis adjustments like you would on a standard race. While it won’t affect the weekend, if that’s not defined correctly, there will be hurt feelings afterwards.”

Homestead's last hurrah

Among the hurt feelings Sunday could be South Florida fans. Homestead hosts its 18th consecutive and last season finale at the 1.5-mile track as the championship moves to Phoenix in 2020.

With NASCAR’s one-race-take-all system, the championship race should move at least every few years so no driver has a distinct advantage or disadvantage. A recent $178 million upgrade to ISM Raceway made it a destination NASCAR wanted to showcase.

But many will miss seeing a championship decided at Homestead, reconfigured in 2003 with progressive banking – banking more steep closer to the outside wall, making it a multiple-groove track.

“Homestead has been an amazing racetrack, a lot of fun as a driver because of its multiple grooves,” said former Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., now along with Letarte an analyst for NBC Sports. “You can run on the bottom, middle and top.

“The drivers love how flexible that racetrack is for them. It’s one of the few tracks on the circuit where actually running (along) the fence is almost like an art.”

Who has the momentum?

Harvick, the lone driver trying to break up the JGR juggernaut, boasts the best average Homestead finish (2.6) in the last five years but has finished better than the other three drivers in only six races this season. Truex has topped the others in 12, Busch 10 and Hamlin seven.

Hamlin has won two of the last four races, including last Sunday to vault into the finale. Harvick won four of the last 16 races, and Truex earned three wins in the nine playoff races.

“Momentum is kind of overrated at this point of the season,” Truex said. “We’re all here because we deserve it. We’ve all had great seasons.

“It comes down to one race, which is totally different than anywhere we’ve been all year long.”

Busch, the regular-season champion, rides a 21-race winless streak into the finale.

“We'll just have to make sure that we are (good enough),” Busch said. "Somehow, some way, if it works out, it was meant to be. If it doesn't, then it's not.”


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