Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chase Coverage: Homestead Preview

Sam Greenwood / Getty Images for NASCAR


It all comes down to this. It's the final race of the 2010 Sprint Cup Series season, the end of the Chase. A champion will be crowned.

Will it bring Denny Hamlin his first Cup title, the driver who overcame a knee problem to battle back and put himself atop the points standings? Will it be a historic-making moment for champion Jimmie Johnson? Will it be Kevin Harvick's first championship, the ultimate icing on the cake after a dramatic turnaround from last year's woes?

With the tightest championship battle in Chase history, we will have to tune in Sunday to see who will prevail. The stage is set for one of the most exciting finales in recent history, a battle that will go down to the last lap. May the best man win.

While the focus is on the title battle, the race winner will have bragging rights going into next season. A win in the last race of the year can go a long way to bring momentum for a team entering into 2011.

Our contributors run down the Chase drivers' chances for the finale at Homestead-Miami. Come back Tuesday to find out how the Chasers finish out the 2010 season. 

1. Denny Hamlin - Holly Machuga
Following his “disappointing” finish of 12th at Phoenix last weekend, Denny Hamlin remains first in points going into the final race of the 2010 season. Thus far, he has eight wins, 14 top-fives, 18 top-10s, and two poles. He also has an average finish of 12.9. Hamlin has led 20 races all season, with a total of 1,184 laps led.

At Homestead-Miami, Denny has one win (2009), three top-fives, and three top-10s. In five races, he has an average finish of 10.6. Also, he has a driver rating of 94.7, seventh best out of the drivers.

There are two ways that Denny can win the championship this weekend. One, he could win the race. Two, he could lead the most laps and come in second. That is the only way that the FedEx team could be guaranteed their championship over four-time champions, the Lowe’s team.

If there is a tie, the champion will be the one who won the most races. This would make Denny the 2010 champion.

I am excited to see how this plays out! I can not believe that this is the last race!

2. Jimmie Johnson - Rebecca Kivak
For the first time in five years, Jimmie Johnson comes into Homestead second in points, 15 behind leader Denny Hamlin. It's been a while since Johnson has been the chaser and not the chased, but the four-time Sprint Cup champion is up to the challenge. After losing championships in 2004 and 2005, Johnson learned what he needed to do to win them. That experience will factor into Sunday's Ford 400, when Johnson will have to race until the very last lap in order to claim a historic fifth title.

The clinch scenario for Johnson, independent of how points leader Hamlin and third-place Kevin Harvick finish, is winning the race and leading the most laps. Now would be a good time to mention that Homestead is one of four tracks where Johnson has never won. However, the driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet has put up decent numbers at the 1.5-mile oval. In nine starts, Johnson has three top 5s, six top 10s and two poles. In last year's event, Johnson started from the pole and led 28 laps before securing a fifth-place finish. His average finish is 12.7, which Johnson will need to outperform on Sunday in order to win the championship. The No. 48 must find the speed that has evaded them in the last few races.

Something also to consider is that Johnson hasn't had to be in the position to race for the win in quite some time at Homestead. It's possible the four-time champion, who usually has the title wrapped up by the finale, has held back in recent races, something Hamlin has said he's witnessed Johnson do at the Miami track. With the championship on the line, however, holding back is not an option for the No. 48 team on Sunday.

As Johnson tells it: "We have nothing to lose. ... It's a much different perspective for us. I've been here in the past with even a big points lead and have been concerned about dropping the ball. When you're defending, your mind starts to change and you start to think about the 'what ifs.' When you're chasing, it's more about, What do I need to do?

"For us, the small points gap, the way we'll win the championship is by doing our jobs. ... We're capable of doing it. We've done it in the past. Now it's time to step up as a team and go out and do it."

You have a champion determined to win and his team willing to go out all out. No matter how Sunday's race at Homestead turns out, you can be sure Johnson and the No. 48 will put their best foot forward as they race to bring home a potential fifth title.

3. Kevin Harvick - Stacie Ball
 (Note: Stacie is stepping in for Amber Arnold for this installment)
“I think that's the way it's supposed to be. Even with the Chase, you let I guess nine other guys back into the championship hunt, and the three cars that have run the best all year have risen back to the top. For me, I think it's fun to be able to challenge yourself and race against the best guys that have been the best all year to see where you stack up in the end. I think it's the best way that it could have shaken out.” Kevin Harvick answered what it meant to him for him being one of the three to help decide the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Four top fives, seven top-10 finishes and leading 116 laps at Homestead says a lot. Yet not having a win could make or break Harvick, especially with him starting 28th on the grid. It is true, though, he has quickly moved to the front after starting back in the field over the season. Will this be one of those races?

"We know the job that we have at hand, and we're going with our best piece, and I think our driver is ready and psyched up about it after our meeting [Tuesday] morning. We're just looking forward to it," Gil Martin said of what he and the 29 pit crew needed to do for this weekend's race, before a day of deep-sea fishing for him and the team.

Harvick, Martin and the team all knows what it takes. It takes him winning the race, leading the most laps, and most of all, the other two finishing behind Harvick in the top 10. Is it possible, could he do it? Honestly, after everything I have seen during the 2010 NASCAR season, anything is possible.

4. Carl Edwards - Amanda Ebersole
It's that time of year many of us loathe, the final race of the 2010 NASCAR season. We head to the finale race at Homestead Miami Speedway in unfamiliar circumstances: the championship is undecided! That is a wonderful thing for our sport, and hopefully it will be a fight to the last lap to see who is victorious!

Still riding high from last week’s sweep at Phoenix, I bring you more good news for Carl Edwards. He has great stats for Homestead with one win, three top fives, and five top 10s out of 6 races. His win was in November 2008. Edwards also has one pole there and has led 251 laps. Carl has turned 112 of the track's fastest laps, spent 1,112 laps in the top 15 and has a driver rating of 111 and leads all active drivers in these areas. Carl also has a series-best running position of eighth.

Crew chief Bob Osborne will be unloading the same car that was previously raced at Charlotte in October, where he finished 16th. Bob’s thoughts on heading to Homestead: “It was great to finally get a win at Phoenix last weekend. Now we can go to Homestead and try for another win, and maintain our fourth place in the points. Carl has a great record at Homestead and won there in 2008. We are taking our newest car in the fleet which we ran at Charlotte so I feel it will be good. We’ve got a lot of momentum going into the final race of the season so we’d love to end the year with one more win.”

Carl feels the momentum from Phoenix and is hoping it continues in Homestead. With his manufacture, Ford, sponsoring the title weekend, Carl would like nothing more than another win. "Ford Championship weekend has always been a huge weekend for me and Roush Fenway. We’ve got a ton of momentum right now. I feel like our 1.5-mile program is really strong, and our team is riding a huge wave from last weekend’s win in Phoenix. We can’t lose at Homestead because no matter what happens we all feel like we finished the season strong. We’re just going to go for the win and hopefully finish top four in points. That would be huge."

5. Matt Kenseth - Whitney Richards
The final race of the 2010 has arrived. For Matt Kenseth and his crew, the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be their last chance to keep from going winless for the season. Two years ago Kenseth went winless, and this year, the team will do all they can to keep that from happening again. After the up-and-down year they’ve had, a win on Sunday would be the best way to end the season.

Kenseth has 10 starts at Homestead and has earned two top 5s, three top 10s and one win (November 2007). He has an average starting position of 21.6 and an average finish of 19.8. He has led a total of 287 laps and completed 2,387 of 2,675 laps. Kenseth has two DNFs (November 2002 and 2003) at Homestead. In his last outing at the track, he started 34th and finished 13th. This weekend, the team will be running chassis RK-704, which was last run at Martinsville. Kenseth and his crew are hungry for a win, so keep an eye on that No. 17 Crown Royal Ford on Sunday. Whether they will win is uncertain, but there is no doubt that team will do all they can to make it happen.

6. Jeff Gordon - Genevieve Cadorette
This past season, Jeff Gordon made it into the top 6 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, yet he hasn’t won a race. In 2010, Gordon has 11 top 5s; 17 top 10s and has won one pole for the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s currently trailing the leader, Denny Hamlin by 338 points, so he is mathematically eliminated from winning the Cup on Sunday. If he wins at Homestead-Miami, Gordon will conquer the last remaining track on the circuit where he has yet to claim victory. He may not have the title, but he would walk away with the Ford 400 trophy, cash and bragging rights.

Though he has not won here, his Homestead history is impressive. In 11 starts, Gordon has tallied the most five top 5s and nine top 10s out of all active drivers. He’s led 62 laps, his average finish is 9.5 and he’s completed 99.9 percent of all laps.

7. Kyle Busch - Lindi Bess
What? The season is almost over, you say. Didn’t it just start? I am experiencing feelings that are somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand we are at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the excitement began Friday with qualifying. It should really be an exciting race with three contenders within reach of their goal to become the 2010 Sprint Cup Champion. Then there’s the whole "end of the season" thing that makes me somewhat blue.

At last year's Homestead Ford 400, the 2010 points leader, #11 Denny Hamlin took the race, and Jimmie Johnson finished in the fifth position and walked away with his fourth Sprint Cup Championship trophy. With a third-place finish in 2009 at the end of the Homestead race was the driver of the #29, Kevin Harvick. Kyle Busch, although he didn’t make the chase, finished in the eighth position after qualifying in 30th position. Kyle also won the NNS Ford 300. The NNS race gave the #18 a Nationwide Race Record of 126.924.

Now would be a good time to look at Kyle’s Homestead-Miami Speedway career history. He has been running pretty strong this season and since he’s got one more chance at a trifecta at Homestead to finish his season out, you can bet he’s gonna be doing some hard racing.

Kyle has a total of five starts at the Homestead track. Of these starts, three were with Hendrick and the last two with JGR. In five starts, he’s had one DNF and just one top 10. Average start is 12.6 and average finish is 25.2. These numbers don’t take into account that Kyle has changed his performance on and off the track for the most part. What we saw when he flipped off the official was just raw emotion.

So with that, I will make my declaration as a Jimmie Johnson fan, with Kyle Busch coming in a close second, which is exactly how I’d like to see the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway end.

8. Greg Biffle - Stacie Ball
“Biffle has an incredible record at Homestead with his three wins in a row, so we know he can get it done if we can give him a fast racecar. Just like most every other week this year, we need to qualify up front and stay there with good pit stops. If we can do that, the rest will be up to Biffle and we should be able to compete for the win. We had one get away from us in Texas and it would be great to end the 2010 season with another trip to victory lane,” Greg Erwin, crew chief of the No. 16 3M Ford Fusion, said of Biffle's history at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Ford 400, which ends the 36-week week racing schedule.

Two wins, nine top fives, and 18 top 10s in 2010 does not give you an honest look at the season during which Greg Biffle had gone up and down in points, or the challenges he faced with his cars throughout the season before his first win at Pocono Raceway in July. In his nine years of racing, he has led 4456 laps and collected 16 wins, 66 top fives, and 112 top 10s in his 293 Sprint Cup Series career starts. As a fan, I do not know what the stats are really telling us. All I do know is that the luck from one track to the next is tested, especially after what we have seen in the last nine races. Yet I am hoping his three wins, three top fives, and three top 10s will be a good sign, showing this truly is a good track for him and the Pit Bulls, which will bring hopefully another victory in 2010.

“We’re taking the same car to Homestead that we led with at Texas and won with at Pocono. We’ve had some success at Homestead obviously and it would be great to end another season with a win there. We had some extreme highs and lows during this Chase but the highs are encouraging for next season. We know that we can compete for wins now as long as we don’t have part failures. We are still working on our short track program but I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’ll just go to Homestead this weekend and do everything we can to finish this season with a win.”

The only factors we really do not know about are, number one, the weather and two, the handling of the car on the track. Until we see those, we have no idea what kind of a race anyone will have, even if it is a good track for the No. 16 Ford Fusion and any of the other teams at Homestead-Miami Speedway. May the best car win the race along with the Cup on Sunday!

9. Tony Stewart - Unique Hiram
We are down to the GRAND FINALE! Tony Stewart and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet team are headed to a track where their driver holds some impressive statistics. At this particular race track, Smoke has captured two wins, nine top 5s and five top 10s. Additionally, his driver rating is 88.2 which is the 12th best and Stewart is listed as the 9th best at running the 60 fastest laps at this track.

Stewart was asked about the dynamics of the Homestead-Miami racetrack and he had this to say about it:

“You go off into turn one, and when you get into the banking, you lift. If your car is good, you can go and not use any brake, or very,very little brake. You stay one lane off the bottom, past the transition – it’s a little less banking on the lower level toward the apron – so you stay one level above that. As soon as your car settles in you can really just mash right back in the gas and just ride that second level around down onto the backstretch. And then you do exactly the same thing going into turn 3. A lot of times in turn 3, because of the wind direction there, you can actually go into the corner a lot harder and a lot further, actually turning into the
corner before you get off the gas. And it’s the same thing, once that car settles in, you get on the gas and ride it around to the frontstretch. It’s a pretty smooth racetrack.”

It is clear that Stewart and his team will give it their best shot to capture the checkered flag. There will be chances taken and definitely some bold moves made in order to garner the absolute greatest finishing position that is in sight for the season finale's race. One race to go and it will be quite a show indeed!

10. Kurt Busch - Rebecca Kivak
(Note: Katy Lindamond continues to be without an Internet connection, so Rebecca is covering Kurt.)
This weekend marks Kurt Busch's swan song in the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. After the season ends, Busch will hand the reins of the legendary Blue Deuce to his Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski, while Busch himself will become the new face of Shell/Pennzoil in the No. 22 Dodge. With this is in mind, Busch would like nothing better than to finish his five-year run in the No. 2 with a trip to victory lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“There are so many reasons that we need to close out the year with a great run this weekend at Homestead,” Busch said. “It will be the final race for me behind the wheel of the Miller Lite Dodge. We’ve had a great run in the ‘Blue Deuce’ over the last five seasons and would love to score another win and celebrate with some Miller Lites there in Victory Lane on Sunday.”  

Going into Homestead, Busch has racked up eight wins, 37 top 5s, 74 top 10s and nine poles during his time in the Blue Duece. Three of those wins came this season, including his sweep of the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway this summer.

As Busch turns his focus to the season finale, the former Cup champion needs a strong showing at Homestead to remain in the top 10 in the points standings, guaranteeing himself a seat at the end-of-the-year Sprint Cup banquet at Las Vegas. He sits currently 41 points behind 9th-place Tony Stewart and only 5 in front of 11th-place Clint Bowyer, with a 35-point advantage on Jeff Burton in 12th.

Busch has shown he can withstand the pressure at Homestead. It was here in 2004 where Busch sealed the deal in his own close championship battle. Then driving for Roush Racing, Busch overcame a tire issue to finish fifth and claim his first Sprint Cup title, beating Jimmie Johnson by just eight points. Out of his nine starts at the Miami track, Busch has four top 5s, including a win in 2002. In last year's race, Busch emerged as a serious contender for the win, leading five times for 43 laps, until a two-tire strategy at the end hampered his chances and he finished fourth.  

In addition to maintaining a top-10 points position and finishing out his run in the Blue Deuce on a high note, Bush also knows how a good final race of the season can inspire confidence and momentum for the next. “It would be super if we can win it, but if we can’t, we still need to have a strong showing like we had down there in last year’s final race,” Busch said. “That was a solid performance that kept us all pumped up and ready to get back after it when this season began at Daytona back in February.”

11. Clint Bowyer - Amy McHargue
Closing the season at Homestead, Clint Bowyer is not where he wanted to be at the end of the 2010 season. Clint had hopes to finish his season with a top-5 finish in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings as he has in his previous Chase performances. Unfortunately, Bowyer is coming into Miami in the 11th position in the Chase, 434 points back from the leader, and more importantly 123 points out of the fifth spot. To gain either amount of points is not achievable in a single race. It looks like Clint is going to have to settle for the bottom third of the standings for 2010.

Bowyer posts a 16.2 average finish, has no Cup Series wins, and two top 10s in his four starts at this Miami mile-and-a-half track. He knocked on the door of the top 10 at this race last year and finished in 11th position. Clint's worst finish at Homestead-Miami came in 2007 when he finished his day in the 39th position 25 laps down. Bowyer has a slightly better average of 15.9 on this size track; he has finished in the top 10 in just under 48 percent of his Cup starts on intermediate-length tracks.

It is down to salvaging whatever is possible out of this season for Clint Bowyer. With the bad luck that has revisited the team several times since the beginning of the Chase, the last nine races have have seemed very much like one step forward and two steps back for the Cheerios/BB&T Chevrolet #33. With one last chance to shine in 2010, Clint will come out this weekend and give it his all as he has done at every race. If Team Bowyer doesn't add one more top-5 finish for the season, it won't be from a lack of desire or effort.

12. Jeff Burton - Genna Short
Jeff Burton has quite a history at Homestead. In the 11 races that have been run here as the Sprint Cup finale, he has four top fives and five top 10s. One of those top fives came last fall in the 2009 finale. He finished second.

“I thought we had a great chance to win the race. The second half of the race, we were really, really strong,” says Burton of his runner-up finish in 2009.

“The last run of the race, we weren't as good as we were the previous runs. We saw that with a lot of cars.”

He feels he had one of the best cars out there, but it wasn’t enough to get him to the end.

"If the race was 50 laps shorter, we'd have won the race."

Momentum seems to be the key heading into this weekend for the Cat crew. After a great run ended in a less than satisfactory finish at Phoenix, Burton is ready to taste victory again.

“This is my last chance to win a race this year. It’s been a year with a lot of promise, but a lot of those haven’t been fulfilled. This is our last chance and that’s kind of what we go into it with the mindset of – we need to win this race. It’s been a real frustrating Chase,” he stated in a press conference on Friday.

“Obviously for us, at the same I hate to see the year end.  I feel like the more we race, the better we would be. This is it and we need to go out on a big note.”

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