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Ford EcoBoost 400 Preview: Championship Weekend

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The finale of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has arrived. After 35 events of spectacular crashes, dominating performances and surprise comebacks, we have finally reached the championship-crowning moment of the sport. The drama has been building all season long, and even more so the last several weeks of the Chase. The Sprint Cup Series annual running at the 1.5-mile true oval with variable banking is the last of 36 races that crowns the NASCAR champion. Homestead's unique configuration which includes relatively flat straightaways of 3 degrees and 20-degree variable banked turns presents a challenge unlike any other facility on the circuit. It's fitting that this intermediate oval crowns the champion of NASCAR's top racing series.

Brad Keselowski comes to Homestead with a 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the championship Chase. The narrow margin that we had prior to Phoenix disappeared after the No. 48 Chevrolet cut a tire with 77 laps to go and Johnson smacked the wall, ending his Top 10 hopes at PIR. Keselowski cruised home to a solid sixth-place finish and turned his point deficit into a decent margin heading into this final weekend of action. Johnson's hopes for a sixth championship are all but dead, but with NASCAR racing we know that anything is possible and you never say never. While it will take a stroke of luck, or rather bad luck on Keselowski's part, and some good racing by Johnson for him to come close to stealing the trophy it is still quite possible although not a likely scenario. The Penske Racing star can guarantee a clinch of his first Sprint Cup Series championship by finishing 15th or better in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The margin is such that Keselowski needs only to stay out of trouble and stay steady in his performance at HMS this weekend. In the event both drivers end up being tied in points, the tiebreak reverts to wins, runner-ups etc. Both Johnson and Keselowski have five wins entering the Homestead weekend, so this would revert to the most runner-up finishes. Johnson holds that runner-up edge at five to three, and would win the title assuming neither won on Sunday in Miami. The comeback chances for Johnson are slim at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but are a possibility. If anything the last two weeks have shown us at Texas and Phoenix, this has been a wild Chase for the Cup and anything can happen. The racing has been highly competitive and the fall out has made for some wild action on the track. So if for no other reason that this, tune in on Sunday to see what the last chapter in this wild season holds.

Since we only come to Homestead-Miami Speedway once a year, we will need to rely on historical information to a great extent for this Sunday's race. The usual suspects race very well at the South Florida oval, and most of them are Chase drivers. While current hot streaks will play a big part in this week's picks, we'll rely heavily on past data to outline the drivers for the last race of the season. Here are the loop stats for the last seven races at Homestead.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Carl Edwards4.02812305601,646120.9
Martin Truex Jr.6.8382143971,334109.7
Matt Kenseth8.7282813031,488107.0
Kevin Harvick6.930767701,499102.5
Jimmie Johnson15.729150401,32195.2
Tony Stewart14.3290991201,26393.1
Jeff Gordon12.733368621,23492.9
Denny Hamlin10.931463911,15692.5
Greg Biffle13.1253100581,15092.2
Kasey Kahne11.4259861001,07990.1
Clint Bowyer13.8308811,09287.8
Jeff Burton18.6222562493186.5
Mark Martin13.52292821,04186.1
A.J. Allmendinger10.31532052384.7
Kyle Busch25.926937461,06384.2
Ryan Newman15.929324401,12383.9
Jamie McMurray17.6239711,00379.1
David Ragan25.219213168576.2
Casey Mears19.9219507671974.8
Aric Almirola19.510118023072.1

This weekend sets up pretty well for Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team in their hopes to pull a Hail Mary comeback and win the championship. As you can see from the table above, Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team have the fifth-best driver rating and decent loop stats at this South Florida oval. What this table doesn't show is just how dominant Johnson has been on the intermediate ovals this season. He has one victory, six Top-5 finishes and has led a series-best 651 laps on these size ovals. To say that this set of stats should play into your fantasy racing lineups this weekend is a huge understatement. For as good has Johnson has been on the 1.5-mile tracks, Keselowski has been his equal. The Penske Racing star has two victories, five Top-5 finishes and 362 laps led on these style ovals. That bodes extremely well for Keselowski and his championship hopes. The victory and runner-up finish during the Chase at ovals like Chicago and Fort Worth should do more to boost confidence in the No. 2 camp than anything Keselowski has accomplished at Homestead over his brief Sprint Cup Series career. Roush Fenway Racing Ford drivers have won six of the last eight races at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If someone hopes to upstage the two championship contenders, it will likely be Roush teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. The duo has been statistically strong at the intermediate oval in recent history. If there is a surprise winner in victory lane this Sunday, it will likely be one of these two drivers. Kevin Harvick is fresh off his first win of the season this past weekend at Phoenix, and he sports some respectable historical stats at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If another driver outside the championship picture hopes to steal the thunder on Sunday, it could likely be Harvick and his newly surging No. 29 team. We'll look at the championship contenders, and the non-Chase teams that could finish the season on a good note. We'll give you the drivers you need to dominate the 2012 season finale at Homestead.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Brad Keselowski -
The driver of the No. 2 Dodge comes into this season's finale in the driver's seat in the championship quest. Keselowski leads Jimmie Johnson by a hefty 20 points in the Chase for the Cup and he's looking to seal the deal on his first championship at Homestead this Sunday afternoon. The Penske Racing star has never achieved success or acclaim at the South Florida oval, but its way different this time around. Keselowski is focused like a laser beam on that Sprint Cup Series championship, and with the goal within reach his intermediate oval prowess should rise to the top. With all that's hanging in the balance we expect Keselowski to have a run at victory lane and career-best performance at this facility.

Jimmie Johnson -
The five-time Sprint Cup Champion won't be making his usual "target finish" this weekend at Homestead. Johnson is 20 points behind leader Keselowski coming into the finale, so Johnson will go for broke this weekend in an attempt to get into victory lane. Having won two of the nine Chase races, this team is capable of showing up with a race-winning car at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson's victory three weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway is a great example of this team's current level of performance on intermediate ovals. This driver and team didn't win five championships in the last decade by luck alone, so expect the best from the No. 48 Chevrolet team this Sunday afternoon.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin comes to Homestead out of the hunt for this season's championship. After leading 46 laps and finishing runner-up this past week at Phoenix, he comes to Homestead-Miami Speedway showing the muscle to win races despite his lack of championship hopes. In seven career starts at Homestead, Hamlin boasts one victory and three Top-5 finishes with close to 100 laps led. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has one victory and one runner-up finish (Atlanta and Charlotte) on 1.5-mile ovals during the Chase for the Cup. Hamlin won't go out with a whimper on Sunday, in fact we expect the driver of the No. 11 Toyota to serve notice he will be a championship contender in 2013.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has one more shot at victory lane before the season comes to a close and his career ends with Roush Fenway Racing. This should be a good opportunity for the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team to put on a good show at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Kenseth has led over 300 laps in the last five seasons at Homestead-Miami Speedway. One of those outings resulted in a win for the veteran driver. With his recent win at Kansas and Top-5 finish at Fort Worth, we believe the No. 17 Ford will be fast right off the hauler this weekend at the South Florida oval. Kenseth will be a surprise contender for the win in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Kevin Harvick -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran comes to Homestead eliminated from the running for this season's championship. However, Harvick rides into South Florida with lots of momentum coming off his first win of the season at Phoenix. In 11 career starts at Homestead, Harvick has never finished outside the Top 20 and he sports nine Top-10 finishes. The No. 29 team has been pretty steady on the intermediate ovals this season, despite Harvick's lack of victories. He has five Top 10s and an average finish of 9.8 on the mile-and-a-half tracks this year. Given the performances in recent seasons at this South Florida oval, we expect a strong outing in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Kyle Busch -
The Chase lineup of tracks in general have not been kind over the years to Busch. He normally dips in performance this time of year, but 2012 has been completely different than the norm. The Joe Gibbs Racing ace has only one Top 10 in seven career trips to HMS, but we believe this time will be different. Busch's intermediate oval performance has been stellar this season with seven Top 10s in 10 races. His most recent effort saw him led 80 laps and finish third at Fort Worth. Busch has a series-best six Top-5 finishes during the Chase and has the fourth most points accumulated during NASCAR's playoffs. He'll be a factor this Sunday afternoon at the Homestead oval.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle has been a top performer over the years at this facility. HMS presents a great opportunity for Biffle to end the season on a very positive note. Biffle has won three career races at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and should have somewhat of a technical advantage on most of the field. The recent level of performance of the No. 16 team has been quite noticeable, especially on the larger ovals. Biffle won the pole during the Chase at Charlotte and finished a stellar fourth. He then went to the Fort Worth oval and qualified on the outside of row 1 and finished 10th that day. The veteran driver could be an outside challenger for the win and certainly a name in the Top 10 after 400 miles of action at this speedway.

Kasey Kahne -
The No. 5 Chevrolet team comes to Homestead looking to extend their current streak of excellence on intermediate ovals. Kahne has amassed two pole positions, one victory, 97 laps led and seven Top 10s in the ten 1.5-mile oval races of 2012. It's that red-hot performance that we'll gamble on again this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The Hendrick Motorsports star has two career poles and four Top 10s at the South Florida oval in eight starts. In this event one year ago, Kahne started from third on the grid and finished a respectable seventh. Somehow we feel he'll outdo that performance on Sunday afternoon.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Miami who can provide a solid finish

Tony Stewart -
Smoke has been inconsistent at best this season, but one thing has come into focus during the Chase and that has been the No. 14 team's level of performance on intermediate ovals. He has sixth-, 13th-, fifth- and fifth-place finishes during the Chase on the 1.5-mile oval circuit. Stewart comes to Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend to make a statement about his future and to end the season with a good performance. He's failed to defend his 2011 championship, but he'll serve notice for 2013 in this race. Stewart owns three career wins and seven Top 10s at the Homestead oval.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 56 team is hoping to continue their intermediate oval hot streak and end their season strong at Homestead this weekend. Truex hasn't had quite the Chase for the Cup he expected with Michael Waltrip Racing, but the 1.5-mile ovals have been a consistency throughout this season. Three of his four starts on these style tracks during the Chase have netted Top-10 finishes. Couple that with his season-long record of seven Top 10s in 10 starts on intermediate ovals and you get the message loud and clear. Truex's career numbers at this 1.5-mile oval are pretty stellar. The MWR driver has five Top-10 finishes in seven career starts at this facility. It's that kind of familiarity that should net another Top-10 finish on Sunday afternoon.

Kurt Busch -
Another hot driver heading into the season finale is Busch. The new Furniture Row Racing driver has picked up a pair of Top-10 finishes the last two weeks and climbed out of the season-long funk he had been experiencing. Busch's last outing on an intermediate oval netted a respectable eighth-place finish at Fort Worth a couple weeks ago. In his 11 career starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet has two poles, one victory and four Top 10s at HMS. Busch is getting into a groove with his new team and developing great chemistry with crew chief Todd Berrier. Busch should challenge the Top 10 and post a good finish at this oval.

Clint Bowyer -
Despite his run-in with Jeff Gordon this past weekend at Phoenix, and resulting drama on pit road, we feel like Bowyer will shake this off and get back to the business of racing this weekend. Entering this race Bowyer is ranked fourth in the driver standings with 22 Top-10 finishes on the year. He's had one victory and seven Top 10s during the Chase and that makes him one of the most successful driver's of this postseason. Bowyer sports a career 50 percent Top 10 rate at the South Florida oval, so we believe he'll end up in the Top 10 after 400 miles of action at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Paul Menard -
Menard is a driver to watch closely this weekend. His recent outing at Phoenix was very strong and netted his career-best ninth Top 10 of the season. Menard has had a pretty good season despite the lack of laps led and lack of Top 5s. He has run well at Homestead during his last couple seasons with Top-20 finishes in his last two trips to HMS. With 15th- and third-place finishes in the Chase at both Chicago and Kansas, he has the intermediate ovals dialed-in right now. The No. 27 Chevrolet team should challenge the Top 10 in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing rising star will make his fourth and final Sprint Cup Series start of this season on Sunday at Homestead. Stenhouse's prior three starts have netted 20th-, 12th- and 35th-place finishes. The one poor finish was due to an engine failure, so we have to more-or-less throw that one out the window. The 12th was a brilliant performance at Dover during the summer, and the 20th came in the season-opening Daytona 500. Stenhouse has shown that he's got all the tools to succeed, and Homestead is a "Roush track." We expect the youngster to get a head start on his 2013 ROTY campaign with a great outing in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon comes to Miami eliminated in the championship picture. Not only that, but he comes a "broken man" this weekend after the ugly incident at Phoenix International Raceway last Sunday. The frustration and emotions of a season gone wrong boiled over and Gordon lost his cool. Which Gordon will show up this weekend for the season finale in Homestead? The one that owns a series-best 10 Top 10s at the South Florida oval or the Gordon who let Clint Bowyer get under his skin last week at PIR? Gordon's last start on a 1.5-mile track resulted in a lackluster 14th-place finish at Texas a couple weeks ago. There's simply too much on the line in the last race of the year to risk the chance of a Gordon flop.

Joey Logano -
With a lowly two Top 10s for the 10 intermediate oval events this season, Logano is not experiencing the success he would like on these style ovals. The Chase has been no easier for the young driver. Logano has finishes of 19th- and 11th-place in the last two 1.5-mile oval events. That falls somewhat short of what we expect for this driver and team. He rolls into Homestead this weekend looking forward to next season and a fresh start at Penske Racing. So we're not very sure which Joey Logano will show up this weekend. Three career starts at the south Florida oval have resulted in one DNF and an average finish of 27.3.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt will put the wraps on what can only be termed as a successful season at Hendrick Motorsports despite the fall off in performance during the Chase. He appears poised to finish 12th in the final driver standings but he has one victory and 19 Top 10s entering this weekend. Since returning to action from the concussion Earnhardt has finishes of 21st-, seventh- and 21st-place so he's not the steady performer we've grown used to over the season. HMS is one of his worst statistical tracks on the circuit with no Top 10s in 12 starts and an average finish of 23.1, so we don't expect a good outing on Sunday afternoon.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The No. 42 team is limping to the finish line this season. Montoya's subpar 2012 campaign that started with crashing into the jet dryer in the Daytona 500 will come to a merciful end this weekend. The veteran EGR driver has no Top-10 finishes during the postseason and he stands a lowly 22nd in the overall driver standings entering the Ford EcoBoost 400. Montoya has six career starts at the south Florida oval with only one Top-15 finish and two DNF's to his credit. Considering the inconsistency of this driver and team and poor record at Homestead, we recommend waiting until next season to deploy Montoya.