Ford EcoBoost 400 Preview: Crowning the Champion

Ford EcoBoost 400 Preview: Crowning the Champion

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The finale of the 2014 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 straight-aways 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.

Four drivers come to Homestead in a dead-heat for the championship. The new format of the Chase has narrowed the field to just Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman. It all comes down to one race for all the marbles and all four drivers start even at 5,000 points. The stakes and the pressure have never been higher. Harvick's hopes for a first championship are finally coming within realization. After a big win at Phoenix, the No. 4 team comes riding high into the season finale. Considering that Harvick tops the loop stat chart below for Homestead (of the four championship contending drivers), he has to feel very confident coming into this Ford EcoBoost 400. The driver with the best shot of upsetting Harvick is likely Joey Logano. The Penske Racing star has been lights out on the intermediate ovals this season. Two of Logano's five victories have come on 1.5-mile ovals, so that win at Kansas a few weeks ago looms large in our memory. Denny Hamlin has pulled a late-season hot streak and magic act to advance this far into the Chase. Considering that he won this event one year ago, we can't rule out the No. 11 Toyota team from throwing a Hail Mary pass this Sunday. While Ryan Newman is the least likely of the field to win the championship, he did prove one thing at Phoenix last week. The veteran driver is willing to do just about anything to win this championship, as his last turn, last lap pass of Kyle Larson showed. 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 and off 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 championship contenders. 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 nine races at Homestead.

Carl Edwards5.83822665602,057115.5
Martin Truex Jr.6.45121671081,847110.0
Matt Kenseth9.03641234491,984109.8
Kevin Harvick7.339883781,80599.1
Jimmie Johnson17.240284651,77596.6
Jeff Gordon11.244291761,73496.5
Kyle Busch21.33961222371,57993.4
Denny Hamlin11.2364881631,40693.4
Clint Bowyer11.34162111,55192.7
Kasey Kahne12.73701061071,47090.0
Tony Stewart14.6298991201,27289.7
Greg Biffle13.4302103581,28088.7
Ryan Newman14.642628431,52084.8
Jeff Burton19.1232562493981.8
Aric Almirola15.522223061980.5
Brad Keselowski17.0227362080080.3
A.J. Allmendinger15.415411052377.6
Kyle Larson15.027114277.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr.21.62811347597976.9
Jamie McMurray19.22601211,04274.9

This weekend sets up pretty well for Harvick and the No. 4 team in their hopes to pull out a first-ever Sprint Cup Series championship. As you can see from the table above, Harvick and his Stewart Haas Racing team enjoy the fourth-best driver rating and great loop stats at this South Florida oval. What this table doesn't show is just how dominant Harvick has been on the intermediate ovals during the Chase. With a Charlotte victory and runner-up finish at Fort Worth, he has dominated the last two 1.5-mile oval events. For as good as Harvick has been on these style tracks, Logano has been nearly his equal. The Penske Racing driver has two wins, six Top-5 finishes and 374 laps led on these style ovals in 2014. The numbers show clearly that these will be the two front-runners Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Joe Gibbs Racing star Denny Hamlin has won two of the last five races at Homestead-Miami Speedway, so this track and event has become a bit of a specialty for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota. If someone hopes to upstage the two lead championship contenders, it will likely be Hamlin given his historical dominance at this facility. As for Newman's chances at the championship, they're pretty slim. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has never won at the South Florida oval, and he's winless to this point in the season. Unless the top three contenders all go in the tank, Newman won't likely be lifting that coveted trophy this Sunday afternoon. However, tune in to find out because stranger things have happened during this wild season. If another driver outside the championship picture hopes to steal the thunder on Sunday, it could likely be Jeff Gordon or Brad Keselowski. The two were eliminated from the Chase picture last weekend at Phoenix, but that makes them no less dangerous on a track such as Homestead. The two have combined for four victories on intermediate ovals in 2014, so they could somewhat upstage the champion with a dominant performance in the Ford EcoBoost 400. 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 2014 season finale at Homestead.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran comes to Homestead in the driver's seat, no pun intended, for this season's championship. Although he is starting in a dead-heat at 5,000 points with three other drivers, he has to be seen as the man to beat in this final race to get that first championship. Harvick rides into South Florida with lots of momentum coming off his fourth win of the season at Phoenix. In 13 career starts at Homestead, Harvick has never finished outside the Top 20 and he sports five Top-5 and 11 Top-10 finishes with 136 laps led. The No. 4 team has been pretty strong on intermediate ovals during the Chase. Harvick won at Charlotte and finished second at Fort Worth recently. Since this is one race for all the marbles, we expect him to be hoisting the trophy this Sunday afternoon at Homestead.

Brad Keselowski -
The driver of the No. 2 Ford comes into this season's finale unable to challenge for the championship, but gathering momentum for 2015. Keselowski has shown throughout the Chase that he has his swagger with victories at Chicago and Talladega. 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. The excellence of this driver and team on intermediate ovals this season is impossible to ignore.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver has had a career-defining season in 2014. Logano made his second Chase field and is poised to challenge for the championship this Sunday afternoon at HMS. His achievements include a career-best 16 Top-5 finishes and 22 Top-10 finishes. He's truly found a great 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 trumps those historical stats. Two of his five victories this season have come on tracks of this size and configuration. In this race one year ago, Logano started third on the grid and finished eighth. The stakes are definitely greater this time, and we expect this driver and team to respond.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin comes to Homestead a surprise final round participant in this season's Chase for the Cup. After suffering through inconsistency during most of the early parts of the season, the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team has rallied in the second-half to push deep into this season's Chase. In nine career starts at Homestead, Hamlin boasts two wins and five Top-10 finishes with over 150 laps led. The JGR star has four Top 10's (Chicago, Kansas, Charlotte and Fort Worth) on 1.5-mile ovals during the Chase for the Cup, so his record has been spotless. Considering that Hamlin has nearly become a specialist at this track and event in the last few seasons, with wins in two of the last five events at Homestead, he makes a strong fantasy pick for the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Jimmie Johnson -
The six-time Sprint Cup champion won't be making his usual "target finish" this weekend at Homestead. Johnson is outside of the Chase coming into the finale, so there won't be any cruising to the title like normal. So we expect Johnson will go for broke this weekend in an attempt to reverse some poor trends of late in the No. 48 team. Having won at Fort Worth just a couple weeks ago, this team is capable of showing up with a race-winning car at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson's victory at Texas Motor Speedway is a great example of this team's ability to rebound on intermediate ovals. His career 62-percent Top-10 rate at this oval speaks for itself.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has one more shot at victory lane before the season comes to a close. Almost improbably, the JGR star comes to South Florida without a win this season. A win at Homestead-Miami Speedway would go a long way toward lifting the morale of this driver and team before the 2015 season begins. Kenseth has led almost 450 laps for his career at Homestead-Miami Speedway. One of those outings resulted in a win for the veteran driver in 2007. He won the pole position and finished runner-up in this event one year ago, and that was one of his six-career Top 10's at this facility. While the wins haven't been there for Kenseth in 2014, the consistency has, and that's why we expect a Top-10 finish in this 400-mile race.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon comes to Miami eliminated in the championship picture. After an all-out effort at Phoenix that fell short, Gordon was cut from the Chase field and is now looking for the best possible finish he can get at HMS. Which Gordon will show up this weekend for the season finale in Homestead? The one that owns a series-best 11 Top 10's at the South Florida oval or the Gordon who may be looking for some payback on Brad Keselowski? We believe the former rather than the latter. Gordon has five Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway. There's simply too much upside to ignore with the No. 24 Chevrolet team this weekend.

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 2014 has been completely different than the norm. The Joe Gibbs Racing ace has three 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 88 laps led and three Top-5 finishes in those four events. He finished seventh in this race one year ago at HMS and comes into this race riding a two-race Top-10 streak at the 1.5-mile oval. He'll be a factor this Sunday afternoon at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is looking to continue what has been a consistent, yet unspectacular performance in the Chase for the Cup. The Roush Fenway Racing star has been steady as a rock in the nine races of the Chase to-date. This weekend he comes to a very comfortable and favorite track of his in South Florida. Homestead Miami Speedway has been the site of two poles, two victories and seven Top-10 finishes in 10 starts for the driver of the No. 99 Ford. Edwards absolutely loves this place as his loop stats attest. With 560 laps led and a career average finish of 6.6 at this facility, how can we not like Edwards in the Ford EcoBoost 400?

Kurt Busch -
Busch stopped his Chase cool spell with Top-10 finishes in three of his last four races. That has restored our confidence in the No. 41 Chevrolet team, despite what the Stewart Haas driver is dealing with off the track right now. Two of his four starts on intermediate ovals during the Chase have netted Top-10 finishes. Busch has had these style ovals pegged most of the season. In his 13 career starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway the driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet has two poles, one victory and five Top 10's. Given his recent Top 10 at the similar Fort Worth oval a couple weeks ago he should have plenty of speed for this 400-mile event. Busch should crack the Top 10 Sunday afternoon at the Homestead oval.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing veteran has been getting his act together during the Chase. With a pair of Top 10's and six Top 15's during the 9 Chase events, Truex is getting the team's chemistry in order for next season. This weekend he comes to the perfect track to round out his 2014 season. Truex has great career numbers at HMS with seven Top 10's in nine starts. That works out to a miniscule 9.2 average finish. Considering he achieved those stats across two different race teams, it should be of little concern that this is his first start with FRR at the South Florida oval.

Kyle Larson -
The No. 42 team is running downhill towards the finish line this season. Larson has the Rookie of the Year award all but wrapped up as we head into this final event of 2014. Homestead-Miami Speedway presents another opportunity for this young driver to shine and add to his stat sheet in this very successful first season. This will be his second-career start at the 1.5-mile track. Larson finished 15th in this event one year ago. He's been almost flawless on the intermediate ovals of the Chase, posting two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in the four events. Larson will be racing with the leaders once again at HMS.

Jamie McMurray -
His career stats at this oval aren't particularly good. McMurray has only three Top 10's in his 12 career starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway. However, it's not his body of work at this oval that most interests us; it's McMurray's recent intermediate oval performance. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has 64 laps led, two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in the four races of the Chase on these style ovals. The No. 1 Chevrolet should be plenty strong when the team unloads it from the hauler this weekend. McMurray is a Top-10 threat in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The JTG Daugherty Racing driver is finishing the season strong. Allmendinger rolls into Homestead with Top-20 finishes in five of his last six starts. Four of those have been Top-15 finishes. Last weekend, he was knocking on the door, but crossed the line a respectable 16th at Phoenix. Allmendinger has good career numbers at the South Florida oval. In his five career starts he has two Top-10 finishes and an average finish of 15.4. Homestead-Miami Speedway has been a strong venue for this veteran driver and all signs point to a Top-15 finish this weekend.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kasey Kahne -
Not much has gone right for Kahne in 2014. He was cut from the Chase and suffered through inconsistency issues all season long. It has even stirred rumors of late that long-time crew chief Kenny Francis could be parting ways with Kahne over the off-season. The fact is this has been the veteran driver's worst campaign since 2010. Kahne will limp into Homestead and try to right the ship before the short off-season begins. Considering that he hasn't cracked the Top 10 in his last two Homestead starts, and he has only one Top 10 in his four intermediate oval starts of the Chase, chances don't look very good.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer is in the same boat as Kasey Kahne coming to Homestead-Miami Speedway. He's rounding out what has been a very difficult season in 2014. The MWR driver is poised finish somewhere around 19th in the final driver standings, and that marks his worst campaign since his rookie season in 2006. Bowyer has good career numbers at Homestead with five Top 10's in eight career starts. However, his performance this season on these 1.5-mile ovals has been pretty shocking. Bowyer has no Top 10's in the four intermediate ovals of the Chase and an average finish of 32.0 during that span.

Brian Vickers -
The Michael Waltrip Racing driver has had a tough time looking for the right combination for a Homestead race. In eight career starts, Vickers has no Top-10 finishes and an average finish of 28.4. HMS is one of his worst tracks on the Sprint Cup Series circuit. Complicating matters is the No. 55 team's recent level of performance. Vickers has only two Top-10 finishes in the nine Chase races, and his intermediate oval efforts in the Chase have been among his worst with 24th- and 37th-place finishes at Chicago and Charlotte. Things don't look very promising for Vickers this Sunday afternoon.

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 this intermediate oval. In eight career starts he has only one Top-15 finish at the South Florida oval. His average finish works out to a lowly 24.1. 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.

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Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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