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Ford EcoBoost 400 Preview: Crowning the Champion

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 2013 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, 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 three 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.

Jimmie Johnson comes to Homestead with a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth in the championship Chase. The narrow margin that we had prior to Phoenix disappeared after the No. 48 Chevrolet team put on a strong performance and walked away with the Top 5 in the Arizona desert. Kenseth battled a loose race car to a 23rd-place finish and saw his chances for a second championship take a big hit. Johnson's hopes for a sixth championship are finally coming within realization. After winning five-straight titles between 2006 and 2010, the Hendrick Motorsports star has had to watch both Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski walk away with the last two championships while frustrating Johnson's efforts to get number six. While it will take a stroke of luck, or rather bad luck on Johnson's part, and some great racing by Kenseth for him to come close to stealing the trophy it is still quite possible although not a likely scenario. Johnson can guarantee a clinch of his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship by finishing 23rd or better in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The margin is such that Johnson 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. Johnson has six wins and Kenseth has seven wins entering the Homestead weekend, so at least Kenseth has this tiebreaker going in his favor. Johnson holds the runner-up edge at two to one, and it wouldn't likely fall this far because a Johnson victory would clinch the title. The comeback chances for Kenseth are slim at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but are a possibility if the No. 48 team runs into trouble. 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 eight races at Homestead.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Carl Edwards5.03392645601,881119.0
Martin Truex Jr.6.74491591081,588110.8
Matt Kenseth9.9328843051,717106.0
Kevin Harvick7.033968701,607100.1
Jeff Gordon11.339085761,49995.8
Jimmie Johnson18.333962651,53395.1
Clint Bowyer12.13651911,34692.2
Kyle Busch23.13291042371,32191.5
Greg Biffle12.1280101581,22391.0
Kasey Kahne12.6320971071,30990.2
Tony Stewart14.6298991201,27289.7
Denny Hamlin12.531464911,15688.8
Ryan Newman14.337328431,38185.7
Mark Martin13.92593121,17985.0
A.J. Allmendinger10.31532052384.7
Jeff Burton18.6227562493283.8
Aric Almirola15.317822049581.2
Jamie McMurray17.9259711,04277.8
Brad Keselowski19.2163301153674.3
Casey Mears21.0232507672272.0

This weekend sets up pretty well for Kenseth and the No. 20 Toyota team in their hopes to pull a Hail Mary comeback and win the championship. As you can see from the table above, Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team enjoy the third-best driver rating and great loop stats at this South Florida oval. What this table doesn't show is just how dominant Kenseth has been on the intermediate ovals this season. He has four victories, six Top-5 finishes and has led a whopping 469 laps on these size ovals. To say that this set of stats should play into your fantasy racing lineup decisions this weekend is a huge understatement. For as good as Kenseth has been on the 1.5-mile tracks, Johnson has been nearly his equal. The Hendrick Motorsports star has one victory, four Top-5 finishes and a series-best 688 laps led on these style ovals. That bodes extremely well for Johnson and his championship hopes. The victory and three of the Top 5s have come during the Chase at ovals like Chicago, Charlotte and Fort Worth. This should do more to boost confidence in the No. 48 camp than anything Johnson has accomplished at Homestead over his Sprint Cup Series career. Chevrolet drivers from the Stewart Haas and Hendrick camps have won the last two races at Homestead-Miami Speedway and broken Roush Fenway Racing's stranglehold on this intermediate oval. If someone hopes to upstage the two championship contenders, it will likely be a Roush driver given their historical dominance at this facility. Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards own five combined wins here and they have great loop stats at HMS. 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 fourth win of the season and second of the Chase 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 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 2013 season finale at Homestead.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson -
The five-time Sprint Cup Champion won't be making his usual "target finish" this weekend at Homestead. Johnson is 28 points ahead of Matt Kenseth coming into the finale, but he's in the best position in the last three seasons to claim his sixth championship. So we expect Johnson will go for broke this weekend in an attempt to get into victory lane and leave nothing to chance. 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.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has one more shot at victory lane before the season comes to a close and his effort will likely be a last-ditch shot at upsetting Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup title. This should be a good opportunity for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team to put the pressure back on Johnson. A win at Homestead-Miami Speedway and a stumble by the No. 48 team could sneak the JGR star into the championship trophy for the second time in his career. Kenseth has led over 300 laps in the last six seasons at Homestead-Miami Speedway. One of those outings resulted in a win for the veteran driver. He's been the most dominant driver in the series this season on 1.5-mile ovals with four victories and close to 500 laps led. Kenseth will be a "desperate" contender for the win in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Kevin Harvick -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran comes to Homestead virtually eliminated from the running for this season's championship. At 34 points back of Jimmie Johnson he has to leap frog both him and Matt Kenseth in this final race to get that first crown. However, Harvick rides into South Florida with lots of momentum coming off his fourth win of the season at Phoenix. In 12 career starts at Homestead, Harvick has never finished outside the Top 20 and he sports five Top-5 and 10 Top-10 finishes. The No. 29 team has been pretty steady on the intermediate ovals this season with two victories and eight Top 10s in the 10 races. He has an average finish of 7.2 on the mile-and-a-half tracks this year. Given the performances in recent seasons at this South Florida oval, we expect a strong challenge for the win in his final race with owner Richard Childress.

Brad Keselowski -
The driver of the No. 2 Ford comes into this season's finale unable to defend his championship, but gathering momentum for 2014. Keselowski has shown late the Chase that he once again has his swagger with a win at Charlotte and strong sixth-place finish at Texas. 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 on getting his team in top form before heading into the NASCAR off-season, and a victory in the season finale would set this team up to hit the ground running next season. If you're looking for an "off the radar" sleeper contender at HMS, Keselowski is your guy.

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

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is looking to erase what has been an inconsistent performance in the Chase for the Cup. The Roush Fenway Racing star has been wildly up-and-down in the nine races of the Chase to-date. However, he comes to a very comfortable and favorite track of his this Sunday afternoon in South Florida. Homestead Miami Speedway has been the site of two poles, two victories and seven Top-10 finishes in nine starts for the driver of the No. 99 Ford. Edwards absolutely loves this place as his loop stats attest. With over 560 laps led and a career average finish of 6.0 at this facility, how can we not like Edwards in the Ford EcoBoost 400?

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon comes to Miami eliminated in the championship picture. After let down performances at Texas at Phoenix, Gordon slipped off the Chase radar and is now looking for the best possible finish he can get. Which Gordon will show up this weekend for the season finale in Homestead? The one that owns a series-best 11 Top 10s at the South Florida oval or the Gordon who faded in the last couple races? We believe the former. Gordon's last start at HMS was a surprising victory in last season's Ford EcoBoost 400. There's simply too much upside to ignore with the No. 24 Chevrolet team this weekend.

Kasey Kahne -
The No. 5 Chevrolet team comes to Homestead looking to extend their current streak of excellence on intermediate ovals. Kahne has amassed five Top-5 finishes and 413 laps led in the ten 1.5-mile oval races of 2013. 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 nine starts. Two of his last three trips to Homestead Miami Speedway have netted Top-10 finishes. We believe we'll see the Kahne that dominated at Charlotte Motor Speedway a few weeks ago en route to a runner-up finish in the Bank of America 500.

Kurt Busch -
Busch stopped his late-Chase cool spell with a Top 5 effort at Phoenix this past weekend. That restored our confidence in the No. 78 Chevrolet team. Two of his four starts on intermediate ovals during the Chase have netted Top-5 finishes. Busch has had these style ovals pegged most of the season. In his 12 career starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet has two poles, one victory and five Top 10s at HMS. Busch finished a respectable ninth in this event one year ago with FRR team. Busch should crack the Top 10 Sunday afternoon at the Homestead oval.

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

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin comes to Homestead looking to continue the rebuild effort at the JGR No. 11 team. After suffering most of the season with back problems from his Fontana crash early in 2013, he's salvaging the late season run with Top 10s in three of the last five races. In eight career starts at Homestead, Hamlin boasts one victory and four Top-10 finishes with close to 100 laps led. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has a pair of Top 10s (Charlotte and Fort Worth) 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 2014.

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 2013 has been completely different than the norm. The Joe Gibbs Racing ace has five Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in the nine races to-date. Busch's intermediate oval performance during the Chase has been pretty strong with 74 laps led and two Top-5 finishes in those four events. He led a dominating 191 laps in this race one year ago at HMS and finished brilliant fourth. He'll be a factor this Sunday afternoon at the Homestead oval.

Clint Bowyer -
Despite all the distractions of the Chase and his team's problems at Richmond, Bowyer has had a pretty good Chase for the Cup. Entering this race Bowyer has 70 laps led and five Top 10s in the nine races of this post-season. That sets this weekend up pretty well for the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran. Bowyer sports a career 57 percent Top 10 rate at the South Florida oval. His last two efforts at Homestead Miami Speedway have netted sixth- and second-place finishes. We believe he'll end up in the Top 10 after 400 miles of action at the intermediate Florida 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 owns five career Top-10 finishes at the South Florida oval, and two of those have come in his last three trips to the facility. The No. 16 Ford team should end the season strong at Homestead as they typically do.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver has had a career-defining season in 2013. Logano made his first Chase field and is poised to finish in the Top 10 of the driver standings for the first time. His achievements include a career-best 11 Top-5 finishes and 18 Top-10 finishes. He's truly found a good home with the No. 22 Ford team. Logano doesn't have the best career numbers at Homestead but his intermediate oval performance during this season's Chase trumps those historical stats. Two of his four 1.5-mile oval efforts have yielded Top-5 finishes. In this race one year ago, Logano won the pole position, but finished a subpar 14th. He'll correct that effort in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing rising star will make his final start of his first full season on Sunday at Homestead. Stenhouse's Chase for the Cup includes two Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes in the nine races, which works out to a respectable 17.1 average finish. The driver of the No. 17 Ford will be making just his second career start at Homestead Miami Speedway, but his 40 starts of Sprint Cup Series experience are beginning to show. Stenhouse has been a dependable driver at the end of the fantasy racing bench over the final third of the season, and he should crack the Top 15 in Sunday's 400-mile race at HMS.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran will cap his career at the organization with Sunday's season finale at the Homestead oval. An otherwise good season has been clouded by the controversy of Richmond and his subsequent removal from the Chase field. Truex is ready to move on. His performance through the Chase has shown it. With only three Top 10s in the nine races to-date, his performance has really fallen off. Truex has good career numbers at HMS with six Top 10s in eight starts. However, this team and driver are limping to this season's finish line. It's best to look elsewhere for your fantasy racing help at Homestead.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt will put the wraps on what can only be termed as a successful season at Hendrick Motorsports with his strong performance during the Chase. He appears poised to finish around fifth in the final driver standings and he has 21 Top 10s entering this weekend. However, HMS is one of his worst statistical tracks on the circuit with no Top 10s in 13 starts and an average finish of 22.1, so we don't expect a good outing on Sunday afternoon. This is a hot driver and team up against one of their worst tracks on the circuit this Sunday afternoon.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The No. 42 team is limping to the finish line this season. Montoya's subpar 2013 campaign has led to him deciding to return to IRL in 2014. The veteran EGR driver has only one Top-10 finish during the postseason and he stands a lowly 21st in the overall driver standings entering the Ford EcoBoost 400. Montoya has seven 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 passing on Montoya and the No. 42 team in his final NASCAR start.

Paul Menard -
Menard is a driver to avoid this weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway. The RCR veteran comes to Homestead looking to improve on some poor career numbers at the intermediate oval. In seven career starts he has only one Top-15 finish at the South Florida oval. His average finish works out to a lofty 22.0. The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet's luck at this facility has just never come around. It's tough to bench a driver that has generally performed well through the Chase for the Cup, but that's exactly what we're recommending in Menard's case.