As cliche as it sounds, what a difference a week makes.
Last Monday morning, Jimmie Johnson held a slim but steady seven-point lead with two races remaining. Now, thanks largely to a blown tire, and Brad Keselowski's ability to avoid catastrophe, he's staring at a formidable 20-point deficit as the Sprint Cup heads to South Beach.
Keselowski continued his impressive run, not backing down from tracks he's struggled at, posting a solid sixth place in Phoenix on Sunday. That finish, coupled with Johnson's difficulties, likely shaped this championship, but the race will long be remembered for the wreck, and subsequent fisticuffs shared by Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer and their respective crews. If you haven't seen the video of Bowyer sprinting through bodies, or the melee that ensued in pit row, do yourself a favor and check it out. It was straight out of a WWE pay-per-view, and for better or worse, provides this sport with the type of drama it's lacked recently.
Lost in the Chase and the scrum was Kevin Harvick winning his first victory in more than a year, a major accomplishment considering his disappointing year.
The season wraps up this week in Miami-Homestead, where Tony Stewart won a year ago in route to clinching his championship, and Carl Edwards took the checkered flag in 2010.
Brad Keselowski - It's actually hard to recommend Keselowski, as he's hardly been useable in Miami, averaging just a 20th-place finish in his last four visits. Pair that with his 20-point lead, and it's easy to see how Keselowski could play this race ultra-conservatively. That just doesn't seem like his style, however, and he's impressed in recent weeks at tracks he's similarly struggled on. It's the last race of the year, and he's the points leader - if you can use him, do.
Jimmy Johnson - Johnson has never won at Miami, but has seven top-10 finishes in 11 races, and knows what he has to do here. Similar to Keselowski's opportunity to play this safe, Johnson has to leave it all on the track if he hopes to pull off a miraculous comeback and win his sixth championship. It could lead to mistakes, but if there's any driver out there capable of pulling this off, it's Johnson.
Carl Edwards - Edwards is coming off his best finish in four races, and simply loves racing in Miami. He's got seven top-10 finishes in eight tries, including two poles and two wins. He'll reward you for waiting until season's end to use him.
Danica Patrick - Don't look now, but Ms. Patrick is starting to show signs of life. She was running 13th on the second-to-last lap in Phoenix before being rear-ended, turning in consecutive surprisingly solid finishes.
Kasey Kahne - Kahne sits third in points, but has no chance to win the Cup championship. It doesn't matter as he's averaged a 12th-place finish in his last five visits to the Homestead, and has three top-5 finishes in his last four races. He's finishing the season strong.
Juan Pablo Montoya - Similar to most of the names below, Montoya simply has no history of success at Miami, and also has little reason to race this week. He's averaged a 27th-place finish in five races, and has no top-10 outings.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - Earnhardt, Jr. is coming off a 21st-place finish in Phoenix, and averages a 29th-place spot in his last five visits to Miami. He's simply driving to be driving as the season ends.
Joey Logano - He's only sniffed the top-10 once in his last five starts, and doesn't have a history of success at Miami, averaging a 27th-place finish in three starts. The offseason can't come soon enough for the youngster.
Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon - Gordon has been successful in Miami, averaging an 11th-place finish in his last five trips. Bowyer hasn't been much worse, pacing 14th over that span. But numbers are out the window here. As much as most fans would love to see a "rematch" of sorts in the infield, or on the strip at South Beach, expect these two to keep their distance, and be uber-conservative. Not by choice here, but it's hard to see NASCAR officials allowing anything to fester into the offseason.